Birds in tight white pants suits and miniskirts strolling by the fairway? Impossible. A trick-shot golfer performing right there in front of the sacred first tee? Ridiculous. A lush, green golf course of which even a Florida resort would be proud? Never! This is St. Andrews. Scotland's old, gray, dour, surly, crusty St. Andrews where the members sit in the lounge of the old, gray, dour, crusty Royal and Ancient clubhouse overlooking the first and 18th fairways and chortle at the way the wind and rain blow in off the North Sea.
Forget if. Last week at the A lean Golfer of the Year tournament all that ancient and honorable and cradle-of-golf stuff passed into the history books. The world's most elaborate and expensive golf promotion was in progress at St. Andrews, and Gay Brewer was beating Bill Casper by four strokes in a playoff to earn the biggest jackpot ever given to a tournament winner, $55,000. Throughout the event workmen were hammering out a glossy new hotel by the 17th fairway that would look far more at home at the edge of Waikiki than alongside the tatty Rusacks and Scores hostelries. Soon, one senses, big new jets will be screaming down onto runways in the farmland outside of town, bringing the golf gang from London, New York, Miami Beach and Palm Springs; guys in lime-green slacks and rose-colored shirts who wouldn't know the Beardies from the Valley of Sin. In fact, the only thing that remained the same about the old place was the wind and weather, and surely something can be done about that, too.
On the first day of the tournament it appeared that something had. Two events were being held simultaneously: the Alcan International, primarily for British pros; and the Golfer of the Year event, a select gathering of 19 players, 12 off the U.S. tour and five from Great Britain, who were competing for the big money. When the 86 players emerged from their hotels around the course on the first day they gasped at the still air and the warm sunshine and could hardly wait to get out on the course and start tearing it apart—which they did. Of the 19 pros in the main event, no less than 13 broke the once rigorous par of 72 and seven of them shot in the 60s. St. Andrews had become such a patsy that even the usually feisty U.S. pros gushed with praise, a sure sign that they had found something they could score on.
Heavy rains had been dousing St. Andrews, but the weather is not the only reason why this once bald eagle of a golf course has taken on soft, colorful plumage and a dove's demeanor. A year ago a sprinkling system was installed in and around the greens. Once dry and hard as oak flooring, the greens were soft and plush, the golfing equivalent of wall-to-wall carpeting. The fairways had been heavily fertilized and overseeded with a soft strain of inland grass. Once covered with a tight, hard, brown-colored seaside turf, the fairways now provide a tender target for tee shots, the same shots that used to hop and bound and finally, out of sheer perversity, drop into one of the course's multitude of deep sand bunkers. This was the kind of thing that gave the Old Course its distinction, and there are those who mourn its passing.
"I think it's a great shame," said Peter Thomson, who won the second of his five British Open titles at St. Andrews and also holds the course record for four rounds with a 275. "It used to be a course that required pinpoint—really pinpoint—driving to set up any kind of shot to the green. Now you just lash away, go for the flag. It's become a putter's course." Nor was this just sour grapes on Thomson's part, for he won the lesser event, had the week's lowest score, 281, and earned $10,200.
The look of the tournament matched the new look of the golf course. The Alcan International, played for a total prize of $33,000, was just routine, but the main contest, worth $129,000, was a promoter's delight. It was dreamed up three years ago by a Montreal magazine publisher named Hilles Pickens and a Montreal radio broadcaster named Doug Smith. The idea was to use four tournaments in the U.S. and four in Great Britain, and from the leading scorers in these establish a field for a tournament at St. Andrews. They sold the idea to Aluminium Ltd. of Canada, which was at the time changing its name to Alcan. Alcan thought the tournament would be a fine way to promote the new title with both the public and big buyers all over the world.
The theory had better be right, because Pickens and Smith estimate the sports splurge will cost Alcan between $750,000 and $1 million. On-site expenses, which included payments to the Royal and Ancient for helping run the tournaments and to the town for the rent of the course, totaled an estimated $150,000. Transportation for players, press and 100 Alcan clients who were installed at Gleneagles came to $42,000.
From the promotion point of view, at any rate, Alcan got par value for its money. Pickens rang in plenty of ancient history. The tournament symbol became the wooden putter used by young Tom Morris, who died at 24, but only after having won the British Open four times. The official opening ceremony became a March of the Golfers, a relic that even St. Andrews had forgotten for 118 years. The golfers contracted to parade—sheepishly, as it turned out—from the center of town to the first tee, where they struck drives and stood around to watch trick-shot artist Paul Hahn put on his act. Pickens even visited Young Tom Morris' grave and wrote a glowing piece about it.
"I felt kind of bad about sending out a release on a man's tombstone," he says, "but it got published a lot of places."
The ballyhoo going on at the course was no less vigorous. Alcan threw up a tent for its clients that looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. Pitched next to the R&A's imposing stone club-house, the tent was 140 feet long, lined with blue-and-white-striped-silk bunting and featured hot-and-cold running water in the rest rooms. Player's, the cigarette manufacturer, offered a Rolls-Royce, a Piper Cherokee or a world tour to any golfer who could make an eagle 2 on the 414-yard 6th hole (none did). It also sent nine lovelies in white pants suits or miniskirts out on the course to peddle their wares—Player's—and it ran a regular squadron of helicopter tours over St. Andrews during play, which pulled golfers' heads up as the airborne tourists looked down.