- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland The first time Sam Snead laid eyes on the Old Course, he was arriving on the Edinburgh to St. Andrews train for the 1946 British Open.
"We came along beside this golf course, and I looked at it and it did not look like it was in very good shape," the 88-year-old Snead recalled yesterday. "I looked at the fairway, and it did not look to me like it had ever had a machine on it. I heard that they used sheep to cut it. I did not see anybody, and finally I said to the guy sitting beside me, 'What abandoned golf course is that?'
"Oh boy, he jumped four feet in the air and said, 'I'll have you know that is St. Andrews.' I said, 'You mean they are having a tournament here?' And he said, 'Aye, the Championship.' I thought, boy, what a golf course. But once I got on the course, I respected it more each time I played it."
Snead went on to win his only claret jug that year, but his initial impression and gradual appreciation of the legendary links is as typical as a 40-degree day during the Scottish summer. At first sight, the cradle of golf looks like a low-grade municipal. But after a few loops around the game's most hallowed ground most critics become converts.
"I think if you built a golf course like that today, it would probably be the last job you ever did," 1994 British Open champion Nick Price said recently. "But St. Andrews wasn't built; it was simply discovered. Nature gave us St. Andrews, and St. Andrews gave us the game. There's nothing else like it, not even close."
One only has to point to the scorecard to prove Price's point; under the heading course architect and date, St. Andrews simply lists: Mother Nature, 1400.
In the early 12th century, the linksland common grounds of the city were given to the residents of St. Andrews for use as recreation. All manner of sporting activities took place on the stretch of land separating the town from the Firth of Tay and the North Sea, among them a crude form of golf.
The oldest reference to golf at St. Andrews is a 15th century decree from King James banning the playing of the game on the common grounds during the sabbath because it interfered with archery practice.
The oldest actual reference to a round of golf comes from 1764, when the first members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Society played a 22-hole tournament (11 holes out and the same 11 back) at St. Andrews. The members eventually decided the first two holes were too short, giving rise to the two nine-hole loops that have become the game's standard.
Over the years, notable natives Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie have tinkered with the design, but their architectural alterations primarily have involved redefining bunkers and greens. The original tee-to-green contours remaining largely unchanged.
"The Old Course has taken its shape from, and most closely resembles, the sea," MacKenzie says in his book, "The Spirit of St. Andrews." "The course is like a rough sea forever frozen, its terrain pitching and rolling, rising and tumbling for eternity."
A handful of unique characteristics define the Old Course. There is little rough in the U.S. Open sense of the word. On most of the 14 par-4s, the safest drives are played down the left side, but the best angle of approach is typically from the right. The course features seven double greens, and their firmness and contouring routinely means even the best approach shots are rewarded with severely sloping 40-foot birdie bids, making St. Andrews a lag-putter's paradise.
And aside from the monstrous greens and the seemingly omnipresent wind, the best defense of any links course, St. Andrews gets its teeth from its subtle bunkering. The fairways at St. Andrews funnel shots toward bunkers, many of them tiny, treacherous and impossibly steep.
"You have to go and see the bunker faces to believe them," three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo said yesterday. "They are 80 degrees some of them. And they are six or eight feet deep. They are absolutely incredible. Even playing out backwards is a hell of a good shot sometimes. The best advice is to steer clear of them."
Faldo, who won at St. Andrews with a record score of 270 (18 under) in 1990, admits he intentionally directs drives toward the rough on "five to six holes to avoid flirting with the bunkers."
This strategic paradox at St. Andrews has long driven players into a rage at the Old Course. Confounded by the calamitous Old Course on his first visit to St. Andrews, legendary amateur Bobby Jones tore up his scorecard and withdrew from the 1921 Open in disgust. But Jones eventually proclaimed St. Andrews golf's greatest venue and went on to win the 1927 Open on the Old Course.
This week, all eyes will be focused on 2-1 favorite Tiger Woods, who will make his bid to join the quartet of players to accomplish the career Grand Slam (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus). In an attempt to thwart the long-knocking god of golf, the Old Course has been lengthened by 182 yards (7,115 yards, par 72), bringing nearly obsolete bunkers back into play. Depending on the wind, Faldo still figures Woods can drive six of the layout's par-4s and reach the par-5 fifth (568 yards) with a driver and a wedge.
But Snead sees Woods' short game as the real reason to favor him at St. Andrews.
"This old girl has always required creativity and touch around the greens above all else, and Tiger has more of both than any player in the field," Snead said. "He is the best around the green and on the green. That's where he does all his work… . He is definitely the one to be reckoned with here."
First, the 24-year-old prodigy must reckon with a 600-year-old masterpiece that loves to chew up champions.

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