ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – No matter the direction one looks in this ancient, gray seaside town on Scotland’s east coast, which was founded in the 12th century on the legend that the bones of the Christian apostle St. Andrew were brought here, the eyes explode with lasting reminders from centuries past.
The ruins of St. Andrews Castle, built around 1200 A.D. and rebuilt several times during the Wars of Scottish Independence, still stand proud. The remains of St. Andrews Cathedral, established in 1158, continue to successfully battle harsh elements off the North Sea. The University of St. Andrews which was founded in 1413 continues to be a force in education.
There are markings on cobblestones scattered throughout the city indicating where executions took place. On the pleasant outskirts of the city by the massive beach is where Witch Hill resided, the unpleasant local where accused witches in the 16th and 17th centuries were taken down to the water and, with their thumb tied to the opposite toe, were submerged. If they drowned, they were deemed as witches. If they survived, they were deemed as witches and dragged to Witch Hill and burned at the stake (the odds were not in their favor).
Witch Hill is now Martyrs’ Hill, where the imposing Martyrs’ Monument commemorates the Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake for purported heresy between 1520 and 1560.
“You go back in time when you are in St. Andrews,” said three-time Open Championship winner Sir Nick Faldo.
The journey into the past reveals history has a mighty ally to form the fabric of the Auld Grey Toon – golf. Just a few stones’ throws from Martyrs’ Hill is the headquarters of the Royal & Ancient, which was established in 1754 and lays down the rules of golf for all the world except in the USA and Mexico. In a small corner of the ancient ruins of the Cathedral of St. Andrews, golf royalty Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, lay side by side in rest.
This is the Morris’s section of the cemetery at St. Andrews. Off the west wall, left of St. Rule Tower, is where Old and Young Tom are buried.
More than 30 golf shops are scattered across this town of roughly 20,000 year-round residents. There are seven public golf courses controlled by St. Andrews Links, including the New Course next to the Old Course. The New Course, incidentally, opened in 1895. Numerous pubs speak to the game with historic golf paraphernalia, vast collections which can be found at places such as The Dunvegan and Number 1 Golf Place.
And the jewel of the city, and the junction of Links Place and Golf Place, is the Old Course of St. Andrews Links, where some form of the game created in the 12th century has been played across the barren stretch of rumpled turf for hundreds of years – except in the 15th century when the parliaments of three successive Scottish kings prohibited the game.
“The hair on the back of your neck stands up when you are here, no matter where you are in the town,” said two-time Open Championship winner Padraig Harrington. “Everything that has happened here in the town, the game was born here, it’s spine chilling. There is no other place in the world like it.”
Aussie and 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy realized that on his first visit.
“It is the perfect place for a golfer,” he said. “I fell in love with the town before I fell in love with the golf course. At other great golf courses in the world, they might have a nice clubhouse but then you leave. Here at St. Andrews, it’s the town first, and then the course. You leave this course and you walk straight into this magical place.
“The first time I came here in 1993, people were walking the streets with metal spikes. It was just unbelievable to me. For a golf nut like me, it was the perfect place. All the golf shops with old and new equipment. The pubs, the restaurants, the buildings that have been here for centuries. When you’re here it’s hard to not love everything about the game.”
Or as three-time Open champion Tiger Woods put it: “This is as good as it gets.”
St. Andrews and the Old Course are the proper place – the only place, really – for this week’s 150th Open Championship, the oldest tournament in the world; the inaugural was held when Abraham Lincoln was campaigning to become president of the United States.
The celebration of the milestone will be marked by numerous festivities. The tournament is expected to lure record attendance.
“I’ve watched the Open Championships here at St. Andrews, and I don’t think there’s anything more special in golf than playing an Open Championship at the Home of Golf,” 2017 Open champion Jordan Spieth said. “I have vivid memories of the Old Course. It’s one of those courses you play where you don’t really forget much. There’s only a couple of those maybe in the world. I think here and at Augusta National are my two favorite places in the world.
“Playing in the town is so cool. On a daily round day, not in the Open, it’s pretty unbelievable when you have people walking their dogs on the course. It’s just a casual day, a great place to go for a nice walk. There’s nowhere else like it.”
Phil Mickelson, Open champion in 2013, said St. Andrews is a spiritual place.
“You can’t help but feel emotion come over you as you play, knowing that this is where the game began,” he said.
That’s one of the things that gets to Adam Scott.
“This is where it all began,” he said. “And generally Scotland has embraced everything about the origins of the game and St. Andrews, the town itself is pretty special. It’s a really fun, fun town. And you can feel the history.
“There are so many things about the golf course that are unique. But everyone loves playing it. It has some features that are hard, or almost impossible to replicate and not be criticized. It all works really well here.”
The Old Course is home to a puzzling collection: 14 holes share greens, some of the double fairways are 100 yards wide, there are 112 bunkers (by all means stay out of the ones called Strath, Hell, Spectacles, Principal’s Nose and the Road Hole bunker, which is located on the par-4 17th where a gravel road runs against the back edge of the putting surface and is in play. And there’s the deep depression fronting the 18th green called the Valley of Sin.
Tiger Woods chips onto the green on the road hole during his third round on day three of the British Open at St Andrews in Scotland, on July 17, 2010. (Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Legend holds that many of the pot bunkers were carved out of the Earth by animals seeking shelter from harsh winters — and even summers.
The roster of winners in St. Andrews includes Jack Nicklaus (twice), Woods (twice), Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones and James Braid.
Nicklaus played the Open in St. Andrews eight times, the final in 2005.
“When I came here in 1964, I couldn’t believe that St. Andrews was a golf course that would test golfers of that time. Now, that’s, what, 60 years ago? It still tests the golfers at this time. It’s a magical golf course.
“The conditions, the weather, where you actually choose to put the pins, whether the golf course gets dry, whether the golf course gets wet, all those things that make St. Andrews a magical place.
“The game of golf essentially started here, and it just absolutely is mind-boggling to me that it still stands up to the golfers of today.”
On Tuesday, in a special ceremony, Nicklaus will be honored as an honorary citizen of St. Andrews. Only two other Americans have been so recognized – Bobby Jones and Benjamin Franklin.
That’s some special company.