Enduring mystery of a course that 'just is'

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The Independent Online
There is a crucial omission from Genesis 1:1. In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. It should of course add "and the Old Course at St Andrews".

This is the myth surrounding the most famous golf course in the world, host to this week's Open Championship. Quite simply, the Old Course just is. Or is it?

One of golf's great architects, Dr Alister Mackenzie, the creator of the Masters' home at Augusta National, helped the myth of St Andrews along when he wrote: "Its origins appear to be shrouded in mystery: like Topsy (the slave character in Uncle Tom's Cabin) 'It simply grow'd'."

That may have been true for the mid-15th century. But since then nature has been helped to improve on the divine design.

Shortly after St Andrews University was founded in 1413, golf in the Fife cathedral town had become popular enough for King James II to warrant banning it. His 1457 Act of the Scottish parliament "ordained that in no place of the Realme there be used fute-ball, golfe, or other sik unprofitable sportes".

"Golfe" was probably restricted to the distinctive geomorphology of Scotland's east coast. The sea, receding from fertile arable land, left a distinctive terrain of sand dunes, thin soil and strong grasses. Sheep grazed land of little value for much else.

One suggestion, among many, is that Dutch merchants, harboured in the Eden estuary, would walk through the linksland into the old town. En route they may have adapted their own game of "kolven" (an ice-based stick and ball game played as early as the 13th century) for Scottish grass.

The first Old Course "fairways" could have been nothing more than routes regularly trampled by the merchants. Early balls were probably small round stones from the seashore. As Keith Mackie points out in his new book, Golf at St Andrews, the earliest record of the number of holes for the Old Course is 22 (by 1764 the number was down to the recognised 18).

With the publication of Rules of the Gentlemen Golfers, 1744 and the first competition played by the Society of St Andrews Golfers in 1754, the game spread. But as new clubs formed and older ones sought new homes, the golfers at St Andrews stayed put. Royal patronage arrived in 1833 from William IV. The Royal and Ancient was born.

In the mid-19th century, one Tom Morris was appointed the R & A's "Keeper of the Greens". His recorded work should end arguments that the Old Course "always has been". Old Tom, nicknamed to distinguish him from his championship- winning son, Young Tom, is credited with having the greatest human impact on the Old Course.

In preparation for championship golf he widened and laid out fairways, and created the first and 18th greens (a masterpiece unequalled). Whins and heather were ripped out; the unique double-greens design were fashioned from the greens admittedly already there. In fact, the distinctive right- hand circuit, leading out and back, is Old Tom's handiwork. The Old Course was not always played in this direction, accounting for some bunkers appearing to be "built" the wrong way around.

The Open first came to St Andrews in 1873. It was a chaotic affair. Young Tom was third with rounds of 94 and 89. Local caddie Tom Kidd triumphed with 91 and 88. Young Tom never won at St Andrews, dying in 1876 aged 24. By 1897 the R & A had become the seat of government of golf. It has never moved since.

But did the Old Course change as the game changed? In 1924, on his way to the reputation that would see Bobby Jones ask him to design Augusta, the young Dr Mackenzie was brought in to advise the R & A.

Although the museum at St Andrews makes no formal recognition of Mackenzie's services, Peter Mason of the Links Trust, said: "I think Mackenzie was responsible for introducing the championship tees that added 400 yards to the course length. The course in 1821 and the one Mackenzie worked on, varied only 100 yards from the medal tees."

Mackenzie thus appears another mystery in the mythology. How could a mere human "advise" on a heavenly creation ? St Andrews just is.