Battle lines on the fairways

As the R and A issue Open invitations to their millennium party, tension is already running high

Every player who has lifted the old claret jug and is still around to drink a toast, or at least swing a club, is expected to be invited by the Royal and Ancient to participate in a unique celebration of the Open Championship when the event is staged at St Andrews this coming July.

Every player who has lifted the old claret jug and is still around to drink a toast, or at least swing a club, is expected to be invited by the Royal and Ancient to participate in a unique celebration of the Open Championship when the event is staged at St Andrews this coming July.

In a potential curtain-raiser to golf's oldest competition and on its most revered stage, it is hoped that Open champions from Sam Snead, who won at St Andrews in 1946, to the defending champion, Paul Lawrie, will play four holes on the Old Course - the first, second, 17th, and 18th - on the eve of the Millennium Open. There are 27 surviving champions and, although the R and A stress nothing has been finalised, the cast list could have a taste of vintage claret in Max Faulkner, Peter Thomson, Roberto de Vicenzo, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as well as the more modern masters.

Lawrie, of course, took possession of the jug in an astonishing climax at Carnoustie last summer, winning in a play-off after Jean Van de Velde blew a three-stroke lead with his famous seven at the last. Had Carnoustie - where fearsome rough, narrow fairway and strong winds made it the toughest test in history - been the venue for the Open this year it is doubtful if the old champions could have survived even four holes. The Old Course at St Andrews, which has evolved over six centuries, will be different.

"We don't touch the rough with fertilisers," Eddie Adams, the head green-keeper, said. "It will not be tricked up and there is no hidden agenda. Carnoustie was in fantastic condition but it is a totally different animal. Ideally we want a hot, dry Open with classic hard and fast links conditions, but like Carnoustie we are in the lap of the gods when it comes to the weather."

Aficionados would argue that St Andrews itself, fashioned by nature on the Eden Estuary in the kingdom of Fife, is in the lap of the gods. "Victory anywhere is sweet," Seve Ballesteros remarked, "but to win at St Andrews is so special it rises above everything." The legend continues to grow.

Since King David gave the links to the town as common land for the people in 1123, it has been the scene of royal battles between conservationists and developers. The R and A may run the Open but the courses and facilities are managed by the St Andrews Links Trust, established by an Act of Parliament in 1974 to preserve the land as a public park, albeit a park for golf.

The self-financing charitable trust have built St Andrews into one of the largest golf complexes in the world. They have six courses and are currently looking for land for a seventh. In addition to the Old Course, they have the New (despite its name it opened in 1895), the Jubilee (reputed to be two strokes tougher than the Old), the Eden, the Strathtyrum and the Balgove.

The latter is a nine-hole course which is suitable for children and beginners. Even with 99 holes on more than 660 acres, the trust need another 18 holes, a missing links. "We are running out of space," Alan McGregor, general manager of the trust, said. "We are over-subscribed, although it's a great problem to have."

Since their formation, the trust have transformed golf at St Andrews from a quaint, almost ramshackle operation, in which players changed in the car park, into a modern phenomenon attracting more than 200,000 rounds of golf a year.

An acronym for the St Andrews Links Trust would be Salt, although that could be read as strategic arms limitation talks, which at times would not be inappropriate. They are faced with a delicate balancing act between preserving the heritage of land regarded as sacrosanct and satisfying demand. Introduce so much as a breeze-block on to the site and a whole host of bodies will land like a ton of bricks. When the Links clubhouse was built five years ago it met with fierce resistance.

"It seemed that everybody was up in arms and it was very vitriolic stuff," McGregor said. "We had to dig a great hole and put the clubhouse in it so it would be below the town's skyline." Another facility, the Eden clubhouse, opens next month. It had to be built around an old cottage, decreed a listed building by Historic Scotland.

While other courses in Scotland are struggling, St Andrews is booming. There are big private developments under way, including a £50m scheme on what was Kingask Farm two miles outside town. Don Panoz, an Irish-American businessman, wants to build two courses and a hotel on the site. "It is not in our remit to stop commercial ventures," McGregor said, "but there is a danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

The five-star Old Course Hotel, which is integral to St Andrews hosting the Open on a regular basis, is currently building a £5m extension which edges towards the tee on the 17th, the infamous Road Hole. Although its plans for a three-story addition were reduced to two, that did not stop critics describing the extension as "vandalism".

The trust make a surplus of £1m a year (profit is a dirty word), which is spent on the links. Another big investment is a £2.5m computerised irrigation system and a £1.5m green-keeping centre. "We have to move forward and set high standards," McGregor added, "although I'm not suggesting that we have to say, 'Have a nice day' on the first tee."

In the necklace of links, the Old Course remains the jewel. It accommodates about 42,000 rounds a year (to protect the hallowed turf the course now opens at 7am instead of 6am) and is so popular a daily ballot of players takes place. Last weekend Adams, born and bred in St Andrews and a green-keeper since he was 16, played the Strathtyrum course because he couldn't get on anywhere else.

As public links they are open to all and the residents of the town have the best deal in the world: a £98 yearly ticketoffering unlimited play. There is no charge for under-16s. If the home of golf was run as a commercial concern things would be very different. As it is the rate to visitors is rising to £80 for a round on the Old Course. "I would argue that, compared to many courses, Wentworth for example, which charges £195, £80 is very reasonable by today's standards," McGregor said.

For the Open, which is expected to attract 250,000 people, the Old Course will play to 7,115 yards, slightly longer than when John Daly won there in 1995 and when Curtis Strange went round in 62 in the 1989 Dunhill Cup. Adams is hoping for fast greens but nobody will be able to complain about them being too small. In total they measure 7.5 acres with the largest double green, the fifth 13th, occupying 1.5 acres. A green keeper cutting it with a hand-mower would walk seven miles.

The course will not be defenceless this summer. There are the elements and then there are the bunkers, 112 of them. They are not only works of nature, but works of art, and all have been rivetted using five-and-a-half acres of turf produced in the trust's nurseries. It is the sand trap on the 14th hole, however, that takes pride of place at St Andrews. This is Hell Bunker, which has been rebuilt using railway sleepers sunk into a concrete base. It is so deep players will use steps to enter it. Some will not get to Hell and back.

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