Humble steps in history's spikemarks

Phil Gordon came, saw and was conquered in the 60s, and has stayed faithful
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The Independent Online

Skylines are an aphrodisiac to the traveller. The merest glimpse of what lies on the horizon produces an adrenalin rush. Manhattan's skyscrapers do it for New York and the Eiffel Tower for Paris, but for golfers throughout the world it is an eclectic jumble of architecture in a corner of north-east Fife that acts as foreplay.

Skylines are an aphrodisiac to the traveller. The merest glimpse of what lies on the horizon produces an adrenalin rush. Manhattan's skyscrapers do it for New York and the Eiffel Tower for Paris, but for golfers throughout the world it is an eclectic jumble of architecture in a corner of north-east Fife that acts as foreplay.

The skyline of St Andrews may be dwarfed by those of New York and Paris, but size is not everything. The unmistakable home of golf has been seducing visitors for well over a century, and such are its charms that many seek its embrace time and again. The Open is making its 26th date with the Old Course, but such is the magnetism of the historic links that floods of devotees happily make the trip on the other 51 weeks of the year when Tiger Woods and Co are not around.

My own addiction to St Andrews stretches back 36 years, yet the view never loses its appeal. The tower of St Andrews University is usually the first thing you fix on as you journey in from Cupar, followed by varying shades of grey among the collection of gable-stepped roofs, with the spires of the ruined 13th century cathedral deep in the background.

The exception to the colour scheme is the grand, red sandstone building perched behind the 18th green. It looks as if this ought to be the clubhouse, yet it is a trompe l'oeil. It has housed guests and students as both hotel and halls of residence, but to find the real clubhouse you must shift your focus to the other side of the massive swathe of green which cuts right into the heart of the town.

The Old Course clubhouse is the work of various hands; it took decades to complete after the first stone was laid in the late 19th century. It has a Georgian feel, but for golfers everywhere the huge bay windows topped by an impressive balcony, and the giant clock on the right-hand side, are simply timeless.

My own initiation into the magic of St Andrews began in 1964. Tony Lema - tragically killed in a plane crash less than two years later - tamed the Old Course to triumph in The Open, though much to my indifference. Held firmly in my grip that summer was not a three-wood but a spade, as the nearby splendour of the west sands held greater attraction for a four-year-old.

However, three years later, I had shown enough interest in pottering with my father's clubs while accom-panying him around St Andrews' other courses (at that time, the New, the Eden and the Jubilee) that a visit to the fabled Tom Morris Golf Shop, which overlooks the 18th green on the Old Course, was arranged. Just as thousands of kids recall their first visit to Clark's for a shoefitting, the memory of being measured for my first golf clubs (mini-junior) is indelible.

Under the gaze of a sepia print of Young Tom, a bearded figure who belied his youth, my tiny practice swings were translated months later into two irons, a four-wood and putter, each beautifully crafted and bearing the inscription "Tom Morris, St Andrews".

Tom Morris Junior opened the shop after winning The Open four times, following in the footsteps of his father, Old Tom, one of the event's first winners, in 1861. The gravestones of both are in the cathedral cemetery.

Peering through Morris' window became a perennial holiday treat for my brother and I every July. We yearned to own every item in that Aladdin's Cave and spent endless night-time discussions across the shared bedroom about which were better: Dunlop 65s or Slazengers.

We were not the only ones to have sleepless nights because of a little white ball. In 1970, Doug Sanders missed the most famous three-footer in the game's history, right there on the 18th green in front of Morris' shop. The next day, Jack Nicklaus went out and won their 18-hole Open play-off.

That play-off was also historic because it took place on a Sunday: the laws of the burgh of St Andrews forbade golf on the Sabbath, and while this has been relaxed over the years for the other courses, the Old Course remains sacrosanct. Its fairways are only disturbed by the hundreds who enjoy a Sunday promenade on the links. That is the Old Course's enduring quality. Privilege cuts no ice. All you have to do is submit your name to the ballot (these days e-mails and faxes are catered for) and the luck of the draw will have you on the course 24 hours later.

Yet golf's appeal has brought a problem on to the horizon. Just months ago, I saw giant cranes in the fields outside the town as the finishing touches were put to Kingsbarns, a new country club-style development which opens tomorrow. The fairways of the 6,460-metre course designed by Kyle Phillips evoke links tradition but have stirred local opposition because of their scale. The course's inception comes just five years after the opening of the Peter Thomson-designed Duke's course just outside town, and while almost 60 per cent of the 200,000 rounds played each year on the six courses owned by the St Andrews Links Trust are played by locals, there are fears that the town is in danger of selling its soul to golf's rich elite.

The Old Course is unique in sport. Augusta National barely lets you breathe, never mind swing a club. Wembley and Wimbledon may be theatres of dreams, but you will have to remain in your seat. Nowhere else in the world allows the humble to walk in the footsteps of the mighty. For that reason alone, my own abiding memory of St Andrews does not concern Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, nor even Nicklaus, though the Golden Bear did play an unwitting role.

Less than a week after Nicklaus triumphed in 1978, the stands around the 18th green had yet to be dismantled, which encouraged a greater crowd of holidaymakers than usual to watch a nine-handicap teenager play a drive just short of the road, followed by a perfect iron high into the green and two regulation putts. I was too shy then to acknowledge the few polite claps so, belatedly, St Andrews, I, and other mortals, salute you.

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