Paying homage to grand old home of golf

Faith, education and the modern game are gloriously intertwined in the rich tapestry of St Andrews

The initials PH, stamped into the cobbles outside St Salvator's Chapel on North Street, St Andrews, do not mark the spot where Padraig Harrington once failed to sign his scorecard. Rather, they commemorate the life and grisly death of Lutheran preacher Patrick Hamilton, the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation, roasted slowly at the stake on 29 February, 1528. Like much else in St Andrews, the PH survives as a reminder that golf has only a supporting role in the colourful history of this wonderful old town. Next week, however, golf moves centre stage. And Jim Furyk, the American whose swing is not a thing of beauty, in fact he swings a golf club as others might repel an axe-wielding maniac, has been rehearsing hard.

The initials PH, stamped into the cobbles outside St Salvator's Chapel on North Street, St Andrews, do not mark the spot where Padraig Harrington once failed to sign his scorecard. Rather, they commemorate the life and grisly death of Lutheran preacher Patrick Hamilton, the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation, roasted slowly at the stake on 29 February, 1528. Like much else in St Andrews, the PH survives as a reminder that golf has only a supporting role in the colourful history of this wonderful old town. Next week, however, golf moves centre stage. And Jim Furyk, the American whose swing is not a thing of beauty, in fact he swings a golf club as others might repel an axe-wielding maniac, has been rehearsing hard.

Furyk was the first player to arrive, checking in to the handsome Old Course Hotel last Wednesday, more than a week before the curtain rises on what, in golfing circles, is without doubt the greatest show on earth. An Open Championship at St Andrews is always special, but this year's is more special than others.

There was an unprecedented number of entrants - 2,465. Soon that figure will be reduced to 156, of whom some will be chuffed simply to make the 36-hole cut. But most will tee off on Thursday, in the daunting shadow of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, firmly intent on winning the Millennium Open at the Home of Golf. Even the rank outsiders will take heart from the example set last year by the relatively obscure Paul Lawrie. And Lawrie himself is anxious to prove that there was nothing freakish about his victory at Carnoustie.

A fortnight ago the defending champion took a day-trip to St Andrews from his home in Aberdeen. The course has been officially closed since 29 June, but the R&A will open it at the request of an exempt player. Lawrie is evidently the only man to make use of this privilege, and a gaggle of townsfolk followed him round. One of them told me that he extracted ferocious backspin on the vast greens, an indication that St Andrews is more yielding than a Scottish links at the height of summer has any right to be.

Moreover, if the wind remains as timorous as it was three days ago, when the Eden estuary lapped like bathwater behind the 11th green, then the contest between the Old Course and Tiger Woods, for one, could be as absurdly one-sided as Lennox Lewis arm-wrestling the Queen Mum.

On the other hand, steps have been taken to protect the venerable course.

Not terrifying great bloody goosesteps as at Carnoustie, but subtle steps. A number of bunkers have been deepened, for instance. And the famous 17th, the Road Hole, is as intimidating as ever. The players must drive from the shadow of the Old Course Hotel's new extension, over the sign that says "Old Course Hotel" (the ideal line is said to be directly over the O in Hotel, with a smidgen of fade). And the fairway, at its narrowest point, is just nine paces across.

I know this because I paced it. The mottled old Southern gentlemen who run the Augusta National would choke on their grits if a single interloper dared to tread their hallowed turf a few days before the US Masters, let alone the coach party of Japanese tourists who followed me up the 17th fairway. And imagine young couples meandering across Centre Court in the run-up to Wimbledon? Or an elderly blue-rinse walking her giant poodle in the Wembley penalty area, shortly before an FA Cup final? Unthinkable. But that's what I saw on the Old Course.

For, as third-round leader Lee Trevino discovered to his cost in 1970 when a passing dog had the temerity to bark at the wrong moment, the Old Course is common land. It was enshrined as such in a civic edict of 1552, when the public was granted the right to use the links to "play at goff, futball, schuting, at all gamis with all uther, as ever thye pleis and in ony time".

They couldn't spell to save their lives in those days, almost literally in the case of the Protestant heretic Hamilton. According to one contemporary account, he is said to have cried out, as his legs were slowly consumed by fire, "Have ye no drie wood and gunpowder?" It is not recorded whether or not Hamilton was a golfer. Nor do we know exactly how St Andrews got its name. My favourite explanation involves Regulus, a resourceful monk in fourth century Constantinople, who was warned in a dream that non-believers were planning to desecrate the sacred bones of the apostle Andrew. Regulus was advised to carry them to "the uttermost ends of the earth" and quite reasonably thought that the Fife coast in November answered this description nicely.

For centuries afterwards, pilgrims headed for St Andrews to pay homage. And, in a manner of speaking, pilgrims continue to visit; they have simply shed the sackcloth in favour of Pringle knitwear and checked trousers (sartorially a backward step, some would say). And these days they head not for the old cathedral, where the knee bone and two index fingers of St Andrew are supposedly buried, but for the Old Course, where the hazards at least have names to satisfy the ghosts of the Protestant reformers, among them Hell Bunker and the Valley of Sin.

Some of these latter-day pilgrims are sadly oblivious to the town's non-golfing attractions. They are unaware, for instance, that St Andrews is home to Scotland's oldest seat of learning, founded in 1412. Indeed, the university - my own Alma Mater, incidentally - is on Tuesday bestowing an honorary degree on Colin Montgomerie. This tells me two things. One, that if I had skived lectures every day to improve my golf, I might still have wound up with a decent degree. Two, that the town, university and golfing institutions of St Andrews are umbilically linked. In fact, the medieval skyline, unaltered for centuries, is more than just a romantic backdrop to the Old Course. Any caddie worth his salt will use the distant spires to offer his player a marker.

The caddie once worth more salt than any other is Tip Anderson, whose knowledge of every hump and hollow on the Old Course almost helped Arnold Palmer to win the Centenary Open in 1960. Four years later the Open returned to St Andrews. Palmer skipped that one but recommended Tip to his friend Tony Lema, who duly won. And Tip, for the price of a pint or seven, will regale punters with compelling stories of that Open, and of the two he won elsewhere with Palmer. In 1995, Palmer's farewell Open, they paired up for one last fling. Sadly, Tip, ravaged by decades of heavy boozing, didn't last the course.

I went in search of Tip last week. He is sometimes hard to understand, especially after 6pm, but he is not normally hard to find. In the bar of the Dunvegan Hotel there is a brass plaque above a velour banquette, which reads: "This chair reserved for Tip and his friends." But I missed him by five minutes. "He'll have gone to the Cross Keys," I was told.

So instead I chatted to the Dunvegan's chirpy owners, Jack and Sheena Willoughby - improbably, he's from Texas, she's from Forfar. I admired their collection of photographs taken with golfing legends, all of whom have, in the opinion of Jack and Sheena, substantially enhanced their legendary status by supping in the Dunvegan (three pints of diet Coke and two cheeseburgers in the case of John Daly). "Yeah, and there was the time that Tiger's caddie called to say that Tiger wanted Mexican food," added Jack.

The Big Enchilada himself, Jack William Nicklaus, has not yet ventured into the Dunvegan. And time is running out, because Nicklaus, twice a winner at St Andrews, has declared that this will be his valedictory Open. Destiny seems to demand, therefore, that the new phenomenon should storm into the limelight as the old phenomenon bows out. And the bookies aren't alone in their conviction that it will happen. To hear some talk, the R&A's engraver will have all eventualities covered if he scratches "Tiger" on the old claret jug today, leaving the second name blank just for form's sake.

But the caddies I talked to in the Dunvegan were not so sure. One pointed out that Sergio Garcia, apart from wanting to avenge his humiliation a year ago at Carnoustie, was 20 under par after five rounds at St Andrews in last October's Dunhill Cup. Another tipped Jesper Parnevik, an excellent links player. Like Woods, both propel the ball uncommon distances. Jean Van de Velde will confirm that there are no certainties in an Open Championship, but the identities of the last five winners at St Andrews (Daly, Faldo, Ballesteros, Nicklaus, Nicklaus) indicate that the man anointed champion tomorrow week will be a big-hitter with a blessed short game.

Already, St Andrews has the most impressive roll of honour of any major championship venue, Augusta included. JH Taylor (who won in 1895 and 1900), Bobby Jones (1927), Sam Snead (1946) and Peter Thomson (1955) are names to conjure with, and it is a surprise only that neither Tom Morris, father or son, managed to win the Open in his home town.

If they are looking down, the Tom Morrises will surely be chuckling at what the Open Championship has become. This year's tented village is the biggest ever, more of a tented metropolis, comprising 340,000 sq ft of canvas, while the grandstands along the finishing stretch alone are big enough to seat the entire adult population of St Andrews.

Things were somewhat different in 1872, when Tom Jnr lifted the claret jug at Prestwick. He would doubtless have gone on to win at St Andrews had he not died in 1876, aged just 24, the same age as Tiger Woods is now. For he had already won four consecutive Opens when his beloved wife, Margaret, died in childbirth. Young Tom followed soon afterwards, dying of a broken heart, or just possibly of a perforated liver brought on by excessive drinking. Either way, he is buried in the grounds of the ruined cathedral, and if Woods has any sense of occasion he will wander along to pay his respects, and perhaps mutter the Elegy of Tom Morris Jnr, which begins: " Beneath the sod poor Tommy's laid/ Bunkered now for good and all/ A finer golfer never played/ A further or a surer ball."

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