The Hacker: My merry band of pilgrims head for the fairway to heaven

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The Independent Online

I am journeying forth today to prostrate myself before golf's altar. This is our annual pilgrimage to the sacred links of St Andrews, where the 12 of us (the correct number for disciples) will pay our respects to the spiritual home of golf.

Those of a lesser devotion prefer to fly south to play under a hot sun at this time of year. As if the origins of golf had anything to do with sunshine.

The real lovers of the game go to this holy corner in the north of Fife in order to replenish their souls at the very spot where it was first played 600 years ago.

Besides, St Andrews do a very good winter package, so that you can get cold and wet for much less than it would cost you to get cold and wet there in the summer.

Not that we've done badly in the eight years we've been going. A few stormy days, perhaps, but the mecca of golf seems to have been allocated a climate of its own and, in any case, we are happy to contend with whatever weather is thrown at us.

After all, genuine pilgrimsare meant to suffer. They used to wear hairshirts and scourge themselves with whips, but playing golf the way I do is penance enough and more humbling than usual inthose surroundings.

We play three games in three days, one of them on the Old Course, and stay at the Rusacks, an imposing hotel which overlooks the hallowed greensward that houses the 18th green and the first tee.

The hotel reeks of golf and the rooms are named after the greats of the game, ranging from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods. I once stayed in the John Daly room, and had to resist a strange compulsion to trash it.

Our group of worshippers has known each other for many years, our handicaps range from one to 24 and even the most accomplished among us confess to still feeling overawed by the walk to the first tee of the Old Course.

There is such a vast and open area in front of you it has to be one of the easiest drives in the world, and yet it is impossible not to feel nervous.

During the winter, they protect the sanctified fairways by issuing every player with a mat of artificial turf measuring about one foot by six inches on which you place the ball before hitting it – or, in my case, attempting to hit it.

Too often in the past I have sent the mat further than the ball. Seeing my discomfort a couple of years ago, a local gave me some sound advice. There is a hole at one end of the mat so that you can secure it to the ground with a tee peg to stop it blowing away.

"Place the ball on the tee-peg. It's perfectly legal," he said, tapping the side of his nose with his finger.

But the boys accused me of cheating. As if I would cheat at such a place. Anyhow, it didn't stop me winning the booby prize of a chocolate golf ball last year, and I shall be trying for it again this year.

The forecast is rubbish but, no matter what, we are looking forward to four days of heaven. The only hell available is what we'll create ourselves.