The Hacker: This time I couldn't sweep my flaws under the little carpet

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The Independent Online

Playing the Old Course at St Andrews is always a privilege but last week it was particularly so; not least because the weather was sunny and warm, in sharp contrast to its wintry state just two weeks before.

Then, the place was awash. The Swilken Burn burst its banks and the sea had pounded the beach and gouged a chunk out of the sand dunes.

One benefit of the devastation was that it revealed a treasure trove of old golf balls, including an ancient feathery ball which is expected to fetch at least £800 at auction.

But no place restores itself as quickly as the St Andrews links and last Monday it was at its striking best, with the main stand already being constructed in readiness for The Open in July.

Driving off the first tee at the Old Course is the most daunting shot in golf. Despite the vast expanse of grass in front of you, the presence of 600 years of golfing tradition is unnerving.

Thankfully my newly slowed swing survived the pressure and I hit a good drive. But when I reached it, the sight of the Swilken Burn 90 yards away turned me to jelly as usual. In the 10 years I've been organising our annual trip to the home of golf, the burn has prevented me scoring a point on the first. I didn't go into it this time but it still bullied me into an eight.

Many thousands of golfers who wouldn't have normally made the pilgrimage jumped at a tempting winter offer from St Andrews of three nights' bed and board and three games of golf, one on the Old, from November to the beginning of April.

The cost is not as reasonable as it was but it's still good value. We've stayed each year at the Rusacks Hotel alongside the 18th, and the old place has been spruced up very handsomely recently and the grub is still very good.

Usually we've gone earlier in the year, which has meant having to carry a foot-long piece of plastic grass upon which you have to place your ball to protect the fairway.

I didn't find it easy to avoid hitting the edge of the plastic first. Another problem was that if you didn't fasten it down with a tee peg, the wind could whip it away and you would have to chase it.

However, you don't have to use the fairway mats from 1 April so at least we were spared that chore this time. Unfortunately, it took away one of my main excuses.

So I only have the bunkers to blame for my paltry 23 points. I went into four of them and didn't escape from any. They are so deep that it is difficult to get yourself out, never mind the ball.

Despite being pleased with my new driving style, I was vexed by the collapse of my short game. But before we left we were given a clinic by the Rusacks' resident professional, John Kelly, and he had me hitting seven irons a mile. I shall be trying his advice out on the Ryder Cup course at Celtic Manor tomorrow.

Before leaving the delights of St Andrews I found a little golf memorabilia shop called The Happy Hacker. Presiding over this newly opened and very interesting collection of golfing knick-knacks is Murray Duncan and his wife Elaine.

Murray plays off 11 and is hardly a hacker but was given the nickname because he is so erratic but couldn't give a damn. Sounds like a good philosophy to me.

Tip of the week

No 46: Playing from a divot

With winter behind us, and most courses having stopped winter rules, the ball must be played as it lies. Many winter divots won't have been repaired, so you need a method to get out. Take a club with ample loft and low bounce – say, a seven iron.

Position the ball back in the stance with your hands well ahead of the ball. Put 70 per cent of the weight on your left side and keep it there during the backswing. Start with a steep pick-up, hit down hard into the back of the ball and continue down through the old divot. You will find the through swing will be curtailed due to the downward direction of the downswing. Don't try to scoop the ball from the divot, trust the loft to do the work.

Don't be greedy and try for distance by taking a fairway wood or rescue. They won't cut through the divot.

Simon Iliffe, golf professional.