Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Walking in the Spike Marks of the Greats

Gary Player. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tom Watson. Tiger. Lefty. Champagne Tony. Sir Nick. Sam Snead. Vardon, Taylor and Braid. Old Tom Morris.

I walked the same fairways that the giants of the game have trod for nearly 150 years. The Home of Golf. The Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Mine was a round that had a little of everything. A perfect drive and pure 7-iron over the Valley of Sin to the green on the final hole. A much less-distinguished nervous opening tee shot. From a sidehill uphill lie next to the infamous "Hell's Bunker," I punched a superb half-6-iron right at the white flag on the 4th green; unfortunately, we were playing the red-flagged 14th hole. I had my share of long, long, long putts on some of the largest double greens in the world: one was about 125 feet. On the 12th, after the other players had hit their tee shots to the right into the rough, I hit my second best drive of the day, right down the middle ... and into one of the courses' more than 100 pot bunkers. On the treacherous Road Hole, the 17th, I ended up in the enormous steep sod-faced bunker guarding the middle of the green - blasted out to about 15 feet and made the putt, though this was after my first tee shot (and my provisional) landed on someone's Old Course Hotel balcony ... my caddie, Steve, described my attempted line as "a bit too aggressive" on the blind shot over the famous sheds.

Toward the end of the round, I asked Steve if there was anything I hadn't experienced during the round. He responded, "Well, you haven't listened to your caddie yet."

Headquarters of the Royal & Ancient just before Midnight
 

Being there and finally playing on golf's hallowed ground was almost anti-climactic to the adventure of just getting to the 1st tee. As a single player, I could not reserve a tee time, nor even submit to the lottery the Saint Andrews Links Trust uses to allocate slots. My only option was to queue up at the Pavilion for when they opened in the morning. When we arrived on Sunday and asked around, the consensus advice was to be in the queue by about 3:00 am, maybe even 2:30 or 2:00. But then we learned there were only five spots available for singles on Monday. I wasn't confident that 2 o'clock would be good enough.

So with my exceedingly tolerant wife snuggled in an extremely comfortable bed in James Braid's room at the Old Course Hotel, which I barely got to use for a couple hours, I laid out my clubs and clothes and set the alarm for 11:o5 pm wakeup.

It took me about 20 minutes or so to walk in the cold rain from the hotel to the Pavilion, lighting my way with a flashlight, and I arrived at 10 minutes before Midnight. As I had hoped, I was first in line. The dream was within reach.

I thought I would be alone for a couple hours at least. I had brought a book, some nuts, cookies, water, and of course my clubs and golf shoes in case I snared an early tee time. But at two minutes to 12, Joe from Texas walked up. Not long after, Taylor from Toronto and Casey from Los Angeles arrived. Then Scooter from Austin, Number 5 for the fifth spot. Having confidence we would all almost surely get to play the Old Course, we quickly bonded and talked for the next nearly seven hours until the doors were finally opened. We talked golf and golf courses and golfers and golf equipment and the waffles or Scottish breakfast we would have once we had secured a tee time, the Highlands and haggis. It helped to forget that we were freezing and shivering, despite multiple layers of clothing (thermal undershirt and leggings, pants, rain pants, heavy long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, Johnson City high school hooded sweatshirt, Masters green jacket, scarf, Boston Bruins winter gloves, knit cap, APS - Advanced Performance Systems flight training golf cap, two pairs of socks, hiking boots).

After the Fab Five, people continued to come. Because we were the only ones in the front of the building near the door, many of the latercomers were surprised to learn that the queue extended around the building. One young woman came prepared with a duvet (which she had considerable difficulty stuffing back into her suitcase). At 6:30, moving lights started to appear - greens mowers. By 6:55, when we were finally allowed in, there were at least 25-30 people. Most probably did not get to play that day. Mr. Tanaka from Tokyo, whom I chatted with during the queue and saw later in the morning in the hotel shop, did not.

I could have taken the 7:15 am tee time, but I wanted to go back to the hotel and have breakfast with Donna-Lane, then to the practice range to loosen up. I took the 12:20 opening (after showing my proof of handicap). Joe got 12:40. Taylor grabbed the early spot. Not sure about Casey and Scooter because by then I was in the WC, not having had opportunity all night while guarding my No. 1 position.

I have to admit that the Old Course itself did not seem that difficult, certainly with only a light wind, and it's certainly not aesthetic (which is true of most Scottish links courses). Most of the par-four holes are not overly long. The fairways, supported by a deep underlayer of packed sand, were the firmest I have ever played, not like the soft, fluffy turf on most US courses; after a few holes, I learned to move the ball back in my stance to catch it more on the downswing. One challenge is in the hidden bunkers, at least hidden from sight from the tee boxes. I never consulted the course layout book I had purchased; Steve would tell me some bush or cloud to aim at, and I tried to hit it in that direction ... total trust, with no idea what might be in the landing area. Without a caddie, I would probably have been calculating the best distances to go over certain bunkers and short of others. The major challenge is the greens, some with severe slopes and many with double- and triple-breaking putts.

Pre-round, I had some hope of posting a good score. Now that I'm playing regularly again, my game has been improving, almost to the point of considering competitions in France. But score was really irrelevant to just being on the Old Course, perhaps the last item on my golf bucket list. Queuing up at Midnight and being first in line ... that made it as good as a Claret Jug.

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