To golf's mecca: The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland

20120408_tr1standrews_400
Golfers cross a stone bridge over Swilken Burn on the Old Course at St. Andrews. www.britainonview.com

The ball strike rang pure. A player of my, um, caliber knows that sweet "thwack" because I hear it but a handful of times every round.

Sure enough, I found the last of my Top-Flite XLs soaring against a brilliant blue Scottish sky high above the Coffins, a cluster of mean-spirited pot bunkers on the par 4, 388-yard 13th hole at the Old Course St. Andrews Links. In the distance, colorful hang gliders zigzagged over the North Sea in schizophrenic gales that have driven golfers mad for more than 600 years.

When my ball landed atop a mound 130 yards from the pin, I thought, aye, this was my chance; this was my chance to birdie a hole where legends like Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, and Tiger Woods made magic and golf history.

 

I had arrived at St. Andrews much earlier in virtual darkness at 6:40 a.m. in the kind of light rain that barely registers with Scots. Above, moody clouds churned, but conditions were promising. On this September morning it couldn't rain hard enough for me. You see, I was the 27th of 28 single golfers to queue up for a crack at playing at the fabled home of golf, and the crummier the weather, the more likely it was that golfers holding reserved tee times would relinquish their slots to at least some of us. This was the proverbial shot in the dark.

Converging on Scotland from around the globe - Canada and Korea, Texas and Florida, Australia and Germany - the 28 of us shared optimism that the golf gods would somehow grant us entry to the Old Course. Word spread down the line that the first four hopefuls showed up at 2:45 a.m.

It was 7 a.m. - show time. Calum, a Royal Air Force retiree with silver hair, was the starter at the first tee. Wearing a bright red jacket, he emerged from the hut in the shadows of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club House with the day's schedule in hand and good news - the foursome for the 7:50 tee time bailed (Wimps!, we thought) and the 2:45 group would fill the spot. Just like that, I leaped from No. 27 to No. 23. This was going to be a cinch, a lock.

I didn't even have the chance to reach for my credit card when reality set in. Calum took us in groups of four and delivered the news. "It doesn't look good, guys; chances are pretty slim; the book is full," he would say in a delightful Scottish brogue that belied his message. Then tilting his head and tightening his eyes he added, "But you never know." That was all I needed to hear. I had all day. Now, I've never been confused with an optimist or someone with superior patience, but today would be different.

Calum dutifully recorded our names and reviewed our handicap cards, even though he wasn't making any promises. To play the Old Course requires a handicap of 24 or lower (36 for women). Thanks to the generosity of friends who granted mulligans and gave me gimmes that weren't, I made the cut.

Now the waiting game began. It would be an hour before Calum would have a better idea of who would golf and who would be left holding their bags, so I took a walk with my uncle, who had driven me to St. Andrews from his home on the outskirts of Edinburgh, about an hour away. We passed the British Golf Museum and dozens of pubs and pro shops, including one bearing the name of Old Tom Morris, then grabbed a bite to eat.

Upon our return to the starter's hut, Calum told us that only nine golfers of the original 28 were assured of getting a game. Worse yet, sunshine had replaced the drizzle. Never before were so many golfers disheartened by the sight of sunshine. I remained undeterred. Many tinkered on the conveniently located practice green, but I shot the breeze instead. Hours passed.

At noon, there were still a dozen players ahead of me and time was running out. Calum, ever encouraging but within reason, proudly told a handful of us, "A couple months ago, we got 37 of 42 on." Occasionally, he would suggest we play one of the six other courses at the R&A. No one bit. It was Old Course or bust for this lot.

By my calculation, there were only 18 tee times left before 3 p.m. - when the course was turned over to locals for "dark time" tee slots. If you did score a "dark" tee, there was little chance that dang sun would stick around long enough for a full round. So time dragged on, with new groups teeing off every 10 minutes, though occasionally there were delays when vehicles and pedestrians interrupted play crossing the first fairway en route to the beach.

Foursomes we watched tee off early in the morning were now finishing their rounds right in front of us. Seeing the smiles and handshakes on a good round played proved too much for a handful of my fellow hopefuls. Some, at Calum's urging, resorted to playing another R&A course while others reached for their car keys and headed home.

There were still seven golfers standing between me and the Old Course.

At 1 p.m., my uncle and I set a 2 p.m. drop-dead deadline. At 1:05, No. 28 in line gave up hope and hit the road. At 1:10, an energized Calum worked what was left of the crowd. I sensed something was happening. An unmistakable vibe spread through the ranks: Slots were opening and one by one players were being rewarded for their patience with tee times.

High fives smacked and fist bumps exploded as giddy grown men gladly handed over the 140-pound greens fees, grabbed their clubs, and practically skipped over to the first tee for their appointed rounds.

I was the last man standing. No. 27.

"Mr. Kelly," Calum said, "there's a chance you may get a 2 o'clock game. There's a local chap, Raymond, who may have an opening for a fourth. If he does, he might invite you to join them, probably will. He's a good guy. You'll know by 1:30."

Up strode a wee man, 5-foot-5 in golf spikes, with a ready smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Leprechauns and good luck immediately came to mind. He made his way to the starter's hut and after a brief discussion with Calum's associate, Raymond turned to me, introduced himself, and invited me to complete his foursome.

I was in. This was "Miracle on Ice," "Douglas floors Tyson," and "Villanova stuns Georgetown" all rolled into one. In 20 minutes I would be playing where golf icons, A-list celebrities, and world leaders have tested their games. I thanked Raymond (at least twice), quickly paid the fees before anyone could change their mind, then laced up my golf shoes and gathered myself before floating over to the first tee.

Two o'clock came quickly. Raymond introduced me to his guests, Mark and Lisa from Southern California, and their hired caddies, Jimmy and Phil, before bestowing some advice. "Here, on the Old Course, stay left. All the trouble is on the right," said Raymond, 69, who has been playing the links since he was an 8-year-old boy. "You're up, Steve."

 

My bag in tow, I charged past the Coffins, astonished that my ball still hadn't found a bunker all day. My Top-Flite was propped up nicely. I climbed up the mound, reached for the 8-iron from the bag of clubs I borrowed from a relative (rental clubs cost 30 pounds per round), and took aim at the 13th green. There was that sound again. "Thwack." Back-to-back pure strikes. My ball landed about 15 feet from the cup and quickly disappeared in a swale as it rolled toward the pin. No way, I thought.

Dreaming eagle, I hoofed it down to the green. (No motorized carts on the Old Course.) My ball had settled about 9 feet from the cup, leaving me my most makeable birdie putt of the day. To say I struggled with the greens to this point would be an understatement. Maybe a little time working on my putting stroke wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all, even though the practice green in no way resembled the rolling, curvy surfaces on the course. Every putt was a Tilt-a-Whirl ride with head-rattling turns and stomach-turning drops. Mix in a 15-m.p.h. wind and I was completely lost.

On my way to a 51 on the front nine (all 5's and 6's), I had missed two reasonable birdie putts and four par putts. But this birdie putt on No. 13 was flat. It didn't matter. I left the ball one rotation short and had to settle for a tap-in par.

My solid par couldn't have come at a better time, though. I was still stinging from my experience at No. 11, "one of the most celebrated par 3's in the world of golf," reads the scorecard. The 11th tee might be the highest point on the course - a great spot to soak in the panoramic views of the course, town, and sea. We snapped some photos while another foursome crossed where the 7th and 11th fairways intersect.

The atmosphere on the world's most famous golf course was surprisingly casual. At the starter's hut, honorifics were the order of the day, but on the links it was all very laid back, municipal-course style.

The coast clear, I grabbed a 5-iron for the par 3, 164-yard 11th. Off the club, I thought my shot would reach the green, but the wind knocked it down and my ball died shy of a hungry bunker guarding the green. I lost the psychological battle with the intimidating beast and promptly deposited my second shot in a deep embankment on the opposite side of the green and dangerously close to an estuary. To steal a line from a Scotsman I overheard when I attended the British Open at St. Andrews in 1990, "that ball ran across the green like a scolded cat." The hole was all downhill, then uphill, and downhill from there. I'm sure my 8 wasn't the first snowman built on the 11th.

Rivaling the greens, the Old Course fairways are no picnic, either, even though that's what you just might find on a Sunday, when the course grounds are turned into a park for the people of St. Andrews. It's hard to say what would be more difficult - finding a flat area to lay your picnic blanket or land your tee shot. There are bumps, humps, dips, and blips. Treacherous bunkers scattered about add to the fun. With the exception of a few holes (Nos.1 and 18 to name a couple), there are few tee boxes from which you can actually see where you want your shot to land. Television images do not do the elevation changes justice.

Factor in the wind and you have a nightmare. I asked Mark's caddie, Jimmy, who has been working bags at St. Andrews for 30 years, if the day's westerly winds were standard for St. Andrews. "Nothing's normal here," said Jimmy, who came at a price of 45 pounds (about $71) for the round, plus tip. (Trainee caddies cost 25 pounds - about $39.) He was worth every penny, showing my playing partner, Mark, the way over the course and effortlessly finding wayward balls that the rest of us struggled to spot.

Looking more like a lost pub-crawl participant than a player, I staggered through Holes 14 to 16 as the shadows lengthened on a wonderful day on the links. Up next was one of the most famous golf holes in the world: The par 4, 436-yard Road Hole featuring a hotel that comes into play on your tee shot.

I asked Raymond how the pros play their tee shots at 17. "They aim at the 'T' in 'HOTEL' and hit a draw," replied my diminutive host, who knew every inch and idiosyncrasy of the Old Course.

Concerned that the building might scuff up my ball, I took a more cautious line and aimed for the "H." Hitting a draw is not in my bag of sticks, anyway. "Crack." I instantly recognized that sound. My ball was slicing. "That's in the duck pond," offered Jimmy. "What duck pond?" I asked.

Except for Swilcan Burn, which meanders harmlessly through the 1st and 18th fairways, I didn't think there were any water hazards on the Old Course. Turns out the duck sanctuary that my ball splashed into lies within the hotel courtyard. No wonder the pond wasn't on the course map on the scorecard. I took a 7 on 17.

I strolled to the 18th tee wishing the round wouldn't end. One hundred yards in front of the tee box, nongolfers scurried onto the course to have photos taken on Swilcan Bridge, the 30-foot-long stone arch where Jack Nicklaus bid farewell to golf in 2005. The tourists quickly cleared the fairway and with the clubhouse as a backdrop, I sent a tee shot off the right edge of the fairway. My Southern California playing partners and I then paused for pictures on Swilcan Bridge as their caddies and Raymond ribbed us.

My second shot was a good one, but landed in the Valley of Sin, just shy of "perhaps the most often three-putted green in golf." I putted my ball from the Valley to within 18 feet of the cup, then two-putted for bogey only a short distance from where I started the round four hours earlier at the first tee with a "thwack" down the left-hand side of the fairway.

Never a doubt.

To comment on this story, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.