Sunday 22 April 2018

Magical and testing setting at St Andrews

There's so much more to St Andrews than its lore and tradition

Tom Watson poses on St Andrews’ Swilcan Bridge for the final time as a competitor at the end of Friday’s second round at the Open.
Tom Watson poses on St Andrews’ Swilcan Bridge for the final time as a competitor at the end of Friday’s second round at the Open.

Dermot Gilleece

While golf's aristocrats grappled with the sort of gnawing uncertainty normally reserved for high-handicappers, we thought of the pre-championship words of outgoing R and A chief executive, Peter Dawson, about the game's most iconic venue. "With so many subtleties of ground and wind," he predicted, "this Old Course will last well into the future as a strong challenge."

Links terrain is at its most testing, when brown of hue, firm of bounce and brisk of pace. Yet the unusually lush, receptive look of St Andrews over the last few days has masked a scene of considerable torment, depending on one's fortunes with strong, changing winds.

"If it was an 18-hole tournament, you'd hang your boots up at 17 and take a pint in the Jigger Inn," said three-time champion, Nick Faldo, after an opening 83, which owed as much to high afternoon winds on Thursday, as to the myriad afflictions of anno domini.

That was when we gained some idea of how significantly the conditions could change. Where the slightly-built amateur, Paul Dunne, could make the 17th green with a three-iron before lunch, it was out of reach for big-hitting Paul Casey later in the day, even with a three-wood second shot.

So, we had to assume a high element of bravado in the comment, "I'm looking forward to the bad weather", from the 2011 champion, Darren Clarke, on the eve of battle.

This is my seventh Open Championship at the Home of Golf and its appeal has not waned. The way it has burnished some glittering talent over the years, like a youthful Michael Campbell in 1995; the imperious Tiger Woods in Millennium Year and the promise of historic deeds from Jordan Spieth this time around.

Meanwhile, huge changes have taken place, especially with the construction this year of a two-tier grandstand behind the 18th green, virtually blocking out the imposing, terracotta structure of Hamilton Hall. But, overall, the passing years have not diminished the enduring wonder of the place.

The well-worn cliché of walking in the footsteps of golfing giants seemed to retain a profound significance for the living legends who assembled last Wednesday for the so-called Challenge of Champions. It certainly meant a lot to Nick Price, who was there, even though he couldn't participate because of a nagging elbow injury.

"My first Open here was in 1978, when I finished maybe two hours ahead of Jack (Nicklaus)," said the 1994 champion. "I waited around the clubhouse, where we'd have sandwiches back then. And when Jack was coming up 18th for the last time, I went out to the steps to see him playing the final hole.

"As he walked off the green as the champion, I could see a tear in his eye. And I wondered why it was so emotional for him. I couldn't understand why such a tough competitor would have reacted that way. Then, over a period of time, I learned."

Price went on: "I really came here just for the Champions' Dinner last night (Tuesday), though I've been able to do a little bit of Presidents Cup work (as captain of the International team)." Then, looking wistfully down towards the Swilcan Bridge, he said: "All of us who have loved the Open would really love to have won it here. All of us. The atmosphere, the aura of this place is just phenomenal.

"The first time you come here, there's an initial awe, but you don't really feel much. You don't feel any huge buzz until you get a little older, more mature and you've learned more and more about your craft. That's when you come to realise how important this place is in the history of the game."

The obvious passion behind those words seemed to enhance the presence on the first tee of Peter Thomson, who won the first of five Open Championships as far back as 61 years ago at Royal Lytham. Victory came at St Andrews a year later. And one could only marvel at the solid precision of a drive, about 180 yards down the first fairway, from a man who will be 86 next month.

As a marked change from 2005, when this charming celebration was instituted, there was the warm glow provided by the presence of two, champion Irishmen - Pádraig Harrington and Clarke - which would, of course, have been three, but for the unfortunate absence of the holder, Rory McIlroy, through injury.

The sun had broken through on Friday evening when I met a blonde, 31-year-old Australian with a remarkable story. "I'm Alicia Nagle," she said, "and my grandfather won the Centenary Open here in 1960." She then recounted the extraordinary circumstances which prompted her presence at the latest staging of the event.

Kel Nagle, who shared a birthday with Christy O'Connor Snr on December 21, died last January in a hospital in Sydney, aged 94. Ten days earlier, Alicia, who works in advertising in London, responded to a call from her mother and flew back to Australia to be with him and the extended family. "It was an amazing time for me, with him telling jokes; completely lucid," she said. "In fact, when I walked through the door of the hospital ward, he said to a nurse, 'Hey, she's back from London'.

"He was always a great family man, devoted to his children and grandchildren; very proud of us all. Though he would talk about golf if journalists contacted him and loved to watch it on television, he preferred to talk about life when he was with us. He felt he'd had a great innings and seemed pleased we were all there for him as he neared the end of the road."

She went on: "In my final conversation with him, I said I would go to the Open at St Andrews this year in his honour, knowing what he'd done here in 1960. This golf course meant the world to him and he meant the world to me, so they were my final words. I left him with that."

When I enquired, gently, if he had responded, her eyes welled with tears. "I wasn't too sure if he had heard me," she said, "but he looked at me, leaned forward and gave me a kiss on the cheek. So he knew all right. It was wonderful."

In keeping her promise, she talked of being treated royally at St Andrews, with so many people talking affectionately about the departed champion, including Arnold Palmer, who had finished runner-up to Nagle, 55 years ago. Other devotees of The Old Course have had very different experiences. Especially interesting was the reaction of the Dane, Soren Kjeldsen, for whom an appearance here was a ringing endorsement of his Irish Open victory at Royal Co Down, seven weeks ago.

"Well, for a start, being Irish champion got me into this field," he said, "though it goes much deeper than that." Kjeldsen explained: "People who play the game in Denmark know that the Irish Open is a big tournament, but golf is not big in the Danish media. But here at St Andrews, they know about links golf and just how good Royal Co Down is. They know that to win around there, you've got to be able to play. That's a nice feeling for me."

There was also the joy of showing his 12-year-old son, Emil, around St Andrews for the first time last Sunday night, including how close the 18th green is to the surrounding buildings. "He could see the way everything about this place is different," said the Dane. "That they haven't spoiled it, which is a great achievement when you think of what might have been done in the name of progress."

Events this weekend and tomorrow will embellish the St Andrews mystique and its unique place in golfing lore. Yet in quieter moments, players will insist that there's much, much more to it than simple tradition. It remains a seriously searching test of skill and temperament. "Whenever I played here, I found I had to concentrate much harder than on a lot of other courses," said Des Smyth, who is working as an on-course commentator.

"Being out there this week, I can see the additional challenge of hitting approach shots off sand-filled divots, where the ball can go anywhere if you're not careful. You have to play smart, knowing that a visit to one of those bunkers is going to cost you a shot, maybe more. "

He concluded: "To be able to say that I was part of winning something at St Andrews, like I did in the 1988 Dunhill Cup, remains one of the highlights of my career. Simply because it was here."

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