Wednesday 18 September 2019

Timeless charm of divine St Andrews keeping it at heart of modern game

The dreaded St Andrews bunkers continue to flummox fine players. Photo: Reuters
The dreaded St Andrews bunkers continue to flummox fine players. Photo: Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

On capturing the Open Championship for a fourth time in 1957, Bobby Locke felt moved to acknowledge the splendour of his surroundings. "Scots consider the Old Course to be the only one made by God," he said, "the rest being man-made."

This charming notion gained fresh relevance last Sunday when, in its uniquely timeless manner, St Andrews repelled the latest assault from tournament professionals. England's Ross Fisher needed two birdies from the last three holes to card the first 59 there, but you sensed he wasn't going to do it: in fact he shot 61.

On a day of remarkably low scoring, not least by defending champion Tyrrell Hatton, there were only two birdies on the stubbornly terrifying 17th. Yet conditions couldn't have been more benign.

There's a special feel to October at St Andrews, which I enjoyed on numerous occasions in the sadly departed Dunhill Cup. That was when the stretch of six holes, from the seventh to the 12th, succumbed to serious scoring onslaughts, most notably with six successive birdies - 3, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3 - from Curtis Strange in 1987. Yet the best he could manage overall was 62.

At the end of a Major season in which Rory McIlroy, in the Masters, and Jordan Spieth, in the PGA, failed to complete the career Grand Slam, it is interesting that the last time this deed was done was at St Andrews in 2000. It was when Tiger Woods, over the four rounds, managed to avoid all of the 128 bunkers - those dreaded hazards humorously described as just big enough to accommodate an angry man and his wedge.

But only a month after a sensational US Open triumph at Pebble Beach, Woods did quite a lot more, at the tender age of 24 years, six months and 24 days. Over those combined 144 holes of superb golf terrain, he bogeyed only nine, six of them at Pebble and the other three at St Andrews. In the process, he three-putted only three greens, all of them on the Old Course, where he compiled a total of 22 birdies.

Yet the achievement that's best remembered was staying clear of the St Andrews traps, which are the most celebrated and notorious in the game. This is especially ironic given that the player himself put it down essentially to good fortune.

At a distance of about 310 yards off the tee, the fairway on the 10th hole at St Andrews narrows between the Kruger Bunker on the right and whins on the left. There, having passed the half-way point of his final round in the 2000 Open, Woods got lucky.

"If you watch a video of the Championship, you will see how I hit my ball straight right, where it took one hop short of that bunker," he later recalled with remarkable candour. "Then it took another hop over the bunker. It was something that shouldn't have happened. The ball should have been in the sand because I can't carry that bunker in normal conditions." In the event, he drove the green, 379 yards away, and two-putted from 80 feet for an improbable birdie.

At 83 acres, the Old Course wouldn't be considered spacious enough for even a strong club course these days, emphasising the quality of the layout and why everything about it is so revered. Like all of the bunkers being named, which was brought to our attention last Sunday when on the 15th tee, Hatton audibly sought reassurance from his caddie that he had only one pot bunker to be concerned about down the left. This was the famous Sutherland Bunker, named after a Royal and Ancient member whose profound passion for the game caused him to become golf's first gallery marshal. Sutherland follows the ominous Coffins on 13 and Hell, on the long 14th.

On a personal level, no other golfing venue has given me so much joy and spectacle over the years, most notably in October 1988 when, against the odds, Ireland's Eamonn Darcy, Des Smyth and Ronan Rafferty beat the best players in the world to capture the Dunhill Cup. It was made all the more memorable when Smyth, in a chance remark, later observed to me: "Only on seeing tears streaming down your face did I realise we'd done something really special."

And the fun. Like the occasion pre-Dunhill Cup when John O'Reilly, Smyth's caddie at the time, bet £5 that he would buy himself a drink in the Members' Bar of the R&A clubhouse. Impossible? South Africa's Hugh Baiocchi clearly thought so when gladly proffering the fiver.

With a group of tournament players and fellow caddies watching, O'Reilly headed from the locker-room, where he had full access, to the Members' Bar, where he most certainly did not. On being stopped predictably at the door, the grizzled Dubliner waved a watch about, insisting he had to return to it to Smyth, his employer.

"Sorry sir. Canna do that," insisted the doorman, even after being informed it was a valuable Rolex, which it clearly wasn't. "But if anything happens to this watch, I'll be sacked," he pleaded. At this, the doorman wavered fatally and when it was followed up with "Oh look! There he is!" the caddie had his opening.

Before the bemused doorman realised what was happening, O'Reilly darted past him and straight for an unattended glass of beer on a table. As he recalled: "I picked it up and went straight over to the window so that Baiocchi and my friends could see me. I was in the act of saluting them outside with the glass when I felt this hand on my shoulder. It belonged to Keith MacKenzie [then secretary of the R&A]."

"What the hell are you doing in here?" the voice thundered, as only MacKenzie could thunder. Whereupon O'Reilly was unceremoniously frogmarched back whence he came. On arriving outside, however, he was greeted like a conquering hero to resounding cheers from admiring players and caddies alike.

As he put it: "My mission had been accomplished. It was the sweetest fiver I ever earned."

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