St. Andrews Not What She Used to Be?

Ross Fisher Breaks the Course Record at Old Course of St. Andrews

I’ve always dreamed of going back to that country course in Washington State that seemed so long when I was a kid. When I was in my prime, I knew that if I could go back, I would murder that piece of acreage, at least in terms of distance. Unfortunately, I lived in a different part of the world then. Now, I’m in the area, but much older. Still, I believe that I could give Mt. Adams a better time than I did then. I wonder if I could drive that #1 par 4 today. Back then, I barely reached the gully 70 or 80 yards out. However, if I were to tame my wonderful childhood memories there, how would I really feel about it later? Maybe it would lose its luster. On a much bigger scale, think of what the greats must feel about the vintage courses of Britain, particularly Scotland. Think of the Old Course at St. Andrews being historically humbled.

It happened last week, and then some, at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Ross Fisher didn’t win the tournament, but he won the battle of the ages against the 260-year old gladiator of golf venues. He not only shot an 18 hole score of 61, but three-putted the final hole to do it. It could have been even worse. In a related round, Tommy Fleetwood rendered the same indignity to Carnoustie with a 63. It must have been more poignant for those who used to win major tournaments at places like St. Andrews. Gary Player issued a statement that was congratulatory, but bittersweet. He professed being “delighted for the players,” but took a moment to assess the humbling of a generally invincible course over the centuries. For him, it was “sad to see the Old Course at St. Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball and equipment.
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Certainly, the equipment has a lot to do with it. The pros have played insanely high level golf in every era of the 20th and 21st centuries, but I recall the days when a 240 to 260 yard drive wasn’t all that bad. Three hundred was unheard of until I was well out of school. St. Andrews has everything else required for difficulty, except for distance in the modern area. It has difficult lies, easily lost shots, bunkers galore, and a coastal wind that can be ferocious. As one chat room member remarked after the Fisher record, St. Andrews’ “only defense is the wind.” Imagine trying to play her with hickory shafts and the “guttie” ball. Imagine even playing her with good 1980s equipment that still made use of strong wood and unwieldy irons. I’m not sure what the Scots can do with the grand old course, other than make the lies even more difficult and keep adding bunkers around the pin – or rev the wind up if it’s possible. Not intimately acquainted with the specs of the course, I’m not sure where the tees could be backed up. Perhaps an island green in the sea.

Yes, if I went back to dear Mt. Adams, I’ll bet I could turn the tables on the distance, but I can’t promise that I would score any better. I would still hit out in the cornfield on #2 and #3. The putting would be just as difficult as it used to be. So, in the end, my old course would retain the victory. The Old Course at St. Andrews may retain the same victory, except that she is dealing with top professionals. I doubt that the course record will be beaten with regularity, anymore than I will own my piece of golfing real estate. It will still be the Old Course, the one that started it all centuries ago. Mt. Adams will be my Old Course, the one that started it all decades ago.
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