St Andrews, Scotland: I arrived yesterday from the blistering London heat to the cool, misty coastline of St. Andrews (where the Open Championship will be played this week). The winds are calm by comparison to the ominous gray skies. Having arranged a game with several close friends at the wonderful Kyle Phillips creation – Kings Barnes – I was looking forward to both my play and their thoughts about their first experience of playing links golf. I still vividly remember mine when I arrived at Carnoustie to play in the 1975 Open Championship, just four years into my professional career.
That first ‘linksland’ experience was not actually at Carnoustie, but at a neighboring course, Monifieth Golf Club, as John Mahaffey, Hubert Green (my housemates that week) and I discovered we couldn’t play the Championship course the day we arrived as it was reserved for the qualifiers only, not the exempt players, namely us. We took it in stride and proceeded to Monifieth GC, arranged for some caddies and walked to the first tee. Looking for the first fairway over the sea of dusty brown moguls, I asked my caddy for some direction. He gave me the line of play, and I succeeded to hit my first ever links course tee shot right where he directed. We found John and Hubert’s drives easily, but after looking for my ball for quite a while, very puzzled, we abandoned it for lost and just played another from the middle of the fairway where I thought it should have ended up. Not wanting to give it up for lost, I made one last attempt to find my ball and there it was — 60 yards left on a 45 degree angle from where it had landed in the fairway, hidden in a small pot bunker.
THIS was my very first impression of links golf…and understandably it didn’t sit too well with me…hitting a shot exactly where it was supposed to be hit and having it end up dead.
This is what I thought of links golf for the next few years: that it was grossly unfair. I didn’t like the fact you couldn’t easily control the ball’s quirky bounces or how far it rolled out. I grew up with the softer and flatter American golf courses where one could quickly stop the ball and thus control its distance and direction. Links golf was anything but this…the ball sometimes rolling well over a hundred yards…and in awkward directions. I thought this way even as I won two Open championships – that very first year at Carnoustie and again in 1977 at Turnberry.
Then at Lytham St. Annes in 1979 after a particularly struggling first round, complaining to myself about the unfairness of the course, I finally came to realize that if I continued with this mindset concerning the nature of links golf, I would live a very unhappy life on these courses. So I consciously changed my attitude during the second round. Rather than fight it or complain about it, I thought to myself, “Understand the uncertain outcomeof a shot is an integral part of links golf…ACCEPT IT and carry on!” It was then and there I rekindled the golfing memories of my childhood and the true nature of how I had to play the game when I hit the ball so short. Back then, I could only run the ball onto all the greens. This is essentially the way you have to play links golf…. running the ball and taking your chances on the bounce. In the truest of senses, I had come full circle in my golfing life on that day at Lytham St. Annes.
Playing Kings Barnes with its butte-like dunes and its large contoured greens yesterday was again a real pleasure. Kings Barnes is probably the most visually pleasing of any links course in the UK, as almost every hole has a view of the sea. Yesterday was a day one thinks of when playing golf on the links, as a light rain and decent wind on the outgoing nine provided a rude awakening to the travelers who had arrived on their overnight flight that morning from the U.S. tired and stiff. Thanks to some great caddies, we survived the course with few lost balls, as the course won the battle early as we all struggled with its variety of challenges, not the least of which was the rain. The rain stopped and the winds calmed for our incoming nine as the travels had tired our bodies but not our spirits, the course remaining steadfast in its test and easily remaining the victor.
On the 18th, a difficult hole played over a treacherous deep burn, the joy of finishing was obvious for the depleted travelers as they all had been thoroughly humbled by the links and its weather. After a good meal at the local pub and some well deserved sleep this morning they all were ready to do battle with the links again, forgetting how humbled they were yesterday. They will eventually get it. It won’t take them long, I sense.
And today the winds blow here at St. Andrews, possibly the precursor of a difficult week at the most historically significant place in golf, as I again will go out to ACCEPT what the Old Course has to offer with its bounces, wind, and huge greens, expecting the unexpected and the struggles and I hope small victories which go with its timeless challenge.