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St Andrews - The Old Course

In golf, as in life, there is a reason for everything. And, for once, we're not talking money. Usually, we're talking about St. Andrews.

Ask yourself a couple of questions.

Why does a round of golf consist of 18 holes?

Because that's how many there are on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Why is links golf called the "traditional" form of the game?

Because that's the way the game is played at St. Andrews.

Which is why the "auld grey toon" is recognised worldwide as the Home of Golf.

Everyone who comes to Scotland to play golf - for the first time anyway - wants to tee up on the Old Course. Indeed, it can be argued that you haven't played proper golf until you have savoured the eccentric and varied delights of the ultimate links.

That said, the golf at St. Andrews isn't everyone's cup of char. In spite of its venerable age - which in most societies brings with it a certain respect - the quality or otherwise of the Old Course provokes an enormous range of opinion. In golf, mere seniority is no guarantee of deference.

Take Scott Hoch. The American, a multi-winner on the US circuit, calls the Old Course, "the worst piece of mess I have ever seen." And there are many others lining up to tell you how "unfair," "antiquated" or "obsolete" the place is.

On the other side of the St. Andrews divide stand the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Tom Watson. All three are unabashed lovers of the place and its idiosyncrasies. All three have been known to wax lyrical about the peerless challenges and unique atmosphere presented by the Old Course.

So it depends who you talk to.

"I love St. Andrews," says Woods, who last summer strolled to an eight-shot victory in the Open Championship over the humps and hollows of the Old Course. "The conditions vary so dramatically and you have so many options with almost every shot.

"In the U.S. it is exact numbers. At St. Andrews you can play from 140 yards with a 5-iron or a 7-iron; you can even putt it if you want to. That's one of the beauties of links golf, it gives you so many options.

"I loved The Old Course the first time I saw it. I played there first in the '95 Open. I remember Ernie Els having about a 50-yard putt on one hole. He actually used a wedge because he had to play across the corner of a bunker."

Of course, it is just that sort of shot which provokes some of the rage and temper tantrums among those for whom links golf is demonstrably unfair. In the 1921 Open the young Bobby Jones tore up his card on the 11th green, so upset was he by his inability to cope with the course and the wind. Years later Jones was memorably to say that he could remove everything from his life except his experiences at St. Andrews and still be left with a rich, full existence. So the place can grow on you.

"I don't think that young golfers are brought up to realise that golf is a game played on the ground," points out Sir Michael Bonallack, five times a British Amateur champion and a past secretary and captain of the R&A.

"They play all their golf in the air. Watered fairways. Watered greens. They know the ball will always stop where it lands.

"The Old Course isn't like that. It's all about hitting your ball to the right place and the obvious place isn't always the right place. You always have to work out the best strategy for each hole. It all depends on where the wind is, where the flag is, where the tee is.

"It doesn't need rough. The wind, the pin placements and the speed of the greens offer protection. And you have to play every type of shot over the course of 18 holes.

"There are those who say that hitting into one of the pot bunkers and finding an impossible lie is unfair. But it is no worse than hitting into a water hazard on an American course. It's pretty unplayable if you go into one of those things."

The other side of Bonallack's argument is personified by Hoch. The American has, in his defence, never wavered from his extreme point of view whenever the subject of the Old Course is raised.

"I'm one fourth Scottish, so I have nothing against the country," he points out. "But when you stand on a tee on the Old Course, you have no idea where to hit it. You have no idea visually. You have to play it four or five times, to have any clue.

"You can always go long and left. But I'm not long and I'm not into hitting left.

"If you stand on the greens and look back, everything is right there in front of you. That's the way that course is supposed to be played - backwards. Everything makes sense when you find out that the course is backwards to its original design.

"The way it is now nothing is visible. I'm also not one for hitting shots that could be six inches one way or the other so that you have hit either a great shot or a disastrous one. You can have balls hit in the same place and go off in two different directions.

"The greens are fine. And the pin positions aren't unfair. But I don't care for the design. I'm just too spoiled and too old to change my ways." That Hoch is not alone is not in doubt. But he is, according to European Tour pro Greg Turner, himself a fledgling course designer, missing the point.

"Those who loathe St. Andrews, do so because they don't understand it," he feels. "In no other sport is there one venue with the same level of significance. Every golf course in the world owes its origins to St. Andrews. All of the doyens of golf course architecture have used St. Andrews as their blueprint. Augusta National is a perfect example.

"They looked at the challenges the Old Course provided and tried to replicate those on whatever piece of land they were working on. The Old Course is literally the heart and soul of the game as we know it.

"The greatest attribute it has is that the more you play it, the more interesting and varied it becomes. With most golf courses, the opposite is true.

"One of the things we should fight in golf is the attitude that poor shots should be penalized and good shots rewarded on a shot-by-shot basis. The Old Course does that over a period of time, but it gets there in quirky ways. It rewards the better players by virtue of the fact that it is difficult to control the outcome of shots. So it tests all of your game and all of your temperament and all of your golfing intelligence. No matter how precise you are."

Turner, then, is one who looks upon the Old Course with something of an academic detachment. But for others, like Seve Ballesteros, it is more of an emotional experience.

"The golf course is different from any other," says the Spaniard, who won the 1984 Open at St. Andrews. "The first impression is always that you don't like it. It is ugly. But as you play you understand why the trouble is where it is. The wind is a big factor. The double greens, the slopes, the 17th, the last hole. It is a very special place.

"You need to play it a lot to understand why it is the way it is. Every single bunker, sooner or later, is in play. It is like a painting, an El Greco or a Picasso. It is a masterpiece."

So there you have it. Go to St. Andrews and make up your own mind. Whatever opinion you form, at least at the end of the round you'll be able to call yourself a "real" golfer - one who has worshipped in the cathedral of the game.