In 1123 when King David gave the links land to St Andrews council, as common land for the townspeople, little did he realise the profound effect this gesture would ultimately have not only on the town of St Andrews but throughout the world generally. Golf has now been played there for over six centuries and the Old Course is recognised throughout the world as the Home of Golf. By the middle of the 19th century the game played an important part in the economy of the town as many of the inhabitants relied on it for their livelihood becoming caddies, ball makers or club makers.
The St Andrews links originally consisted of 22-holes, eleven out and eleven back, with golfers playing to the same hole on their outward journey as on the return, apart from holes 11 and 22. In 1764 twenty-two golfers, from the county of Fife, founded the Society of St Andrews Golfers and this later became the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews under the patronage of King William IV. They decided that the first four holes, and therefore also the last four, were too short and reduced them to two. The course then consisted of 18-holes and that was how today’s standard round came into being.
Thirty-three years later the financially embarrassed St Andrews council sold the links to a local merchant for £805 (circa £80,000 in today’s money) who, to the horror of the townsfolk, promptly turned it into a rabbit farm. There followed more than twenty years of fighting, both legal and physical, between the rabbit farmers and the golfers which only came to a conclusion when a local landowner, but more importantly and avid golfer, James Cheape bought the links in 1821 and returned it to its original use. They remained in the ownership of his family until 1894 when they were purchased by the Royal & Ancient for the princely sum of £5,000 (circa £450,000 in today’s money).
By 1850, with the game gaining in popularity, the course was constantly crowded resulting in those playing the outward nine meeting golfers coming in the opposite direction with both playing to the same hole! Hard to imagine isn’t it? Cutting two holes on each green, with white flags denoting the outward holes and red the inward, solved the problem and created the huge double greens, some measuring over 4,000 square metres, which remain a feature of St Andrews to this day.
Originally the course was played in a clockwise direction but when Old Tom Morris created a separate green for the first hole in 1896 it became possible to play it anticlockwise. For many years both directions were used, on alternate weeks, until the anticlockwise direction used today became the norm
Apart from a bit of tweaking by Daw Anderson in the 1850s and a new 18th green by Old Tom Morris towards the end of that century Mother Nature has been the main designer of this most famous of courses. In 2005 Peter Dawson, the then Chief Executive of the R&A, announced that changes were being made in time of that year’s Open Championship. “We are not trying to change the character of the course – we just want to reinstate the old decisions players had to make,” he explained adding, “We are restoring rather than changing it.
Modern equipment has led to many of the Old Course hazards being taken out of play but, because of history, moving hazards is not an option. You cannot move a bunker here or there on the Old Course and all that leaves is to move the tees. Despite changing five tees the yardage of the course was only increased by 164-yards. Since then a further 26-yards have been added. Totally insignificant when compared with changes made to other major golfing venues.
St Andrews held its first Open in 1873 and the alterations made over the passing centuries have been so minimal I reckon Old Tom Morris would have little difficulty in recognising his beloved links.