Date: July 14, 2015
Author: Mike Clayton, St Andrews

Mike Clayton: Thank the Scots

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Golf was unsurprisingly invented in Scotland because hitting a ball with a stick across the broken crumpled dune land linking the sea to the farmland beyond made perfect sense. With no equipment capable of moving soil in any great amounts the early golfers played across the ground as it was, making uneven lies, blind shots and hazards in the direct line to the hole a part of the fabric of the game.

Mostly too they played matches against each other eschewing the need to count every single stroke they took. ‘Golf is much more fun when you don’t have to score – we do it because we have to but I’m not sure why people find the need to count all their shots every time they play – its not really what the game is about’ said Geoff Ogilvy yesterday as we walked the Old Course at St Andrews.

Arriving in Scotland on Sunday morning I watched some of the final day of the Scottish Open at Gullane and walked Muirfeld and North Berwick, two incredible but utterly different courses just up the road from Gullane.

Anything more than an unthinking or rudimentary study of these amazing courses will show off to the golfer just how far golf around the world has strayed from its Scottish roots and how many of the original concepts have been distorted.

Inevitably of course the game would change as it moved inland from the idyll of the seaside and no doubt there are many brilliant inland golf courses all over the world. What changed was the introduction of the concept of ‘fairness’ and the idea formulated primarily by Americans and adopted largely by Australians (and most others) you had to be able to see where you were going. The notion of the ‘blind shot’ was seen as somehow silly, poor design and something to be avoided by golf course architects at all costs.

Bunkers in the middle of the fairways came to be viewed as ridiculous hazards catching ‘perfect drives’.  If the measure of a perfect shot is its position in relation to the one following how could a drive into a deep and penal bunker possibly be seen as ‘perfect’?

That two players could hit almost the same shot and come up with two quite different results was seen also as being unfair and the result has been a sanitization the original game. Architectural quirk, the luck of the bounce and multiple ways of playing a shot and a hole make the game unpredictable offending the ‘predictable’ crowd.

The most important lesson of the Old Course is surely the game isn’t fair and it’s why it is not only the most important course in the game but arguably its best. And, if it’s not the best it’s at least in the final. Jack Nicklaus once answered a reporter sympathizing with him over a particularly bad bounce and the unfairness of it by saying ‘yes, it was unfair – but the game isn’t supposed to be fair.’ How you deal with the unfairness is surely golf’s greatest mental challenge.

The most worn out modern cliché of them all is the course ‘should be playable for all standards of players.’  It’s at the head of every marketing document sprouting every new course to ensure the attraction of investors and new members.

St Andrews might be the most playable of them all but try building an opening hole in this age with a stream right across the front of the first green and where having to carry across it is unavoidable.

Imagine trying the sell the principle of a course with any number of bunkers strewn randomly across the landscape, many of which are blind and from which escape by a less than competent players is all but impossible. At St Andrews, Muirfield and North Berwick it’s all a part of the game.

There are many enormous greens at Muirfeld and North Berwick running fifty paces from front to back but at St Andrews you can be forty meters short of the 5th green and still have 120 meters to go to reach the hole.

At North Berwick’s 13th hole players have to pitch the second shot across and ancient stone wall built long before the 1832-dated course. Two holes later comes The Redan, a blind par three and a hole to spawn hundreds of imitations all over the world. The critics of the wonderful blind 17th hole at Kingston Heath should spend a few minutes contemplating The Redan and perhaps reassess their ideas.

At Muirfield, seen as perhaps the ‘fairest’ of all Open courses, there are deep and fearsome bunkers well short of several of the greens and directly across the route to the hole. In many cases they don’t affect the better players unless they drive into trouble but in this age hazards only affecting the poor players are seen and bad hazards. Few see them as things making the game interesting for all players. Why must the hazards only be placed for the good player?

St Andrews though is always the most interesting place to watch the game being played and championships held in what is as much a university town as a golf town are the best of them all. All who watch this week, whether live or on the television, should thank the Scots for what gave us and next time something unfair happens thank them for understanding how to the make the game the most interesting of them all.