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All Aboard for St. Andrews!

By John M. Ross,
Old Course at St. Andrews - Swilcan Bridge
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The British Open - and Tiger Woods - visit the Old Course this year. (Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

"What are they giving away at St. Andrews this year?" a travel agent friend asked recently. He knew about the upcoming British Open, scheduled for the Old Course, and he waved that aside.

"Do you think it's that Tiger Woods who's stirring things up," he wondered.

Undoubtedly, Tiger had to be a factor. After the manner in which he ran roughshod over the fearsome Pebble Beach track in winning the U.S. Open last month, the air has been heavy with anticipation as to what he will do to the historic Scottish course.

Much of this has been pumped up substantially by the handicappers and soothsayers who profess to know how the young phenomenon will play each hole of the ancient links course. And, apparently, many will make the trip across the pond to see this happen "live and in full color," as they would say on TV.

The attraction of Woods and the British Open aside, the traffic to St. Andrews has been booming for the last several years, and the little university town has been struggling valiantly to expand accommodations. For many golfers this is the trip to Mecca, and with the healthy world economy, longer vacations and earlier retirement, for many the dream has become a reality. And as the influx continues to grow, new hotels and extensions to others, expanded golf facilities and the like, are causing the so-called "Home of Golf," the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, to look less ancient.

The rush to play over this hallowed ground, where the game has existed for over half a millennium, is so great that the reservation book has a waiting list of almost five years. Happily, half the tee times are awarded on a daily basis. Golfers must place their ballots in the request box by 2 p.m. of the day prior to the requested tee time. At 4 p.m., the box is opened and the lucky players are chosen on a first-come basis. The odds on getting a spot are about one in twelve during the season, a little better between November and March.

Incidentally, the greens fees for the Old Course, like everything else, have been soaring. In the Seventies, the fee was just under the local equivalent of $3. The current cost is about $135 - still a pittance compared to the $325 fee at our Pebble Beach Golf Links - when you can get on.

I have yet to meet a golfer who didn't gush all over the place upon his return from St. Andrews. I think I did, too. It isn't as beautiful as Augusta National, with its abundance of dogwood, azalea and magnolia backed by stately pine. Nor does it have the picturesque, postcard quality of Pebble Beach. But the minute you set foot on the old course there is a sudden emotional surge as you sniff the fresh breeze from the Firth of Forth and absorb the familiar landmarks - the stately gray stone R & A clubhouse, old Tom Morris' pro shop, the storied Road Hole, the bronze plaque to Bobby Jones at No. 10, the Hell Bunker. It takes a while to calm the Goosebumps.

You want to go back to St. Andrews again and again - especially to get another crack at the course. It doesn't seem menacing. There are no trees, and the challenge is clearly stated. But the minute you put that peg in the ground and the breeze begins to blow, it becomes tantalizing.

In addition to the Old Course, there are three other courses of quality all in the same complex and operated by the St. Andrews Links Trust. The New Course, designed by Old Tom Morris, himself, the Eden, and the Jubilee take some of the pressure off the demand for the Old Course, but they are also in heavy use during the high season.

The latest effort to respond to the surge of golfers to St. Andrews is the brand-new Kingsbarns Golf Links, and some say it is the most challenging Scottish course to come along since Turnberry was rebuilt after World War II. Located six miles south of St. Andrews on land where they say golf was played as early as 1793, Kingsbarns replaces a nine-hole course that was built in 1815. When World War II hit England, the Defense Ministry had to take over the course and the nearby beach for military training purposes.

Designer Kyle Phillips, who formerly worked for Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and specializes in seaside courses, has drawn high praise for his efforts at Kingsbarns. Sir Michael Bonallack, one-time British amateur kingpin and now the Captain of R&A, hailed it with" "Extraordinary. It must be seen to be believed."

It's such an excellent test that many think it eventually will be included in the rotation of championship courses for the British Open.

This will be the 26th time the Old Course has played host to the Championship - the last being in 1995, when John Daly stunned the golf world with a dramatic playoff victory over Italy's Constantino Rocca. Daly will be on hand to defend his title in what the Brits are calling the Millennium Open, but they may not see the same John Daly who took home the Claret Jug the last time.

Daly's personal life has been out of control and his game plunging downhill for the past five years. His most recent disaster came in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where for the second year in a row he picked up and went home after blowing himself out of contention. Anyone looking for a showdown on the Old Course between two of the longest hitters in the game could be disappointed. They could see only the Tiger making a run at it.

They've lengthened the Old Course by 161 yards by repositioning the tees of five par-4 holes, and the course will now play at 7,115 yards, par 72. Last time, Daly had 282 and didn't really tear up the place with his length Not many do. The best Open score at St. Andrews over the years has been Nick Faldo's 270 in 1990. Jack Nicklaus won twice on the Old Course, in 1970 and 1977, recording 283 and 281, respectively.

Of course, length off the tee is an advantage, but it's not the key to winning. Tiger can hit it past all the obvious trouble without straining. But with only two par-5s and two par-3s on the layout, the shorter hitters get some help. Links courses look benign on a calm day. But once the tide turns and the wind comes off the sea, its character changes totally.

After his spectacular showing at Pebble Beach, where he left the field in the distance, many think he does everything so well that even the schizophrenic links course can't hold him back. He hasn't played very many of these, and at the Old Course he'll not only have to cope with the ever-changing winds but with enormously deep pot bunkers, sand-based fairways, and heavy gorse rough everywhere.

This could be the Tiger Test of the year.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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