In Depth: Old Course stands the test of time

BENEATH the history and traditions, it’s important to remember there lies a world-class golf course that stands the test of time.

THE opportunity to watch the world's best players tackle the game's most intriguing golf course is a treat for anyone with an interest in golf course architecture.

This year's Open Championship was, as always, a fascinating spectacle of modern player versus the game's history and the Old Course again delivered a great spectacle.

While the modern golf ball and other equipment advances have made the length of the course less than might be desirable to test the game's top players, every other feature that makes the place great was on full display.

From the clear thinking required to avoid big numbers (Adam Scott driving out of bounds on the 72nd hole when trying desperately to make an eagle) to the precise execution required to score well (Adam Scott again, hitting into the back bunker on the 14th and making a tournament ending bogey) the Old Course still has it all.

In the modern era we've become accustomed to seeing the Old Course every five years when The Open is played there but the history of the course is so integral to the game as a whole that it can't be ignored.

No-one really knows when golf first started at St. Andrews though many believe that some time around the 12th century the game evolved from shepherds knocking stones into rabbit holes using, what it can only be imagined, were pretty rudimentary clubs.

Adam Scott Jul 21

From there the game grew in popularity to the point where in 1457 King James II outlawed golf because it was too much of a distraction for the men who should have been practising their archery (NB: the ban was eventually lifted around 50 years later by King James IV – a keen golfer himself).

By 1754, some 300 years later, the course consisted of 12 holes – 10 of which were played twice making a round of 22 holes.

But in 1764 it was decided the course would play better if the first four holes were converted to two and so the 18 hole round was born.

By 1857 the greens through the middle of the property had a second hole added and the course we know today was created – 18 individual holes with 8 ‘double’ greens.

In 1865 one of the game's most influential figures, Old Tom Morris – club-maker, green-keeper, professional and Open champion – returned to St. Andrews from his position at Prestwick

During the next 30 odd years Old Tom oversaw the last of the key changes to the course including widening of fairways, building new first and 18th greens and the creation of formal teeing areas.

A final, but most interesting change, also occurred around this time to the way the course was played. Originally, the holes were played as a left hand loop so from the first tee golfers would play to the 17th green, then to the 16th green and so on.

The right loop, which is the one we know today, was also regularly used and ultimately was the preferred order but not before a long period of playing both courses.

(Tiger Woods said during his pre-tournament press conference that one of his bucket list things to do is to play the Old Course backwards. “I’ve always wanted to play it backwards, one time before I die,” he said. “I want to play from 1 to 17, 2 to 16, so forth and so on. That one day would be a lot of fun to be able to do.”)

Some of the bunkers around the course, which may not be visible or in play for today’s layout, start to make sense when you consider how they influence play using the left or clockwise loop.

For the next 150 years or so the course remained essentially unchanged apart from some extra tees being built to combat both the length modern players hit the ball and some advances in turf and bunker maintenance.

Mackenzie Drawing

In 2012 the R&A decided to do some ‘tweaking’ to the world's most famous layout – something which the golfing world was largely up in arms over.

The softening of some green slopes, such as on the par-3 11th, may just be correcting some of the changes which top-dressing and wind blown sand have had over the years but altering parts of the course like bunker positioning (on the second) or feature contours (the fairway at the 7th and the Road Hole Bunker at the 17th) were seen as vandalism of a museum piece.

For all its fans not everyone is enamoured by the home of golf. Frequently, visitors wonder what all the fuss is about as they stare across the bleak, crumpled landscape wedged between town and the firth of forth.

Even many professionals, while publicly praising the course out of respect, would rather be somewhere a little more predictable….and warmer!

Sam Snead was famously underwhelmed when he arrived ahead of the 1946 event (which he won) and commented to a fellow traveller as the train pulled into St. Andrews station that the Open venue looks more ‘like an old abandoned golf course’.

In modern terms the Old Course is fairly generous off the tee and perhaps its greatest feature is the infinite number of ways there are to play each hole with no one route necessarily being the right or wrong one.

Every line has a degree of risk and the more you are prepared to take on, the slightly easier your approach becomes.

The crumpled ground and scattering of pot bunkers can make for some confounding decisions – made more so because not all the hazards are immediately obvious.

It takes multiple visits before you really start to understand exactly where they are and what consequences they bring. And then of course this all changes again as the pin moves or the wind turns.

One of the finest examples of this comes at the par-5 14th, ‘Long’, which Alister Mackenzie would sketch in his seminal book on golf course design – The Spirit of St. Andrews.

Off the tee the boundary line protrudes slightly so that in a favourable wind the best line is over the edge of the wall.


A group of bunkers, known as ‘the Beardies’, guards the more conservative route away from the wall and these become particularly threatening if the wind is against you (as it frequently is on the closing stretch heading back toward town).

As witnessed in this year’s Open, with the wind slightly hurting most days, carrying ‘Hell’ becomes an issue. (‘Hell’ is a fearsome hazard – the deepest bunker on the property with a 10 or 12ft vertical lip that sometimes renders a recovery impossible – let alone reaching the green.)

So what to do? Layup short, which leaves a very long 3rd into a difficult plateau green, or perhaps play down the adjacent fairway (the other par five, the 5th) to gain the slight advantage of a shorter approach? (This is the route Adam Scott chose when leading in the final round and it was his third shot, which flew long into a back bunker and led to a bogey, that killed his momentum and ultimately his tilt at the title.)

A day later and the wind shifts resulting in a whole new set of challenges, perhaps ‘Hell’ can be carried today?

The wind is obviously a major defense of the course and like many ‘out and back’ links it can create disparity to the round with one nine playing significantly shorter than the next (though not always easier).

The wind brings into play the dips and hummocks which front most greens and players must skillfully flight their ball and determine how these contours will take effect. This is the joy of links golf and it’s something we see little of in this country.

Sometimes putting from off the green is the most sensible way to deal with this issue and, whilst not so apparent this year as the course has been a little greener, we saw plenty of this in the 2005 Open when the ground was firm and dry.

That year, putting was common even from 30, 50, or 70 metres off some greens.

With the greens being so large, hitting the cut surface is not especially difficult – although hitting it close is a different story.

Long putts, often well over 100ft, are common as are three and even four putts. But the greens aren’t all huge and wildly undulating.

There is terrific variation to the green complexes, from the almost pancake flat 9th through to the amazingly contoured 2nd.

2nd Green

The Old Course is anything but flat, with most holes laid out across beautifully crumpled ground featuring dips, hollows, ridges and dykes that influence the play.

These smaller contours may not make for dramatic looking holes but they’re perhaps more interesting than something larger in scale.

Exceedingly difficult to convincingly build, it’s these little dips and ridges that help make the holes play differently almost every day by nudging the ball this way or that and leaving golfers with any number of different stances to adapt to.

As architects we often look to The Old Course as a source of both inspiration and evidence that some ‘non-conventional’ design traits clearly work, having existed for so long without issue.

Blind shots, cross-over holes, common fairways in tight corridors, extreme greens (2, 17), incredibly deep bunkers (Hell, Strath, Road) and in an age where four par 5’s and four par 3’s is considered normal the Old Course has just two of each.

Great courses invariably need to have great holes and The Old course has its share, many of which are unique to golf.

Of course there’s the road hole, which might be the best 4 ½ par hole in the world, but less famous holes like the 2nd (with its amazingly contoured putting surface) or the 4th with that fantastic little knob which defends the green from any running approach, are also exceptional.

But the real strength of the course lies in its closing stretch of holes from the par three 11th and underpinned by the likes of the 12th, 14th, 16th, 17th and, of course, the brilliant closing hole.

The 18th is a wonderful example of an outstanding short, bunker-less par four with the only hazard of note being a hollow. But what a hollow the ‘Valley of Sin’ is, guarding the front left of the green.

What amazes me most about The Old Course is that it was ‘designed’ long before anyone had thought much about golf course design.

Most of the holes just evolved and three centuries later they have barely changed. And yet it is still perhaps the most strategic golf course in the world.


Mike Cocking

Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website

Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.

After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.

Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship.  Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses. 

His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer.  Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.

Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website. 

Mike can be followed on Twitter: @OCCMGolf and @MikeCocking 


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