How the Old Course Came to Be

While the “Old Lady” we know today is about 125 years old, her bones can be traced back six centuries

The Old Course is a marvel. Not only has golf been played over it for close to 600 years, but generations of golf architects have used it as the template for courses everywhere. Like many marvels, however, its charms are not revealed all at once but discovered gradually over time. No dramatic dunes here, no captivating views of the sea, but a complex, tumbling landscape transformed by the hand of Old Tom Morris into a strategic masterpiece that continues to captivate golfers of all abilities.

To understand the Old Course it’s useful to know how it has evolved. In the beginning, perhaps as early as 1400, a handful of Scots dug a series of holes in ground unsuitable for agricultural use. The holes, hundreds of yards apart, were sunk in different locations each season and used the existing mounds, bushes, and sandy areas to provide challenge and interest. Over time, specific hole locations came to be used permanently, not only because they proved to be the most difficult but because they called for imagination and inventiveness. These hole positions were changed only when wear and tear caused difficulties in holing out.

There were no greens as we know them, and no teeing areas. Play began within two club-lengths of the hole and proceeded to the next over ground little prepared for play. Prior to 1764, a “round” began about where Auchterlonie’s Golf Shop stands, about a block into the town from the 18th green, and proceeded across the Swilcan Burn, continuing into the linksland as far as the Eden Estuary, before looping back like the top of a shepherd’s crook. In all, 12 holes were made.

Old Course came
(photo by Getty Images)

When players reached the last hole, they turned around and came home, playing to the same holes but now from the opposite direction. Ten holes were played to twice, with the first and last played only once, creating a round of 22 holes; in 1763, the first four holes were converted to two, leaving a round of 18 holes. At this same time, the last hole, where the round began and finished, was moved to a spot about halfway between today’s 18th green and first tee. The course played pretty much that way until a railroad line was extended to St. Andrews in 1852.

Once the railroad arrived, so did golfers, and the increased play necessitated some alterations to minimize the effects of the resulting foot traffic. A second cup had existed on the Hole O’Cross green, today’s 5th, since the 1820s. Allan Robertson then placed second cups on most if not all of the others between 1855 and 1857. By this time, the area around the holes was thought of as a green, but the degree to which it was given any special treatment is difficult to gauge. It is hard to see these green sites as anything more than carefully tended fairways for another 40 or so years. Robertson also expanded the greens, finding new areas to place holes, but we have no record of just how much. And play coming home was still restricted to the same route going out, but in reverse.

The course as we know it today—playing out on the right and back on the left—didn’t come into being until Tom Morris, who had been Robertson’s apprentice from the mid-1830s to 1851, returned to St. Andrews in 1864 as Keeper of the Green. Morris got to work immediately and by 1866 had constructed the current 18th green—sited just outside the door to his shop! He created a new green just over the Swilcan Burn, today’s first, which opened for play in 1870. Then he burned off the gorse and whins down the outward right side of the course from the 2nd to the 7th holes, which allowed him to alter those fairways and extend those greens greatly to the right, while also enlarging the shared fairway of holes 9 and 10.

Now golfers had vastly broadened “double” greens and side-by-side fairways, allowing the course to accommodate the increased traffic without the chaos of those coming home running into those playing out. In 1875, separate teeing areas were created to remove tee shots from the putting surfaces. At the same time, the putting surfaces were top dressed and occasionally rolled—modern greens began to emerge. Old Tom then raised the banks of the Swilcan Burn, lined them with stone, leveled off the ground on both sides, and brought the first green forward to the very edge of the burn.

Finally, the first and 18th fairway was expanded on land added by reclamation projects. By 1900, the Old Course we know today was substantially complete. It’s worth noting that in addition to grassing the new ground, Morris created largely level putting areas with the most severe slopes around the margins. It’s the “infinite jumble of depressions and mounds, ridges and gutters,” the intricate contours, so often running obliquely to the line of play, that make the Old Course so challenging and interesting. Old Tom also built up the banks of the bunkers, a process called revetting, to keep the sand in place when the wind blows hard. It is these steep walls that make the bunkers so punishing.

The course is complex, indeed, but it is also strategic, with four factors to take into account: bunkers, mounding, fairway choice, and wind. When the ground is firm, as it is on all links courses, the impact of wind is magnified, making targets smaller and harder to obtain. Therefore, play on the Old Course is never the same twice. Right or left, at the flag or away, up or down? Can I even hit that shot?

When conditions are normal, with the turf firm and the wind up, playing the Old Course is an unmatched experience.

Michael Briggs, a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club since 1968, has made a lifelong study of the evolution of the Old Course.