St Andrews Old Course: 600 years in the making

The Old Course

The nine most significant events seen at St Andrews

Golf has been played on the links turf in St Andrews since 1400AD, making this the oldest course in the world. But the layout that will host the 144th Open Championship is very different from the one on which the game started six centuries ago…

1 – The Links at St Andrews were granted to the town through a Charter of King David of Scotland in 1123 AD. Sometime between then and 1400 AD, it is believed a form of golf started to be played. By 1457,
it had become sufficiently popular for the game to be banned by King James II.

2 – Archbishop Hamilton’s Charter of 1552 “confirmed, ratified and approved” the rights of the St Andrews townspeople to, among other things, play golf on the Links.

3 – The formation of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1754, under its original name of the Society of St Andrews Golfers, had a great bearing on the preservation and development of the course, which at that time was simply known as St Andrews Links, as the club paid for the maintenance of the course.

4 – In 1764, the club decided that the course should be reduced from 22 holes to 18 by compressing the first four holes and the last four into two. This standardised a round of golf at the 18 holes we know today.

5 – In 1821, the Links were bought from some rabbit farmers – they had been sold by a bankrupt Town Council in 1799 – by James Cheape, a member of the Society of St Andrews Golfers. This act saved the Links for golf. A boundary was first marked out in 1821 with land set aside for golf only at the expense of other pursuits.

6 – The St Andrews Links was in real trouble in the 1830s and 1840s – the fairway was only 80 yards wide at its narrowest and with heavy storms and tidal erosion there was a serious danger that the opening and closing holes could be lost. The real person who saved St Andrews and the Links was Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair (1787-1861). Under his rule, cartmen were paid to dump the town’s rubbish onto the beach. This was then covered with soil and grassed over. This explains why the first hole is like a billiard table and the 18th naturally undulating. 

7 – The most famous burn (the Swilcan) in golf has gathered many a nervous player’s ball. From Willie Park Snr in a foursomes match against Allan Robertson (from the 18th tee) to Ian Baker-Finch with his approach shot in the final round at the 1984 Open. In the 1830s, a local builder was paid to create a solid bank with bricks and it has remained set ever since.  

8 – Land reclamation was carried out in 1847 to prevent high tides from encroaching on to the first and 18th fairways and causing erosion. This had the effect of widening the fairway area from about 85 to 135 yards.  

9 – In 1856, course congestion led to the cutting of two holes on each green, with a white flag for golfers going out and a red flag for the golfers coming in. This explains why the double greens are lozenge shape, as they could only expand sideways, given land constraints. All double greens add up to the number 18, for example hole two and 16, three and 15 etc. 

The Old Course

Fast Facts:

  • In 1875 separate teeing grounds were introduced – previously players would tee-off within a couple of clubs of the previous hole. 

  • In 1899, 17 new bunkers were added. In 1905, they added 16 more. Those 33 bunkers transformed the front nine. 

  • Around 1866 when they were building the 18th green, they found a pit of dead bodies (still there). These were the cholera victims from outbreaks in the town. 

  • Irrigation was introduced to all the greens in 1908 – wells sat next to each green – with the exception of holes one, 17 and 18. These were doused by the fire brigade, who used hand pumps and took water from the Swilcan Burn.

  • Mowers were used for the first time to trim the hallowed turf in the 1920s – it was previously cut by hand by scythe-wielding men. 

  •  The greatest change to the Old Course is probably the standards of greenkeeping. Even as recently as 1990 weedy bunkers were the norm while in the 1960s and ’70s daisies on the tees and fairways were common. 

  • The Old Course has been lengthened in modern times to combat the advances in equipment technology. In 1900 it was 6,333 yards. That gradually increased, and in 1970, Jack Nicklaus won the Open when it played to 6,951 yards. It crept up to 7,115 by 2000, and for the last Open there in 2010 it was 7,304 yards (extended 17th tee), the same as it will be this year.