St Andrews Old Course (7125 yards par 72)

The Early Development of St Andrews Old Golf Course


Since about 1400 A.D. golf has been played on St Andrews links and the original Old Course is famous worldwide as the ‘Home of Golf.’ A charter in 1123 raised by King David granted to St Andrews Burgh the rights to use the links land. This set a precedent and was carried forward through time. It was further confirmed in later charters. Eventually the rights of the people of the town to play golf on the links was officially confirmed. Originally It was just a track worn and  hacked through the bushes and heather.

Golf was banned in 1457 by King James II of Scotland. He was concerned that golf was keeping young men away from their archery practice which was compulsory for all males over 12 years of age. He needed to maintain an army sufficient to quell invaders. Throughout the century Scottish Kings struggled to assert their authority and quell internal divisions. There was a continuing threat from his powerful southern neighbours. Scotland was often threatened with invasion and the country was in a poor state. At this time golf met with disapproval of the establishment. Further monarchs repeated this ban. An important factor in the development of the St Andrews links was the Harbour. This was in the Estuary of the River Eden and denotes part of the northern boundary of the links. It was here that merchants came from the Netherlands to trade with the Scots.

We often refer to 600 years of golf at St Andrews but there is actually very little known about the first 300 years. St Andrews with its great cathedral built in 1160 was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. Pilgrims flocked to the town and St Andrew became the patron Saint of Scotland. The port flourished and the town was prosperous. Later, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation rejected papal jurisdiction. Subsequently the town’s importance and prosperity declined until the early 19th century. In the 16th century the population of St Andrews reached 14,000 but in 1793 it was down to 2,854. Golf on St Andrews Old Course would eventually play a major part in the town’s revival.

Eventually King James IV became a golfer himself and cancelled the ban in 1502. There were political reasons as he had made a peace treaty with the English King and he married the daughter of King Henry VII. In St Andrews the Church penalised a number of golfers for playing instead of being at Church or fasting. King James VI settled the golf versus archery conflict when he succeeded to the English throne and moved to London with his court in 1603. Little is recorded about the layout of the links between 1400 and 1744. St Andrews golf was played on a peninsula of ancient links land, with gorse covered dunes. Some of the links evolved gradually by deposits from the sea. More land was reclaimed using grasses to bind the sand and stabilise the dunes. This was followed later by reclamation projects.

The St Andrews Old Course has no parallel anywhere because it evolved over several hundred years with no specific early design. It owes more to nature than to the hand of man. The greens and fairways essentially followed the natural lay of the land. The fairways were narrow, passing through thickets of scrubland, gorse, nettles, brambles, etc. The greens were poor relying on sheep and rabbits to shorten the grass. On this cold windy links land sheep took refuge in shallow sheltered areas. This made it difficult for grass to grow there. Golfers chose to make sand filled bunkers from the hollows. Players competed with sheep for space on the links and townsfolk used the space for drying fishing nets, grazing cows and goats and various domestic and other activities. There was no proper upkeep, no plan and no architect. The holes just evolved and by some miracle have stood the test of time with little change except to lengthen holes to keep up with the development of better golf equipment and trained professionals. The shape of the course has hardly changed. It runs out over slightly crumpled links land to the Eden Estuary and then swings back around the eighth and ninth  holes representing the shape of a billhook. At St Andrews the space between the southern arable land with protective banks of gorse and more gorse on the other side was so narrow that golfers had to share the same fairways and green going out and coming back. Long ago the gorse has been thinned and been cut back. The total area of the Old Course links must be the smallest for a Championship course anywhere in the world.

Golf did not formally develop until the eighteenth century. The Society of St Andrews Golfers, formed in 1754, was the third golf society in Scotland and the world. By 1764, the Old Course was played as 22 holes, 11 out and 11 back. The golfers played the same hole going out and in, except for the 11th and 22nd holes. In 1764, the Society of St Andrews Golfers, which later became the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, decided the first four holes, therefore also the last four holes, were too short and should be made into two holes not four. Thus the number of holes per round dropped from 22 to 18, and that set the standard for the current round of golf throughout the world. In the early days, golfers were meant to play their next tee shot from the immediate vicinity of the previous hole. Before wooden tees were invented they used to build tees out of the sand within two club lengths of the previous hole, using a handful of sand scooped out from the hole. Due to the holes becoming so deep, the Old Course began providing sandboxes for golfers. Later Tom Morris would lay out a separate teeing ground for each hole. The directives for playing the first competition on the links had references to some of the Old Course holes which are still in existence. The last winner over the old  configuration was the Royal and Ancient Club Captain William St Clair of Roslin who authorised changes to the layout

The association between The Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the Old Course has often been misinterpreted.  The Club does not own the Old Course. Archbishop Hamilton’s deed of 1552 refers to the public ownership of the links to be used for playing sports and grazing livestock. Golf was largely a winter game until the middle of the 19th Century, when the availability of mechanical grass cutters allowed play in the summer as well. With the increased prosperity of the Victorian times and the expansion of the railways, golf tourism took hold all over Britain.

By 1857, there were second holes on the middle greens and the course became the first 18-hole golf course in the world. Other courses soon followed. With the huge double greens the undulations often make the flag look nearer than it actually is. Judgement of distance is critical to avoid three putts. In 1863, Old Tom Morris was appointed Custodian of the Links by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. He was a St Andrew's man who had studied under another great St Andrew's golfer, Allan Robertson. This was before Tom had gone to Prestwick to be appointed Keeper of the Green there. Robertson died in 1859, and Old Tom was persuaded to return to St Andrews to conduct extensive remodelling of the course as well as building others. Old Tom Morris is credited with developing the manicured links that we see today. He owned a shop and workshop at 8 The Links, which still exists. Tom improved the state of the greens he spent a great deal of time cutting back the gorse to widen the fairways and enlarging the greens to separate players going out holding up those playing back. Until the 19th century, the Old Course was played in a clockwise direction. Old Tom Morris separated the 1st and 17th greens around 1870. From then, the course was played in an anti-clockwise direction on alternate weeks in order to let the grass recover better. The general method of play now is anti-clockwise, although clockwise play has been permitted on one day each year in recent years. In 1899, 17 new bunkers were added. In 1905, they added 16 more. Those 33 bunkers transformed the front nine. Many of the 112 bunkers are clearly designed to catch the wayward shots of golfers playing the course on the left-hand circuit. The course is closed on Sundays to let the links rest. On some Sundays it is used like a park by the townspeople who walk, picnic and otherwise enjoy the grounds.

How and when did St Andrews become the “Home of Golf”?

An obvious answer to the question would be that in 1897 when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews became the absolute authority for the rules of Golf. From then they and others built the reputation to be the “Home of Golf”. However, there were several events that suggest that the reputation if not the specific name was around much earlier. The problem can be that when considering these events, instead of thinking like a person living and educated recent times, you need to consider them as seen by gentlemen or a weaving and golfing family would look at them. In the 18th and early 19th centuries when the town was in decline and the links were very unkempt. Golf was a minor sport. The gentlemen and townspeople though would not be too concerned about the state of the links because it was normal. The poor state of the town was not unusual when times were hard and sewage was primitive.

Consider this letter in 1691 written almost 200 years before the Royal and Ancient took responsibility for the rules and updating them. It was from Alexander Monro, a former lawyer and Regent at St Andrews University. He sent the letter and a gift of 3 golf clubs and 12 golf balls to his friend John Mackenzie an Edinburgh Barrister. He says that he knows that golf equipment is available in Edinburgh but considers a present would be welcome from St Andrews “the metropolis of golfing”. The dictionary says that metropolis means ‘main city’ or ‘centre of activity’. However it also gives the translation from 16th century Greek (meter polis), literally ‘mother city’ which suggests he is considering more than quality golf equipment.

The founding statement of the 'Society of St Andrews Golfers’ in 1754 is flowery and consistent with the times. Part of it says “and at the same time having the interest and prosperity of the ancient city of St Andrews at heart, being the ‘Alma Mater’ of the Golf”. Today Alma Mater refers to your University, College or School. A circa 1800 translation of ‘Alma Mater’ is from Latin and translated as ‘benevolent or kind mother’. So “Mother of Golf” is how the nobles and gentlemen saw it in 1754, not far removed from “Home of Golf”.

In 1836 an artist painted St Andrews and called it “The Birthplace O Golf”. This is a pointer to how the town felt. For reasons that are not clear to us today, they saw their golf course as the spiritual birthplace or mother or home of golf.

Prestwick 1864: Tom Morris was leaving to work for the Royal and Ancient as keeper of the green (green referred to course at that time) at St Andrews, his home town. The club chairman said “Tom’s departure was no shame to Prestwick, for the ties of an earlier and stronger affection drew him to his native St Andrews, known the world over as the headquarters of the grand old national pastime”.

Conclusion – Many early golfers in Scotland appear to have accepted from early years that St Andrews was something special. It retained its long history, perhaps helped because the course never moved from the original links. It was part of the town and produced many fine golfers. The course seems to have its own aura and mystique that has grown over the centuries.

Ireland Office

2 The Mall, Main Street, Lucan, Dublin, Ireland

Phone: +353 (0)1 431 1075

Scotland Office

15 Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh, EH3 8HA, Scotland

Phone: +44 (0) 131 278 0524

SPAIN Office

135 Duquesa Fairways, Manilva, Malaga, 29692 Spain

Phone: +34 9511 27110

Ask our expert. Ask our expert
~ Ask our expert ~
Adrian Stanley Hi, I'm Adrian. Do you have any questions about planning your trip?
This field is required
This field is required
This field is required
Thanks. We'll answer soon.

Worldwide: +44 (0) 131 356 0771
USA / Canada: 1-888-529-2448