When you think about it, “the Old Course” is an awfully strange name.
It is, of course, the oldest golf course in the world – established in the early 15th century before it was officially ratified by the archbishop John Hamilton in the mid-16th. That was some 460 years ago, long before the age of 460cc drivers, organized golf tournaments, or Claret Jugs. Long before a man named Tiger Woods, too.
But everyone in St. Andrews knows the Old Course’s secret: even for those who see it every day, there’s always something new.
Two weeks ago, on a stereotypically Scottish wet-and-dry afternoon, a walk down the front nine revealed a golf course still shaping into major championship form. Contractors were hard at work on the last of the grandstands, while security personnel were interspersed throughout the course to protect the maintenance team’s efforts on a few precious locations. That was new, as were the ropes that cordoned off the area surrounding Swilcan bridge in a last-ditch effort to protect the turf on either end.
If you quit after eight holes, you might have missed the other big change. The Old Course was not the only one readying for the Open. There, on the ninth tee box, was Justin Rose, squeezing a practice round into his schedule in the busy weeks before the 150th. Rose had a security guard alongside, but he did not need one. The locals out for a mid-afternoon stroll hardly turned to watch as the man with 24 professional wins bombed driver over their heads. Another day, another new development at the Old Course.
On Sunday afternoon, there came the latest new development at the Old Course. His name was Tiger Woods, and for the first time in three years, he was playing a practice round in advance of an expected start at the Open Championship.
The 15-time major champion has won twice here, in 2000 and ’05, but those are far from his only fond memories here. Woods has long maintained that the Old Course is his favorite track on earth – even better than Augusta National – and he has built the last several months around his appearance this week.
He is famously private. This works well in advance of most major championships, in which phone-wielding Zapruders and helicopters are the only ones capable of capturing his presence. At the Old Course, though, privacy is not a right. The course sits on public property, which means that on days in which tournaments are not being contested, the public has the same claim to the land that Woods does.
Some new developments are enough to stir the interest of the St. Andrews faithful, and evidently, the appearance of Tiger Woods is one of them. By the time Woods had made it to the turn, a hefty crew of a few hundred followed outside the ropes. By the time he reached the Road Hole, that number had swelled to a few thousand.
Later this week, tickets to see Tiger Woods play golf at the Old Course will run well over $ 250. On Sunday, the price was more modest: free.
Plenty have already weighed in on the state of Woods’ game since his practice round: he looked good, he looked gimpy; he hit a stinger, he made birdie. Plenty more will share their own prognostications for the week to come. Ultimately, neither will capture the essence of Sunday, because it has precious little to do with gaits or gap-wedges.
Rather, the significance of Woods’ round is in its simplicity. In the gift of seeing a legend, at a legendary place, with no pretense or predetermination. At the home of golf, this is how golf’s greatest player was meant to be seen.
On Sunday, the Old Course provided us with something new again. That wasn’t a surprise. In St. Andrews, not much is.