Flawed or fabulous - the Old Lady has unique charm
Some call it a piece of genius, some confess to a love affair and others claim that it was designed by mad men. Peter Alliss says you wouldn't get paid for building a course like it these days. A few hate it.
The Old Course at St Andrews is certainly an enigma. Tiger Woods insists it's his favourite course in the world, while Phil Mickelson said he'd hold the Open here every year if it were up to him. He quickly retracted this when he realised the press were sniffing a story, but the sentiment was already out there. On the other hand, Lee Westwood once claimed it was not among the 100 best courses in Fife.
St Andrews certainly has an aura as you drive over the hill on a sunny day and see the great links - the thin, hook-like shape of the Old Course nestled in there somewhere among the dunes along with five other courses - bounded by the Eden Estuary to the north and the Bay, with the West Sands of Chariots of Fire fame to the east. Guarding over the greensward is the unmistakeable skyline of spires, towers and roofs of the Auld Grey Toon.
"I get a good feeling in my bones when I come here," says Justin Rose. "That's half the battle."
Golf, in one form or another, has been played over these links since probably as early as the 12th century and officially from 1552. Originally there were 22 holes, but this was reduced to the recognised 18 in 1764. At first it was played in both directions, eventually leading to the double greens on 14 of the 18 holes.
Woods get to grips again with the unique St Andrews course
"It's just a fantastic golf course," says Woods, who is going for a third straight Open win on the Old Course this week. "What genius it took to lay it out that way."
"It's a spiritual place as well as a wonderful course," adds Mickelson. "You can't help but feel emotion come over you as you play, knowing that this is where the game began. [Jack] Nicklaus said that a career doesn't feel complete unless you've won here. I think all the players feel the same."
Most critics, and there are some, say the Old Lady relies solely on the wind to protect her modesty. Wind is key and can change the strategy from day to day, even in the space of a couple of hours, but there are 112 deep pot bunkers, vast, undulating double greens - Mickelson jokes of 150ft lag putts - and tricky pin positions to contend with.
"I think it's the angles [of shots] and the wind," says Woods. "People say hit
miles left, but if you hit miles left you have no angle. On a calm day you feel like you can shoot 65 every round. You get a windy day like Sunday, the leader might be 80. It's just amazing what the wind can do.
The revamped 17th is likely to claim a few victims during the Championship. Photo: AP
"You're going to have to hit some real long putts here, too, and you just have to get down in two. You can hit 18 greens and still shoot a high number.
"That's the brilliance of how this golf course was designed, that it's still able to withstand the test of time. Players have gotten longer, equipment has changed but this golf course is still very relevant and it can still be very difficult."
There's a famous quote that does the rounds from legendary golfer Bobby Jones, who also designed Augusta National, about how the more he studied the Old Course, the more he loved it, and the more he loved it, the more he studied it.
"The first time you play here you'll find it hard to understand it. And you'll probably hate it," he says. "The first fairway is 130 yards wide and it looks simple.
"Standing on the second tee without someone who knows where they are going you wouldn't have a clue, a wondrous clue, and that's when the magical mystery tour starts."
As is the way with modern golf, the bigger hitter generally has an advantage, but St Andrews is not necessarily all about power.
"This golf course requires placement," says Woods. "Just because it's wide off the tee doesn't mean you can blow it all over the place."
Mickelson sounds more more gung-ho, but you know he's not really advocating just using brute force to subdue the Old Girl. "You can hit driver on just about every hole and there's plenty of room on a number of holes. I don't feel restrained on the tee at all.
"I feel like it gives you a much bigger option off the tee, and it's a great second-shot golf course.
"You have so many different shots you can take off the tee but also into the green. You can take a two iron and just chase it along the ground for 180 yards and the ball will feed and filter down on to the green if you avoid the right bunkers. Or you can try to fly a set of bunkers and run it up 60 yards or you can fly it the whole way on.
"I just love the course management and strategy that's involved playing this course.
"And the great thing about St Andrews is it doesn't limit you as a player on ways you can win. All players can win. But I do think there are distinct advantages to length out here."
Ernie Els is another disciple. "Some flag positions just change the hole so dramatically, it's crazy. Some of the short par fours where you can almost drive the green - if they put the flag in a certain position you can be 15, 20 yards away and you might not get the ball up and down for birdie. It's just an amazing golf course."
But as with all things at St Andrews, it's not quite as straightforward as just having some wind to test the players. Varying wind speed and direction throughout the day can sometimes make the draw a bit of a lottery.
"A steady 10-15mph from one direction is no good, they get used to it," says Alliss.
"Ideally you want a different wind direction every day, blowing from 7am to 8pm."
Alliss is all too aware that the Old Course is not perfect, but reckons that's part of her unique charm, along with the fact that as public land anyone, from dog walkers to romancing students, can wander over the hallowed turf.
"It's never had severe rough and relies on the wind, bunkers and greens," he says. "It's not a great viewing course and it's a slow course to get around with the double greens. It has its drawbacks but that's all part of it."
Westwood these days has also tweaked his opinion. "I didn't think it's that poor a course. My frustration lay in the fact I couldn't see how to shoot a low score. I could see the birdies but I would play so aggressively that I would run up bogeys as well."
Despite his reservations, Alliss certainly wouldn't advocate making any more changes.
"I'm not sure the 17th required it, but as long as no-one suggests putting a lake in the Valley of Sin. That would be the end of the world," he says.
"St Andrews should be more or less left alone."
General consensus this week is that the Old Course is in great shape - "pristine" according to Mickelson, while the greens are "the best they have ever been" (Els). Woods says they are playing slower than normal. "For now," he adds.
The players are braced for rain for the first two days of competition with winds building to as much as 35mph by Friday.
The Old Lady is likely to show her capricious nature and will certainly play hard to get. And that will make winning the 150th anniversary Open all the sweeter.