No, you are not at Hogwarts, and those are not pictures of Dumbledore that every little pub and tavern has adorning their walls. You are somewhere better and even more magical. You are at St Andrews, and that man with the scraggly beard is Old Tom Morris. With that being said, I can see where the confusion comes in. There is something about the town, and the golf courses, that just takes a hold of you. Some might even say you could become ‘spellbound’ from just walking around. Also, adding to the confusion is that you just might see a bunch of college kids walking with you from time to time.
St Andrews is not only the home of golf, but it is also home to a university: aptly named the University of St Andrews. In much the same way that one would feel if they were to take a stroll through Hogwarts Castle, walking along the cobblestone and looking up to see Gothic spires dominating the skyline conjures up something deep inside, something magical. I would venture to guess that for those select few who are lucky enough to matriculate at the University of St Andrews, that sense of whimsical magic is not something that they ever become used to.
Hogwarts accepts young witches and wizards by sending letters around the time they turn ten or eleven. Unfortunately, St Andrews students have to wait a little longer for their acceptance dates, but that doesn’t hinder the magic. Young men and women make the trek to that Scottish town each Fall and arrive on campus to begin or continue their studies. They are not sorted into houses like Gryffindor or Slytherin, but rather are divided into three separate colleges, those being United, St Mary’s, and St Leonard’s. And while they may not be looking out their windows at Hogwarts’ Black Lake, in my opinion, St Andrews students have much better views: tee boxes, fairways, greens, and of course the Fife coastline.
In a way, the story of the University is intertwined with that of the Old Course. After all, they are neighbors and have been for six centuries. Well technically, they have been. If you look up the “official” dates of establishment, they will say 1410AD for the University and around 1400AD for the Old Course. But, if you ask the magical beings — uh, I mean caddies — in the town, they’ll give you another answer. According to those more eccentric loopers, “On the eighth day, God created the Old Course”.
That’s the type of town, the type of feeling that St Andrews is. A college town that grew up on golf; well, except for those forty-some odd years when it didn’t.
Much like magic, golf can sometimes run the risk of being misunderstood. The general population doesn’t always seem to accurately comprehend a golfer’s passion, or perhaps I should say obsession. Sometimes, the powers that be may even go as far as to outlaw the practice in some instances, kind of like a ban on magic. This is exactly what happened during the middle ages at St Andrews.
If you go by the “official” date of establishment — which I guess we will do here, even though envisioning God picking out pot bunker placements is much more fun — golf in St Andrews began in or around 1400AD … and boy, did it spread like wildfire. It was apparent that golf was becoming the most popular pastime both for town residents and University students alike. As a result, King James II of Scotland decided that archery practice was more important than playing a round, and banned golf in 1457. (I really, really do not think that ol’ King Jimmy Jr. and I would have gotten along very well).
So, yeah, archery took over as what all the lads spent their time doing in St Andrews, and throughout Scotland, for the next forty-five years. Then finally, King James IV — a golfer himself — allowed the playing of golf to resume in the country. (I mean, honestly, what a guy). After the reinstatement of golf activities, the “Dark Ages” of Scottish golf were lifted, and that feeling of magic was allowed to return to St Andrews.
Golf’s magical aura then spread and deepened in St Andrews for centuries. Along the way, the Society of St Andrews Golfers — more commonly known today as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club — was founded in 1754. Ten years later, the Society deemed certain holes at St Andrews too short and reduced the number of golf holes from twenty-two to the traditional eighteen we play today. Then, in 1797, St Andrews ran into a bit of a rabbit problem.
The St Andrews Town Council went bankrupt and completely lost control of the Links. This then opened the door for rabbit farmers (yes, rabbit farmers) to threaten to take over the land on which the Links had stood proudly for centuries. For the first time since the Scottish Golf Ban, St Andrews was in jeopardy of losing its magic. Over the next couple of decades, golfers and rabbit farmers fought both legally and physically for control of the land, until a savior emerged in James Cheape. A sort of Scottish Elmer Fudd if you will, Cheape purchased the land in 1821 and saved St Andrews from those “wascally wabbits”. Fittingly, in that same year, a man was born who would come to be synonymous with St Andrews and with golf: Old Tom Morris.
However you want to describe him — the Dumbledore of the Old Course, the Merlin of St Andrews — Old Tom Morris is undeniably the first seemingly mythical figure of golf, except his actual life is no myth. Born and raised in St Andrews, Old Tom may not have invented the game of golf, but he definitely exponentially popularized it. A participant in the first thirty-six Opens and four-time Champion Golfer of the Year, Old Tom was truly a superstar of the game throughout the nineteenth century, all the while maintaining his kind and gentle approach with all he met, both in and out of competition. One of the enigmas of Old Tom is that it is widely documented that he had real difficulty with shorter putts. I guess that goes to show that even the greatest golf wizards are partly human. Finally settling back home in St Andrews as a greenskeeper for the R&A in 1865, Old Tom’s life had come full circle, all the while the magic of St Andrews calling out to him, guiding him home. In 1908, Morris passed away at the age of 87. It is said that the procession extended the entirety of St Andrews’ South Street.
Today, St Andrews sits at the top of golfers’ bucket lists and international rankings alike, yet it has not lost its sense of magic one bit over the years. While the town, the University, the stories, and Old Tom all contribute to that sense of wonderment, the course is the source of it all. Undulating fairways that lead to green complexes the size of small towns are carpeted over ancient terrain that reminds you golf was truly meant for walking. Pot bunkers and fescue are dotted throughout the course, reminding us that even a well-placed shot needs a bit of magic to avoid disaster. The weather can turn on a dime, as if Old Tom himself cast a spell on your round, just to test if you’re up to the challenge. For every golfer who is lucky enough to walk over the Swilcan Bridge across the eighteenth fairway, there is a childlike feeling that maybe, just maybe magic might be real. Well, let me tell you, magic is real, and it’s called St Andrews.
When the golf legend behind Bandon Dunes challenges you to leave the rest at home, you join him.