ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Often muttered in a room of some significance is the phrase “if these walls could talk.” That was fitting for the four that surrounded the main space of the Caddie Pavilion at the Old Course in St. Andrews. A few months prior to the 150th Open being held on the historic links, we were invited into the room by the caddies to sit with them and hear some stories they’ve accumulated over the years at the Home of Golf.
Sitting with a group of guys who average eight to 10 loops of the Old Course each week during the summer season, there was no shortage of “I remember when …” and “Here’s a good one for you …” Their tales ranged from celebrity encounters to broken windows to players carding scores of 197 to swings that “looked like an octopus falling down a set of stairs.”
What better place to start than on the first hole.
“I had an Australian guy who had flown over for his once-in-a-lifetime trip to Scotland,” said one caddie. “I met him on the putting green and could tell by the look on his face and the vibrations in his hands that he was beyond nervous. It’s not rare to see people nervous on the first tee; it’s a big deal playing here, and we get that. I made some small talk to try and distract him and asked about where he was from and what he had been up to. The answers were short, and my efforts to ease his nerves clearly weren’t working.
“Anyway, we head to the tee, and a lot of times when the wind is helping a bit down the first, I’ll have guys hit a 3-wood or iron just to get it down there and leave them something around 150 yards into the green. With this guy, I knew he needed the biggest face in his bag. Driver it was. I told him ‘Just aim at the bridge left of the first green and bunt it down there, nice and smooth.’ I stepped away but only for a few seconds as I realized he was shaking too much to tee up his ball. I assisted and then walked back to the bag, glancing at the other caddies, fearful of what was about to happen. He swung and hit the ball … but only just. The ball came directly off the toe of his driver and headed straight right, passed us on the side of the tee. It then smacked into one of the white posts around the tee, flew up in the air and came to rest on the path in front of the R&A clubhouse, some 15 to 20 yards behind the first tee. Out of bounds. The starter was right there and retrieved the ball and handed it back to the guy with a smile saying, ‘I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve never seen a ball finish there before.’”
You can probably sense what was going to happen next.
“So we let the others in the group hit, and I try and tell my guy that it’s OK and that was just the release of his nerves putting a bad swing on it. Tee it up, bridge left of the green, good swing. No problem, right? Wrong. Same swing, same contact, a toe-shank driver that careened across the tee, across the putting green, hitting the fence on the other side and trickling down a path, finally stopping on the other side of the starters hut. Again, behind the first tee.
“I picked up his ball, and we just walked down the fairway. Needless to say, it was a long day.”
Needless to say, there were a lot of stories from the first tee and the first hole. With around 50,000 rounds played on the Old Course each year, and players flying in from all corners of the earth, it’s easy to see why the history and notoriety of the place could overwhelm people. Even the strongest of characters.
“It was the early 2000s, late in the summer and I got the bag of an American guy at the Old,” said David in the Caddie Pavilion. “He was a big guy, tall and ripped. Really friendly and chatty and clearly very excited to play the Old. We pair up with a couple of other players and tee off on the first. The guy walks off the tee, and I follow behind with the other caddies and notice that after about 40 or 50 yards, he had stopped. My first thought was that he had maybe forgotten something or was going to take his camera out and take a photo. He was pretty overwhelmed and was crying.
“Turns out he had just returned from a military tour of Afghanistan and was using his first leave from duty in two years to travel to Scotland and play golf. He had dreamt about playing the Old Course and the feeling of walking off the first tee finally was a lot for him.”
In speaking to other caddies, it’s interesting to hear that tears and emotion, like with the military man, are not all that rare at the Old Course.
“I’m not religious,” one said “but this place has a special aura and it hits everyone when they come here to play. Whether it’s when they arrive in town, walk onto the first tee or finish on the 18th green. There’s usually a moment when they soak it in. It’s cool to see.”
Moving on from the first tee to the third hole, a caddie named Fraser tells a story of one visitor who took in more than the Old Course on his visit.
“So the third hole is a short par 4, nothing too bad for most players,” Fraser says. “However, if the wind is coming from the west and going left-to-right, it’s a battle for players who slice the ball. We’d normally tell them their miss should be left but that’s easier said than done when it’s howling off the left.”
“So I’m on the tee with one of our longest-serving caddies and his player has a slice, evident by the ball on the first tee that started OB left and nearly finished OB right. That’s the biggest fairway in golf so safe to say this guy had one of the biggest slices in golf. Anyway, the third tee, the caddie gets him lined up to the fence on the left side of the 16th hole. Swing, smack and this ball starts down the right hand rough. After about 50 yards in the air, it begins to turn like a fighter jet banking right. Higher still, slicing more. By the time it lands, it’s missed the 16th hole where they were aiming, missed the third fairway we were playing, missed the rough between the Old Course and New Course, and trickle its way into the middle of the fairway on the 18th hole of the New Course.”
“We take off down the third hole on the Old and they take off down the New. I’m keeping a close eye on them as I’m hoping to see the second shot as it comes back into play and help out my fellow caddie with where it ends up. The guy pulls a headcover off and I can see the caddie pointing back towards the third hole, giving him a generous line based on the slices we’ve already seen so far. I was expecting to see the shot come towards us and then slice down the hole but instead, it headed straight right … again. Losing its battle with the wind, it blows hard left-to-right and finishes up on the second hole of the Jubilee Course. At this point the guy has hit two shots, a driver and a fairway wood and I’m not sure he was closer to the hole we were playing. In two shots, he had started on the Old, hit to the New, and finished on the Jubilee course. Suffice to say, he enjoyed the back nine more than the front!”
And it’s not just slices you have to be wary of with visitors either. Here’s Alex’s tale of trying to educate a player on how to play links golf at the Old Course.
“It was the second hole not too long ago and we were about 60 yards from the green but the wind was into and I suggested to my player that he try a 7-iron, you know to keep it under the wind, a wee pitch. He seemed fine with the idea and took the club so I took a few steps back and was just looking at the yardage book when I hear the impact and immediately knew what had happened. He hit 7-iron but a full one. This thing was dead online but carried the green by about 70 or 80 yards down the third fairway. A good lesson in being clear with your instructions.”
If in doubt, just ask your caddie. That would be the advice for the above golfer. However, ask the caddies at the Old about their favorite questions they’ve been asked, and it opens a Pandora’s Box of stories.
“Is this the same turf they use for The Open?” was probably my favorite recalls one.
To finish the stories from the caddies, we’ll go to the hole that finishes the Old Course. The famed 18th hole played alongside The Links, the road that runs down the right-hand side of the last hole at the Old.
“There’s a noise you hear at the Old Course that signals only one thing, it’s when a group takes a sharp intake of breath as a ball heads right off the 18th tee. We’ve all seen it here. We’ve all heard it.”
“I heard it recently as I was on the 17th green and a player in the group in front sent a ball down The Links. Most times a ball heads that way, it misses everything and sometimes even comes back into play. On this occasion, bang! Smashed car windscreen, car alarm going off, the guy was gutted.
“The group walks down the hole and over the Swilcan Bridge and arrives next to the car. The caddie puts down the bag, and the player unzips a pocket, presumably to pull out another ball. No. He pulls out his car keys, switches off the car alarm, opens the passenger door, retrieves his ball, and drops it in the fairway five yards from his own car that he had just smashed with a tee shot. He came back to his bag pretty sheepish and the caddie just laughed. The player laughed too, and the whole group came over to join in. Funny finish to an Old Course round.”