By Peter Hellman
Even though, in a previous article, I wrote about St. Andrews and the British Open. Seeing Jack Nicklaus stroll up Swilican Bridge, turn and wave goodbye to his many fans made it tough for me to think about anything else.
Lets face it. St. Andrews is cool! It embodies just about everything a golfer craves. It has history, tradition, a bit of pomp, exclusivity, common roots, wild bounces and a design no modern golf architect could think of. A round of golf here can keep a golfer in great stories for years. And, watching the Pros struggle in the same bunkers, spoil a good round on the 17th hole (The Road Hole) or trickle a great second shot into the "Valley of Sin" off the 18th green creates a flood of memories of ones own experiences on the Old Course.
Swilican Bridge is truly the most recognized symbol of golf but it has a much less grand history. The stone bridge, of Roman design, was originally built to give locals access to the Eden Estuary from St. Andrews town. The bridge crosses the Swilican Burn, a ditch with straight vertical wood sides that runs across the course on the 1st and 18th holes. No one knows how old the bridge is but we know from the records kept by the Society of St. Andrews Golfers that its use by golfers as well as local fishermen goes way back.
The Old Course has a reputation of exclusivity. There is no question that it is difficult to get a tee time and when you do, you pay a premium for the right to play. The Royal & Ancient, the ruling body for golf and a stodgy private club if there ever was one, is located in a grand and intimidating stone mansion off the first tee box. Every thing about the R & A adds to the impression of exclusivity.
But the R & A is only one of many private clubs in St. Andrews and they all play on the public St. Andrews Old Course. Yes, that's right. The Old Course and all the courses in St. Andrews are owned by the City of St. Andrews. On Sundays (the Old Course's day of rest) and most evenings you will see many citizens of the town walking across the Swilican Bridge or down the Granny Clark Wynd, a road that cuts across the 18th and 1st fairways and used originally to haul boats between the town and the sea. Imagine taking a similar stroll some Sunday on Augusta National.
Did you notice during the Open how great the spectators were? They were not only polite, which you would expect in the United Kingdom, but they were down right friendly. Naturally, much of their cheering was for their local favorite Colin Montgomery who was Tiger Wood's only real threat. But, the warmth and appreciation shown for Jack and Tom Watson was real and enveloping. Even Tiger is appreciated and warmly received as the new Open champion. With so much criticism of America in several parts of the world, it's wonderful to have friends like the Scots.
The locals love their course and appreciate anyone executing a good shot. The first time I played the Old Course I encountered some of this Scottish warmth and appreciation. As I approached the 18th green, I noticed several of the town's people standing along the railing defining the edges of the course. They were people going about their daily activities and stopping a few minutes to watch as golfers came up the 18th hole, chipped on and putted in. As I putted out, making a ten footer for a bogie, I heard polite applause and saw smiles from many of the onlookers. Applause for a bogie! That's a bogie I'll remember for a long time.
If you saw Jack as he walked across the Swilican Bridge arm and arm with his son who caddied for him, you may have had a moment of reflection as I had and reached for something that could keep this moment in your memory. I found on the Internet a photographer who for $290 will sell you a framed picture of Jack on the Swilican Bridge. But, I have a better idea. Save the money and apply it to your trip to golf's Mecca. Bring your best friends, your spouse, son or daughter and get a picture of you and people important to you on the Swilican Bridge. Then walk arm in arm up the fairway, chip out of the "Valley of Sin" and make your putt. Whether it's a par, a bogie or worse our Scottish friends will appreciate your efforts and reward your friendship with polite and warm applause.