The Old Course Thrives On Fast Play

Under Four Hours Is Plenty Of Time To Savor Its Charms

The Old Course at St. Andrews has been around far too long, and deserves far too much respect, to put up with slow play.

So it doesn’t, nor should it.

Nor should the several hundred lucky, determined and delighted golfers who get to play it each day, and pay handsomely for the opportunity.

They shouldn’t have to wait on every shot while playing the most important golf course in the world, and in my very recent and singular experience, they don’t.

That’s not just fine, it’s a rare gift.

While my previous dispatch on the scourge of slow play offered solutions involving certain pecuniary penalties, I’d like to turn that notion around and talk about the actual rewards of playing briskly, attentively and intently, even as you’re living out a bucket list dream that you’d prefer last forever.

And it will, in memory, but by no means should it in reality.

Alongside three strangers with whom I became fast friends through our shared glee at actually standing on the Old Course’s famed first tee—with my wife walking every step with us, a high point of our two-week 25th anniversary jaunt to Scotland and Ireland—I knocked out one of the most memorable rounds of my life on a mercifully calm and mild October morning, and did so in under four hours, without once feeling rushed, short-changed or underwhelmed.

In fact, actually following the “Max Time” per-hole allotment spelled out on the Old Course scorecard — anywhere from eight minutes for the par-3 eighth to 13 minutes for the 18th, including a Swilcan Bridge photo allowance — gave our round an even greater sense of in-the-moment urgency.

So we made sure to treasure it without delay.

That scorecard, not any overt demand, was our cue to get on with it in under four hours (3:57 to be exact), in accordance with the R&A’s strong but respectful mandate, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be the immutable law of the golfin’ land. It imbued our every Auld Sod swing, putt, glance, smile, laugh and lip-out grimace with extra meaning, without the extra temporal fluff that so many of us, especially us Americans, have become inured to and far too accepting of.

I hope every other group that day, sent off in brisk ten-minute intervals just steps from the R&A’s stately stone edifice, conjured the same feeling. If they were doing it right, they, too, never felt rushed.

They felt blessed.

“How many golfers are there in the entire world?” asked Peter from Minnesota, one of my new friends (the other two, Londoners named Omar and Graham, were celebrating Omar’s 50th birthday, Graham’s treat). “A couple hundred million, maybe? And how many people are playing this course today—a couple hundred? And we are four of those people. So we’re doing what most of all those other golfers would rather be doing. So we need to savor it.”

We did, walking briskly alongside our studied and polished and caddies from hole to hole and shot to shot, keeping the mood light yet reverent, treading lightly over the hallowed landscape even as we scarred it with divots. We took in stride our three-jacks on those massive double-greens. We cheered the good shots, cast away the bad ones as quickly as we could and kept our scores in perspective—all the stuff we can and should do on any course, but here it was different, bathed in that ancient and enduring Scottish light that just doesn’t come through on TV.

We pinched ourselves at the good fortune of negotiating the links’ rippled flanks on a nearly dead-calm front nine, but just as gladly welcomed the steady headwind that greeted us on the 12th tee and would accompany us the rest of the way, but never slow us down.

At one point a friendly marshal stopped by to ask us to pick up the pace a wee bit, as the group in front was more than two shots in front of us. We were happy to oblige, know that we weren’t the only ones out there.

Everybody who plays the Old Course, or any course, should keep that fact foremost in their minds. It’s doubly important here, the greatest public layout in creation.

Granted, much of its time-saving character is literally built in to its wide-open, treeless and largely rough-less design, which is a big part of its singular magic.

Despite more than a few snap-hook tee shots (keeping it left on all but four holes is the prescription to staying safe, so I took that advice to the extreme), I lost only one ball, on the Road Hole after knocking a block over the words “Course” instead of “Old” emblazoned on the familiar shed, and most likely into a hedge separating the links from Herb Kohler’s Old Course Hotel (which is a helluva place to stay, by the way).

There’s no need to agonize over how to get out of one of those deep, revetted, oft-hidden bunkers. Either you can advance it or you can’t. “Just take your medicine,” muttered my man, Ronny, as I blasted sideways out of a fairway pot on hole 9.

There’s still plenty of time for jokes and chatter—you’re walking, after all, as God intended—but you’re expected to hit each shot as Old Tom did, with delighted dispatch and, perhaps, a post-round pint or dram in the offing.

And there’s just right gathering of collective Moments, of a round well played on the Links that started it all, that translates into handshakes and hugs and final photos on the 18th green, the very spot where so many champions have stood and exulted.

That’s what we did. And then we moved on, back to our lives.

Yes, in a way it all ended too soon, but that feeling has nothing to do with entitlement or avarice.

It has to do with wanting to share the joy and gratitude with all, for all time.

Just make sure to share it in 3:57 or less. It works well at on the Old Course, so it’ll work anywhere.

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