Saturday, July 25, 2015

Playing (on) the Old Course at St. Andrews

Putting on the Old Course in St. Andrews

Earlier this week, the Old Course at St. Andrews finished hosting the 144th British Open. Scotland, of course, is the birthplace of golf, which has been played at St. Andrews since the 1400s. As one of the two sports invented by Scotland, golf looms large in the nation's sporting psyche and draws many thousands of visitors each year to play its famed courses.

The most famous course, and by far the biggest draw, is the Old Course in St. Andrews. Sportscasters intone solemnly about the Old Course as the "home" of golf. Experts expound on intricacies of Scottish winds and dreich weather, of devilish sand bunkers, of the blind tee shot on the "road hole" at the 17th. Golfers make pilgrimages to the Old Course, scheduling trips a year in advance to secure a coveted slot to play.

Holding a flag on the Old Course
Crazy old man seizes the flag on the 17th hole.
Many folks don't realize, however, that it's easy to play a round on the course.

{Ed.'s note: Really? Easy to play a round?}

Okay, that's not quite true. It's easy to play around on the Old Course. We've been to St. Andrews three times, and each time have frolicked on the links.

Yep, the Old Course is actually a public park

On most Sundays, the Old Course is open to the public. Which means you can wander around freely. Take a picnic. Walk the dog. Sunbathe. Throw a frisbee.

Roaming the Old Course with dog and beach ball
Bring a ball and let your dog roam (under control).
The right of the public to enjoy the links goes back to a charter set out by an archbishop in the mid-1500s. It's a "right" with limits — for the other days of the week, obviously, the course is reserved for golf — but nonetheless you have a good chance of showing up on Sunday and finding the course open.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at the first tee.
Locals and tourists alike stroll the course on Sundays. Some use it as an easy shortcut to get to the beach just beyond its edge. Others play fetch with their dogs. A handful take guided tours, either for an hour (my choice) or up to three hours. Many are content just to snap photos, smell the sea breeze, and head off for ice cream.

As a surprise to many, the Old Course, as well as several other companion courses in St. Andrews, is not controlled by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A), which sits at the first tee. Indeed, the R&A is only one of several golf clubs with access to the courses. Even local hotels can offer weekend packages and tee times.

Instead, the courses are managed by the St. Andrews Links, a public trust. Unlike a fiercely private club like Augusta with the Masters course, St. Andrews Links must provide access to any golfers with a sufficient handicap (24 for men; 36 for women). Some tee times are reserved months in advance, but nearly half are won by lottery 48 hours in advance. And it's possible to show up in the morning and squeeze into a duo or trio, who are supposed to "warmly welcome" a singleton or duo into their group.

Heather, hills, and Hell

For the times when it hosts the Open, the Old Course tends to get tamed and manicured for television consumption. But at other times, the gorse and heather are allowed to grow a bit. Scottish courses are generally less trimmed and proper than American courses. The rough is actually rough. With few landscaped trees, the wind can gust and swirl. And the frequent rain can leave spots boggy.

Gorse and heather on the Old Course
The Old Course can look a bit scruffy.
Moreover, the topography of the land determines the layout of the course. That's the reverse of most U.S. courses, which are designed and then landscaped into place. Scottish courses abound with awkward slopes, inconvenient patches of rough, and undulating greens.

As one tour guide told me, American courses are manscaped for ease and beauty, while Scottish courses are for men.

The most interesting feature on the Old Course, however, are the bunkers. All 112 of them. Each one named.

"The Spectacles." "The Sands of Nakajima." "The Coffins."


Hell bunker on the Old Course in St. Andrews
The bunker on the 14th hole called simply, "Hell."
The size, shape, and location of many of these bunkers were not predetermined. In fact, many have arisen naturally over the centuries. A good number were created by, of all things, sheep. Before the introduction of lawnmowers, sheep were often used to trim the course. Those same sheep often burrowed down into the sandy soil to escape the hard-blowing winds from the North Sea, a process which readily can be seen on the Isle of Iona's golf course.

Sheep creating bunkers on the Isle of Iona's golf course
Sheep range freely over Iona's golf course, creating their own bunkers as they burrow out of the wind.
Bunkers on the Old Course
Bunker cluster.
Some bunker walls on the Old Course reach as high as ten feet, though most seem to be roughly six or seven feet deep. The bunkers are notorious for golfers trying — and failing — to escape them by trying to hit over the high walls instead of backwards onto the fairway. One of golf's greatest golfers, Bobby Jones, hit into a bunker on the 11th, made four failed attempts to get his ball out, and simply walked off the course. The famed road hole bunker on the 17th is nicknamed "The Sands of Nakajima" after golfer Tsuneyuki Nakajima was tied for the lead in the third round in 1978, only to fall out of contention when it took him four shots to get out of the bunker.
Bunker on the Old Course
The bunker walls are built with stacked turf.

18 holes and not one more

Until quite recently, the R&A governed the game of golf worldwide, except for Mexico and the United States. (Nowadays, an offshoot of the R&A jointly issues the "Rules of Golf" in conjunction with the United States Golf Association.) Back in the 19th century, the R&A began standardizing and codifying the rules of golf.

One of the most significant reasons for why the Old Course reigns as the "home" of golf stems from its role in standardizing golf courses at 18 holes. In the early days, golf courses could be any number of holes, from five or six to 25 or more. In the 1700s, the Old Course itself was 22 holes, generally played by heading out for 11 holes and then turning around and playing the same holes backward toward the clubhouse. Incidentally, even today there are seven "double greens," which means fourteen of the holes share a green with another hole.

Eventually, the Old Course's first four holes and its last four holes were deemed too short. The members took these eight shorter holes and combined them into four.

18th tee marker on the Old Course
The tee marker for the Old Course's 18th hole.
And thus the Old Course settled on 18 holes.

With the Old Course's role as one of the rotating hosts for the British Open, and the R&A's role as the governor of golf rules, 18 holes became standardized across the world.

Go ahead, strike a pose on the Swilcan Bridge

Everyone does it, even the pros.

Built at least 700 years ago, the Swilcan Bridge originally helped shepherds guide their sheep (remember those bunkers?) over a creek. Today, it guides golfers and tourists over the channeled Swilcan Burn on the 18th hole.

Champions at the Open pose on the apex of the bridge, usually with the 18th green and R&A building in the background. Jack Nicklaus bid his farewell to golf atop the bridge. Tom Watson, on retiring after his final round, kissed it.

The pose on the bridge has become an iconic scene, one of the most famous in golf, and of all sports.

You can pose, too.

Conquer the Old Course . . . well, actually . . . er . . . its putting green

So you're not a real golfer, but you still want to play on the Old Course?

You're in luck. To the side sits the Himalayas, a miniature golf course set on the rippling hills of the real Old Course.

Putting on the Himalayas at the Old Course
Sadly, Nana didn't read the break to the right.
Operated by the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club, the Himalayas gives you a taste of playing the real course. Truth be told, making putts on the Himalayas is harder than putting on the Old Course itself. No joke. Your putting line may break both left and right, along with ascending a hill and trickling down the far side. Pin positions change daily, and the crew seems to delight in ensuring no one will make a hole-in-one. Be ready for three putts. And four putts. And five.

Okay, maybe a six, too. Ahem.

Playing mini-golf on the Himalayas in St. Andrews
Grampa Bill didn't make this putt.
{Ed.'s note: C'mon, admit it. You needed more than six.}

Fine. I got a frickin' eight on a hole.

The shame.

Toddler with an unorthodox golf grip
Unsurprisingly, this unorthodox golf grip does not lead to good putting.
What'll it cost you to play a round of either nine or 18 holes? All of £2. Note that kids under the age of six are only allowed to play nine holes — which, if you've ever played golf with a toddler, you'll agree is plenty.

St. Andrews is one of Scotland's most charming small towns. It has a gorgeous beach; a fabulous set of cathedral and castle ruins; an ancient university spread through town; cliffside views; a small aquarium; and, of course, golf. For many, the Old Course is a draw all by itself. Whether you walk the entire course, merely pose for a photo-op on the Swilcan Bridge, or play a round on the Himalayas, a stop at the "home of golf" is a must-see if you're visiting St. Andrews.

Studying the lie for a putt on the Himalayas

Friday, July 17, 2015

Loch Ness Monster: "likely a large catfish" ?!?

Loch Ness
Does a monster lurk in these waters? Or just a really big fish?
Say it ain't so.

I'm not a believer in the monster. But if I have to choose between Nessie being . . . umm, well, a monster . . . and not a large fish, then I'm choosing monster all the way.

Now, though, a leading "expert" on the Loch Ness Monster says the monster is "most likely" a "Wels catfish," which can grow up to thirteen feet long and weigh nearly 900 pounds. In the Victorian era, people added these large catfish to Loch Ness for sport fishing.

The so-called expert is a guy who, at age 28, gave up his job and girlfriend in southern England and moved to Scotland to search for Nessie. Which he's been doing for the last 24 years.

"I have to be honest. I just don't think that Nessie is a prehistoric monster," he says. He thinks that many of the reports and sightings fit with the catfish's long curved back.

He's not saying, however, the mystery of the Loch Ness monster is solved. Rather, he thinks it's the best hypothesis right now. And he's going to continue to search for a better explanation.

Those of us who prefer the monster explanation have a thread on which to cling. That's because reports of the Loch Ness Monster go back long, long before the Victorians introduced large catfish to the lake. Our earliest reports of the monster go back to the 500s AD, when St. Columba supposedly banished a "water beast" in the waters.

If you want to hunt for Nessie from the comfort of your own home, you have a new tool available. Earlier this year, Google unveiled a way to search the loch via Google Street View, which allows you to search not only above water, but below water, too.

As for me, I'm standing by Nessie the monster. None of these newfangled, evidence-free hypotheses about large catfish for me.

What do you think? A catfish? Or a monster?

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle, which lies on the shore of Loch Ness, is an excellent vantage point for spotting monsters large catfish.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Glasgow football club's terrifying new mascot

Let's all agree, shall we, that a mascot's foremost job is to entice and entertain the wee laddies and lassies at sporting events.

Not to make them shit bricks.

Partick Thistle football mascot Kingsley
The new mascot for Partick Thistle, a football club in the Scottish Premier League. (Photo from the team web site.)
Recently, I've been having a think about choosing a sports team to support here in Glasgow. My wee laddie is on the cusp of starting to follow sports (well, a teensy bit), and hopefully he and I can enjoy attending some games together and maybe develop a rooting interest.

The obvious two choices are Celtic and Rangers, the dominant sports franchises in Scotland. They're enmeshed in a heated rivalry called the "Old Firm." But as I explained a few months ago, the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic continuously leads to enmity, vandalism, and violent clashes among their fans. It's a sectarian hot mess which I'm determined my laddie will avoid.

Rugby's a possibility, and we have an excellent pro team in the Glasgow Warriors. However, (1) I'm not much of a real rugby fan, and (2) I'll never allow Jackson to play rugby, just as he'll never be allowed to play American football.

Kingsley, the Partick Thistle mascot
(Photo courtesy of the Press Association.)
Besides, living in the U.K., we need a football team to support. It's kinda mandatory. Even folks here who don't like sports still have favorite teams.

So I was pondering Partick Thistle, a local Glaswegian football club that plays fairly close to our home in the west end of Glasgow. Though the team is named after the Partick neighborhood of Glasgow, it hasn't played games there in more than 100 years, instead playing in the scruffier Maryhill region of town.

The "Jags," as they're called, are a middling franchise which hasn't won the league in decades and regularly struggles to avoid relegation from the top league into one of the lower leagues. Our support wouldn't be based on winning, or fine football, or great tradition. It would be more of getting a taste of the long-suffering, oft-overlooked, perpetual loser vibe. Which comes with, y'know, cheap seats. And gallows humor, a specialty of Scots, particularly our local Weegies.

And then, last week, came the new mascot.


Designed by a Glasgwegian artist, David Shrigley, the new mascot garnered a few plaudits, with a major British newspaper declaring: "Of course Kingsley’s glowering monobrow, empty eyes and toothy maw look strange, aggressive, and unsettling. And? What do you expect? This is what’s called Art."

Suffice it to say, that's not the majority opinion.

Twitter has been afire with jokes, memes, and Photoshops of the mascot. Kids fleeing in terror. Comparisons to a demonic Lisa from The Simpsons. People wondering if the away-mascot will be a moon. Questions as to why Freddie Krueger, the clown from It, and other scary luminaries were passed over.

I have to admit, the team's new slogan Not So Cuddly Anymore — tickles me. Moreover, my thoughts on Kinglsey are slowly transmogrifying from I can't believe they did that to a certain affection. I mean, was the mascot intentionally humorous? Does it matter?

This new mascot might just be genius.

Whaddya think? Should we view Kinglsey as value-added? Or a sign to run away? The screaming toddlers at games could be worth the price of admission.