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A first-timer’s crash course on Old Course

Herb Gould’s group heads out last month Old Course St. Andrews — his first time playing scenic setting where golf

Herb Gould’s group heads out last month at the Old Course at St. Andrews — his first time playing in the scenic setting where golf was first played six centuries ago.

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:47AM



ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — After watching two of my playing partners bang their tee shots off the Old Course Hotel — good thing they use golf-ball-proof glass — I decided to take the Road Hole less traveled, around the left side of that landmark inn rather than over the corner of the hotel.

Hitting the ball where I planned for once, I dropped my short fade of a drive on the left side of the fairway, and never mind that it was 200-plus yards from the green. I took the road out of the Road Hole with a low-running iron, then flipped a 40-yard pitch onto the green and watched the ball roll to within three feet of the back-left pin for an easy par putt.

I then negotiated the inviting 18th hole by going left of the Valley of the Sin and throwing a short iron onto the green for an easy two-putt. I will always cherish those pars on the last two holes of the Old Course.

Watching the Women’s British Open that ended Sunday at St. Andrews, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for my first round at the Old Course — if it’s possible to be nostalgic about an event that happened three weeks ago.

On the Monday before the men’s Open at Muirfield, I crossed ‘‘Old Course’’ off my bucket list.

It was a special day in many ways — because the Old Course is a combination of ingredients that add up to a magical experience.

I’d like to tell you that as we stood on the first tee, I was thinking about hitting a golf ball on hallowed ground where golf was first played in the 1400s. I’d like to say I was relishing the moment because the first tee at St. Andrews is a lovely gathering point for golfers watching other golfers.

But all I was thinking was, ‘‘Make contact and hit the ball down the middle.’’

As we trundled off the first tee, I was alone in my thoughts. Because my wife, Liz, had gone down the right side. And my friend Ron had cranked his drive left.

Because we were into a head wind, and because I don’t hit the ball far or high, I chipped up to the Swilcan Burn, a wee Scottish creek that guards the green, and threw a little wedge over it, then narrowly missed the par putt and sighed.

From there, I could settle down. The golf course is what you think it is: Cactus-like gorse, wispy fescue grass and ominous deep bunkers guard bumpy hard-scrabble fairways and undulating greens that are surprisingly smooth to putt on.

In the background, the town of St. Andrews, which is as delightful as the Old Course, frames the setting. On the high ground, you can catch glimpses of the West Sands beach that was used so dramatically in the film ‘‘Chariots of Fire.’’

Adding to the dreamy quality of the Old Course is that it’s starkly scenic everywhere you look except for one thing: You often can’t see where you’re supposed to hit the ball.

That can be a good thing, though. Because you don’t see all the peril.

During the round, the bounces gave — and they took away. On the second hole, I barely found my approach, which landed well short of the green but caught a downslope and ran all the way through it.

On No. 8, the only par-3 on the front nine, a chest-high skulled 7-iron bounced all the way onto the green, stopping three feet from the cup for a tap-in birdie.

On the par-five 14th hole, my ball landed in one of the Beardies, a group of nasty pot bunkers. My second shot went into another of the Beardies.

I’m not sure how I ever got out of there. But I wouldn’t trade that disaster for anything. At the Old Course, even the bad stuff is a treat.

Email: hgould@suntimes.com

Twitter: @herbgould



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