In time, St. Andrews grows on golfers

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- They began playing golf on this hallowed ground centuries ago, and the layout of the famous links is pretty much the same as when Old Tom Morris made feathery golf balls and struck them wearing a tweed jacket.

While not the first venue for the Open Championship, the Old Course in the town of St. Andrews came to be known as the game's home, accepted as its birthplace, and has hosted the world's oldest tournament more than any other venue.

But history and nostalgia mean little to those who traverse bumpy ground littered with pot bunkers and double greens, making it difficult to absorb the aura.

Scott Hoch, for example, once famously referred to the Old Course as "the worst piece of mess" he had ever seen.

While many were shocked by such a description, there were certainly some who nodded in various forms of agreement.

The site for the 139th Open Championship this week is certainly revered. To some, their enthusiasm is reserved.

"You've got to look deeply there," said two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington -- who tends to do just that.

"It would be very easy to see a rugged piece of land and ... no, it wouldn't be considered beautiful. But then you get out there and play it, and it's fascinating. I'm sure there's many professional golfers who won't appreciate it, who can't understand it at all."

The Old Course is not visually appealing, such as last year's venue at Turnberry, with its frequent watery vistas. Aside from the first tee and 18th green, which are part of the town and mere yards from streets and businesses, the course can appear rather bland.

It has its double greens and various landmarks such as the Road Hole and Hell Bunker and the Valley of Sin, but it is not hard by the sea nor is it lush or scenic. Water rarely comes into play.

"If you built a course like that today, it probably would be the last job you ever did," said 1994 Open champion Nick Price. "But there is a panache, a mystique to that place. It's evolved over time.

"The first time I played it, I had no idea what they were making such a big fuss about. That was in '75, I was over as an amateur [trying to qualify for the Open at Carnoustie] ... I was with a buddy of mine and we played a couple of practice rounds together and we were looking at each other, 'What's the big deal here?'"

Said former European Ryder Cup captain Mark James: "I appreciate the history of the place, I love the history. But the course is a bit of an anachronism, especially today.

"They have to make the greens very firm and make the pins very difficult. And that then suits the very long hitters. The big hitters can carry the bunkers, so it favors them. They can stop the ball quicker on the firm greens."

Perhaps that explains two victories apiece at the Old Course for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who won the last two Opens at St. Andrews (2000, 2005) and will attempt to become the first player since Harry Vardon to win a major three times at the same venue (excluding Augusta National) this week.

And neither Nicklaus nor Woods has professed any difficulty in adapting.

Nicklaus has often told the story of his trip to the 1959 Walker Cup at Muirfield when his father and a group of friends ventured over to St. Andrews.

They returned less than impressed. Nicklaus said his dad, Charlie, referred to the place as a "cow pasture."

But that didn't sway the Golden Bear's opinion when he saw the course for the first time at the 1964 Open won by Tony Lema.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Nicklaus, who won at the Old Course in 1970 and 1978. "I walked in and I saw what was there. I was a kid. I saw this stuff, thought it was kind of neat, looked at the history, what they did, and it withstood the test of time. I fell in love with it on day one.

"I went back to my dad and said, 'Dad, better reevaluate this, because this is a pretty neat place.' And he fell in love with it, too, because I played well and he followed and he finally came back to understand it."

Woods, too, loved it from the first time he saw the Old Course. His indoctrination to links golf was a pretty stout one: as an amateur in 1995, he played the Scottish Open at Carnoustie and then the Open Championship the following week at St. Andrews.

"I just fell in love with it, because the lines and the angles are not what everyone says," Woods said. "People say you hit it miles left; you hit it miles left, that's fine, but you have no angle [to the pin].

"The R&A sets up the pins pretty well, so it forces you to be a little more strategic in how you play the golf course. You have to be so creative and your touch has to be great, because you're going to have a lot of long lag putts or putts that break three and four different directions.

"It takes a lot of imagination to win. You look at past champions of St. Andrews, a lot of them have great short games and great imagination and ball control."

No doubt. Look at the list of champions since 1970: Nicklaus twice, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly and Woods twice. Daly might not fit with that group (although he has won two majors), but he was a long hitter in 1995 with a deft short game, excellent attributes to possess at St. Andrews.

"You're underwhelmed typically the first time you walk out there in a lot of ways," said 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman. "There are some things that are pretty extraordinary. The Road Hole, the Hell Bunker. But the first time you go around, it's 'Yeah, it's cool, but not sure I get it yet.'

"I think playing in a tournament, you begin to realize. You start to understand the strategy of the course, playing with the wind, against it. Playing to the middle of the course leaves you with such bad angles to the pin. It's hard to go low playing it safe."

And all these years later, Tom Watson still shakes his head.

"It is very difficult to understand St. Andrews," said Watson, who finished second to Ballesteros in 1984. "You can't get familiar with it."

And yet, it might be the most familiar, most well-known course in the world.

"It grows on you," Price said. "It's everything about St. Andrews. It's the town. It's the R&A being there. It's the hotel. It's knowing where the old railway sheds were. It's the bunkers. It's the history. You can't soak that in right away. It takes a bit of time."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.