St. Andrews the home of many milestones

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- A casual round of golf is just that at the home of golf, even if you sometimes experience all four seasons during a four-hour journey. Tourists line the rail behind the 18th green, taking it all in. Folks cut across the wide swath that is the first and final fairways, looking both ways for golfers and their errant shots. Pictures are taken on the famous Swilcan Bridge.

This is, above all, a public place, declared so by an Act of Parliament more than 30 years ago. It is closed on Sundays so people can have their run of the ancient grounds. On other days, anyone with a certified handicap can tee it up, although they might have to jump through a few hoops to first get a starting time.

So why the big fuss over the Women's British Open coming to the storied links in St. Andrews this week?

Well, surprisingly there is the matter of it being the first time, ever, that a women's professional event will be staged on the Old Course, one that has some 500 years of history.

And then there is that historic building in the background, the one that is in all the pictures, nearly flush with the first tee. That is the home to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews -- and it is for men only.

So, yes, it is significant that the LPGA Tour will bring one of its four major championships to the place where so many golf milestones have occurred.

"It is a big step for women's golf,'' said Annika Sorenstam. "For us to play a championship like that at St. Andrews … I remember when I played as an amateur, there was a sign out there that said, 'No dogs or women allowed.' Hopefully they'll take that out for the week. For us to be able to go there now, I think it's going to be great for women.''

Sorenstam was referring to a sign that used to be near the entrance to the R&A clubhouse. And, yes, it is gone, as the women professionals will be able to use the facilities, a fact not to be minimized.

The men's British Open has been played at the Old Course 27 times, most recently in 2005 when Tiger Woods won for the second time at the course that first hosted golf's oldest championship in 1873.

If you're wondering what took so long for the women, it is more a matter of this championship not having the same cachet as the men's version. The Women's British Open did not come into being until 1976 and there were times in the 1980s when it nearly went under. It did not become an LPGA Tour event until 1994 and was not designated a major until 2001.

It was then that the tournament started to move to some venerable venues, including sites played by the men such as Royal Birkdale, Turnberry and Royal Lytham & St. Anne's. According to LPGA officials, St. Andrews was immediately on the radar, with the tour and former title sponsor Weetabix pushing hard.

But logistics intervened. With the men's Open to be played there in 2005, the St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the course -- along with the five others courses in St. Andrews -- did not want to stage a Women's Open in the year before or after. So 2007 became the first opportunity for St. Andrews.

"Now that it's become a major it deserves the attention of the biggest courses,'' said LPGA veteran Laura Davies. "Since it's become a major, we've gone to the bigger courses, and it's good that St. Andrews has fallen in. You're playing at the home of golf. It can't get much better than that.''

One thing that makes it better is the famous R&A clubhouse is being made available to the participants in the tournament, complete with nameplates at every locker.

That should allow the players -- many of whom have never been to St. Andrews, let alone played the Old Course -- to soak in even more atmosphere.

St. Andrews is considered the place where the game was born some 500 years ago and is where 22 original holes were built, scaled back to what is now the regulation 18 in 1764. It is where the rules of golf were tinkered with, where gutta percha balls were first produced.

And it is also where Tom Morris Sr. spent most of his life.

Morris left a huge imprint on the game: He helped to devise the first metal cups for firming up the hole; he learned how sand, scattered over bare spots, helped the growth of grass; he laid out golf courses across the British Isles (for the fee of one pound per day, plus expenses), including Muirfield, Carnoustie and Royal Dornoch. And he was a fine player, winning the Open Championship four times.

"He was there just at the right time,'' said David Joy, a St. Andrews historian and author. "You're talking about a life span that ranged from starting your career as a feather golf ball maker, through the gutta percha ball, to seeing trains link up the links land to the seaside courses, to playing in the first Opens, to winning it, to being the custodian of the [St. Andrews] links for nearly 40 years. He was involved in the major changes that occurred during the evolution of the game. It's unusual for a man to live to 86 at that time. He lived through some stunning changes.''

Morris was laid to rest just down the road from the Old Course at a burial ground that is part of the remains of the St. Andrews Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1559. Two other Open champions were buried there -- Morris' son, Tom Jr., who also won the championship four times and Willie Auchterlonie -- as well as the game's first true golf professional, Allan Robertson, the first person on record to break 80 in an 18-hole round.

If today's players are so inclined, they can take in even more history, golf and otherwise.

For example … some 100 yards from the R&A Clubhouse, which was built in 1854 and became the home to golf's governing body outside of the United States in 1897, sits the Martyrs Monument, where those "in support of the Protestant Faith Suffered Death by Fire.''

Golfers didn't always have it so good, either. Three times the game was banned in St. Andrews because it was considered distracting to bowmen who were supposed to be practicing archery.

And yet the game survived, with the original 13 articles being adopted by the Society of St. Andrews Golfers in 1754.

The Old Course is open to any and all, as are all of the courses in St. Andrews. And the venue has hosted women's amateur events, such as the Scottish Ladies Championship and the St. Rule Trophy, whose winners include Sorenstam and Catriona Matthew, both competing this week.

"It's going to be really exciting to see the women professionals play the course,'' said Peter Dawson, CEO of the R&A. "I think they're playing it at about 6,600 yards. I think that will give some second shots that we perhaps don't see the men playing. The men might be playing with more lofted clubs, the women might be playing with the straighter-faced irons, and that will bring the humps and hollows at the front of the greens in St. Andrews into play. I'm looking forward to how the course plays and to how the ladies get on playing.''

The exact yardage will be 6,638 yards, which is some 600 yards shorter than the men played it for the Open in 2005. Par will be 73 (instead of 72 for the men) with the famous Road Hole 17th being converted to a par 5.

To the uninitiated, the Old Course might not appear to be anything special at first glance, but with seven double greens and pot bunkers in some unforeseen places, it can cause fits. And few LPGA Tour players, including Davies -- who is from England -- have ever played it.

"I think all of us are excited about going there,'' said tour veteran Pat Hurst. "If you're not, I think you're crazy. That's where it all started. There's a lot of history there. I'm looking forward to getting there and seeing what it's like. I've never been there, so I'm anxious to get over there. We're moving forward, and this is a step in the right direction.''

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.