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St. Andrews' kooky deal with an Australian golf club

Keeping grass alive at Opal Fields is an impossibility, so golfers embrace the desert instead. Claire Martin

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 20 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

IN ITS 600-YEAR HISTORY, St. Andrews (home of the British Open, July 16-19) has granted reciprocal playing rights to precisely one golf course. Nine time zones from the Firth of Forth, in South Australia's desert mining settlement Coober Pedy (pop. 3,500), is Opal Fields Golf Club. In 2003, while filming a documentary about opal mining, a visiting film crew discovered that locals had made good on a drunken decision in 1976 to build a golf course in the impossible-to-irrigate Outback.

The producer thought it would be funny to simultaneously interview via satellite St. Andrews' then-general manager, Alan McGregor, and Opal Fields' then-president, Kim Kelly. Weren't there some similarities between this wild Australian bush abstraction and the "home of golf" at the Old Course? During the interview, Kelly recalls, "I kept saying, 'What about reciprocal rights with St. Andrews?' He said, 'You give me an opal mine and I'll think about it.'"

Kelly promptly staked a mining claim near the course, sent a package to St. Andrews with photos of the claim and threw in a few opals and a how-to brochure. A letter from McGregor, whose humor is apparently as breezy as the North Sea, arrived shortly thereafter. Rights had been granted. "I cannot describe how delighted we are," McGregor wrote. "The trustees were completely speechless, probably in admiration." There was, of course, a catch. McGregor never used the words "Old Course." Opal Fields' members would have the privilege of playing the Balgove Course, the only nine-hole layout in St. Andrews. Each January.

Opal in the rough
As part of their $10 (Australian) greens fees, players are given a patch of artificial turf as a portable fairway and three golf balls. "It's not unusual to lose a fair few," says Chevahn Hoad, the current Opal Fields president. Shots tend to ricochet off rocks, which are strewn about the course, in unpredictable vectors. Players, however, can keep any opal they find. (The best can fetch $50,000 an ounce.) Putting surfaces called scrapes are rolled with motor oil, resulting in a black circle in the dirt. To Coober Pedians, this is aesthetically pleasing. "The thing we disliked the most was grass," Kelly says. "If we had a bit of rain and any grass sprang up, the first thing we'd do was run out and spray it."

Sand trapped
As far as anyone knows, no one from St. Andrews has ever played Opal Fields, where locals live in caves and often play at night to escape the 110-degree heat. Kelly knows of only one Coober Pedestrian to have played St. Andrews. Traveling in Scotland a few years ago "with some mates," the Opal Fields member "marched right into the pro shop and said, 'I'm from Coober Pedy and I have reciprocal rights!' The poor guy at the desk went ashen." But he rang up McGregor, who did the Aussies right. They got onto the Old Course.