Image for St Andrews - Home of “Golfe”

Background: This was a background piece for the 1984 British Open. Ian Baker-Finch, 23, was a tall, nice lad from Nambour, Queensland, with looks a Hollywood star would give his boots for. He had the Open sewn up going into the fourth round; all he had to do was clear Swilcan Burn on the 376-yard first hole. The Burn is a creek about eight feet wide and 105 yards from the green. His second shot went into the drink. Baker-Finch blew up; he took 79 for the round, and finished 10th to the Spaniard, Severiano Ballesteros (1957-2011). Golf is a pursuit played largely in the mind. I suspect that if Baker-Finch had cleared the burn he would have been one of the great golfers. I also suspect he was haunted by Swilcan Burn. He did win some tournaments but by 1994 his confidence was completely shot; perfect in practice, he often missed the cut in the real thing, and retired at 37 in 1997. Swilcan Burn yet again sadly confirms Eliot on the effect of chance in our lives:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened  
Into the rose garden.

OF ALL THE BRITISH shrines - Lord’s, Twickenham, Wimbledon, Epsom Downs, St Andrews - the last is easily the most interesting. St Andrews is on the east coast of Fife, which is a wedge of land about 30 kilometres across, lying between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay, and about 80 kilometres north-east of Edinburgh.

Now reduced to a population of some 17 000, including 3672 students at the university, rising to 45 000 for the Open, St Andrews is a place of vast and fascinating antiquity. It must be said that the hype quotient is fairly high; some of the stories seem to belong in the realm of the higher truth: they deserve to be true.

The locals thus, so I’m told, insist that all the old champions come back to play a ghostly round on the Old Course tonight. Who will win? One must assume St Andrews own, the younger Tommy Morris. He had won three Opens by the time he was 20, and was dead, of a broken heart, by the time he was 24, three months after his young wife, Margaret, died, along with the baby, in childbirth.

To begin at the beginning: Scotland shares with Russia the honour of having St Andrew as patron saint. Andrew (from the Greek: manly) was a brother of the first pontiff and is said to have done his bit for the old church in Asia Minor, Macedonia and southern Russia. He was finally nailed to an X-shaped cross (hence Scotland’s cross of St Andrew) in Patras, Greece.

In 345 according to one of several nice versions, a Greek monk named Regulus, or Rule, was seized of a vision warning him that the Emperor Constantine intended to remove the holy relics of St Andrew from Patras to Constantinople. Regulus took the arm-bone, three fingers of the right hand, a tooth, and a knee-cap, set sail for ‘the utmost part of the world’, eventually fetched up off the coast of Fife, and was there shipwrecked. Relieved to be still alive, Regulus, built a church on shore at what is now St Andrews. Business from pilgrims come to see the apostle’s kneecap was brisk; a cult began.

Given this flying start, St Andrews became, over the next 1000 years, the religious and university capital of Scotland. The first archbishop was appointed in 908, the immense cathedral was begun in 1160, the bishop’s place (later the castle) in 1200, and the university, Scotland’s first, in 1410.

By 1366, the diocese of St Andrews had a population of 88 000 out of Scotland’s total of 400 000. The Scottish kings didn’t fancy golf; they took the view that it distracted young men from going to church and from practising their archery, thought to be crucial for national defence against the English. Canute-like they sought to forbid by law ‘Futeball, golfe, and uther sik unprofitabill sportes’.

Acts forbidding golf were enacted by James II (of Scotland) in 1457 (‘decreetid and ordained… that the Fute-ball and Golfe be utterly cryit doune, and nocht to be usit’), by James III in 1471, and James IV in 1491. However, James IV finally succumbed. On 21 September 1502, he paid 14 shillings for clubs in Perth, and legitimised the game the following year.

I took a walk round the edge of the ‘auld grey toon’ to see what remains of the palace and the cathedral. Behind and above the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, there is an obelisk, 10 metres high, dedicated to the memory of four who ‘in support of the Protestant faith, suffered death by fire’: Patrick Hamilton, Henry Forrest, George Wishart and Walter Mill.

The palace, on a 30-metre cliff above the rocks of St Andrews Bay, is some 800 metres round the coast. Once 70 metres by 45, it is now chiefly notable for the ‘bottle’ dungeon hollowed out of the sheer rock of the Sea Tower at the north-west corner.

To get a feeling for religious law and order of the period, you turn right into an aperture, left down five steps, and slide sideways through a narrow gap into a small gothic room above the dungeon.

The entrance to the dungeon is circular, about two metres across. The stone is icy to the touch. It goes straight down for about three metres and then widens out to a total depth of 7.3 metres. It’s 4.6 metres across at the bottom.

In the sixteenth century, the prelates had a strong nose for the heretic; one was thrown down on the rocks, and the story put about that he had been trying to fly, but most were dropped down the neck of the bottle and pending formal extirpation, left in the dark below. The executions were organised as a sort of human fireworks display: faggots were fastened to the victim clothes; a large quantity of gunpowder was attached to the faggots.

The idea, quite humane really, was that when the bonfire was lit the gunpowder would go off and kill the victim outright, or at least render him insensible to the licking, and largely symbolic, flames.

Unfortunately, the technique of execution was not an exact science, and when the gunpowder failed even to stun them, Hamilton, a Lutheran, in 1527, and Wishart, more in the Calvinist vein, in 1545, had notably difficult ordeals.

According to the pious tradition Wishart was able to assert: ‘This flame hath scorched my body, and yet it hath not daunted my spirit.’ He also predicted that Cardinal David Beaton, primate and chancellor of Scotland, who, on a pile of cushions, was 30 metres away observing events from a window inside the palace, would shortly succumb to death by violence. Two months later, sixteen of Wisharts followers infiltrated the palace, murdered the cardinal, and hung his body, by an arm and a leg, from the same window.

Not much remains of the cathedral - a corner tower, or roundel, part of the aisle, and the east gable, with spires, and the tower of St Regulus but even this much is breathtaking.

The Protestants re-formed the cathedral by looting the furnishings, smashing the thirty-one altars, and making bonfires of the books, hangings and wooden statuary. For the past couple of centuries, the interior has been used as a burial ground.

Willie Auchterlonie, the last (in 1893) St Andrean, as they call them, to win the Open, is buried there, as is a lad killed by a golf ball; and let into one wall is a bas relief of young Tommy Morris. He appears, in a bonnet, coat and tie, as something of a croucher with a stance that in cricket would be called very open, and his left foot is pointed where he’s aiming.

There is an assertion that Golf was played in Scotland as early as 1350, and Mr Peter Thomson, who won the Open in 1954, ‘55, ‘56, ‘58 and ‘65, claims it was invented at St Andrews by Dutch merchant seamen on the links, or flat sandy wastes, while waiting for their boats to turn round. The earliest reference to golf at St Andrews is in a parchment in the university library dated 1552.

According to the St Andrews Preservation Trust, Mary Queen of Scots was, in 1567, the first lady golfer to play at St Andrew’s. This is a nice story. It shows that Mary, in the midst of a spectacularly active period involving matters of politics, sex, and the assassination of her husband, still had time for the finer things of life.

On 14 May 1754, twenty-two Fife noblemen and gentlemen formed themselves into The Society of St Andrew’s Golfers, and put in for a silver club to be played for annually. In 1834, King William IV agreed to become patron; the club henceforth styled itself The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, or R & A for short, and eventually arrogated to itself the role of governing authority of the game.

In 1854, the clubhouse was opened. In 1860 the first Open, for a championship belt, was held at Prestwick. Tom Morris jun retained the belt, by winning it three times in a row from 1868. In 1960, the Australian K. D. G. Nagle, said to be a man completely without malice, won the Centenary Open at the St Andrew’s course.

The Sydney Morning Herald 18 July 1984