The Old Course in 2D

By Scott Macpherson

Scott Macpherson

All golfers know of the Old Course but only a lucky few people actually visit St Andrews and play it. Since the first recognised plan of the Old Course was made in 1821, the closest most people come to this historic golfing location is a map. For that single reason the two-dimensional (2D) depiction of the course remains crucial for interested people to understand the allure and strategy of the Old Course.

How the Old Course has been depicted has changed considerably. Recent maps range from aerial photos to GPS plans. But the first was hand drawn and coloured. Paid for by local landowner James Cheape and surveyed by a Mr Martin in 1821, it was drawn to resolve the boundaries of the course, from the linksland available for farming. No plan since has been more important. But other great plans have been presented to us. I recently published a study entitled St Andrews, The Evolution of the Old Course, where perhaps the most important plans of the Old Course have been brought together for the first time.

The next plan of significance was by William Chambers of Perth in 1836. His plan gave us greater detail of the St Andrews Links (it did not become the Old Course until the New Course was built in 1895). He included on his plan close-ups of many of the bunkers and some of the greens – including the fifth and thirteenth green showing two holes cut! This was a first. Old Daw Anderson is credited with cutting the first double green as late as 1832, but references also credit Allan Robertson.

Almost 50 years passed until the next landmark plan was surveyed. Drawn in 1879 this plan is easily overlooked but it has on it one piece of important information: a scorecard. In 1821, Martin had the course measuring 6,378 yards, though his chart is not easily legible. Nor are any other plans published up until this plan drawn by Mr Kemp was published in Harper's New Monthly in 1879, clearly stating the course was 6,323 yards.

In 1896 a new plan was to be drawn by a man who was a civil engineer and the Chairman of the Rules Committee, B Hall Blyth. His plan was produced in landscape format, included the newly completed New Course and incorporated a card showing the length of the holes. He measured the course as being 6,147 yards (3,015 out and 3,132 home). Curiously however, an unknown hand has written a question mark next to the length of the twelfth hole. When I came to scale the length of the hole off the plan itself, I could see why. The hole was said to be 358 yards, but only measured 308! This made the back nine 3,082 and the course 6,097 yards – over 220 yards shorter than Kemp had measured it. How could the course be shrinking, I pondered? Research turned up that a relaxation of the rules about eight years earlier had allowed teeing grounds to be located as desired. It is not known if St Andrews or Sandwich was the first course to build 'medal tees', but an official log had the St Andrews links as measuring 6,308 yards in 1892. And in 1898, Garden G Smith published the length of the 'Championship' course at St Andrews as measuring 6,323 yards – the length that Kemp had measured the course. So the answer may be that Hall Blyth printed on his plan the length of the course from the regular tees.

For me the next landmark plan is that completed by Alister MacKenzie in 1924, of which the architect later wrote: "It took me a full year to complete the task, notwithstanding the fact that I thought I knew the course thoroughly. In actual fact I found that my knowledge was of the slightest, and the subtleties which I discovered have always been a source of amazement to me." His plan's popularity is in part due to its artistry, but I am sure it is also due to the success of MacKenzie as an architect. While the original hangs behind the secretary of the R&A's desk, a slightly adapted and more vibrantly coloured version has been widely available in St Andrews for many years.

Another plan of great interest to me is a plan that is very rarely seen – and indeed the original is not currently on display. As the story goes the Old Course was 'flown' by the Japanese sometime in the 1970s. With comparatively rudimentary equipment they collected contour information of the Old Course. This found its way into the hands of US Open champion Jerry Pate. And at the 1990 Open Championship he presented the R&A with a one inch to 100 feet contour plan of the Old Course. This large plan shows more clearly than most the undulations and elevation change of the Old Course. It was a highlight to be able to publish this plan in my book – even if it had to be somewhat reduced in size!

Computers have revolutionised graphics and the making of 2D maps. The modelling of the Old Course has benefited from this new technology. As the home of golf, the Old Course acts as a wick for focusing the heat of the technology explosion with new company's using it to demonstrate their new software. The fantastic new visual representations go around the world and take St Andrews to millions who may otherwise never see her. But as good as these graphics are, they are not a substitute for an actual visit to the course.

What plans give us is a clear representation of the actual course at different points in time – away from the distortions of our own memory. Current plans show all 112 bunkers, the relationship between the holes and the proximity of peril to pleasure. While older plans show us a different course; narrower, shorter, wilder and with less bunkers. These cartographical masterpieces are snapshots in time, and a terrific way to trace a course's evolution.

Without these plans, we would not understand the Old Course as we do today. But additionally, it may be suggested that the influence of the Old Course on the game of golf would be less, and that many courses around the world would not exist in the form they do. Plans of the Old Course have not just increased the understanding of the holes at St Andrews, they have taken the game to the furthest corners of the world. They have shaped golf course design, and in turn, golf course designers have shaped the way plans are drawn, and the Old Course.

Scott Macpherson is a golf course architect. His book St Andrews, The Evolution of the Old Course can be bought online at www.tmgolfdesign.com or from selected Waterstones bookstores in the UK.

This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.
 

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