ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Often whispered in a room of some importance is the phrase ‘if these walls could talk’. It suited the four that surrounded the main space of the Caddy Pavilion at the Old Course in St. Andrews. A few months before the 150th Open was held at the historic courses, we were invited into the room by the caddies to sit with them and hear some stories they had accumulated over the years at the Home of Golf.
Sitting with a group of guys who average eight to 10 loops of the Old Course each week during the summer season, there was no shortage of “I remember when…” and “Here’s a good one for ya…” Their stories ranged from meeting celebrities with smashed windows to players carding scores of 197 to swings that “looked like an octopus falling down a flight of stairs”.
What better place to start than on the first hole.
‘I had an Aussie who flew in for his one-time trip to Scotland,’ one caddy said. “I met him on the green and could tell by the expression on his face and the vibrations in his hands that he was beyond nervous. It’s not uncommon to see nervous people on the first tee it’s a big deal to play here, and we understand that. I made a small conversation to try to distract him and asked him where he was from and what he had done. The answers were short, and my efforts to soothe his nerves were clearly not working.
“Anyway, we’re heading to the tee, and a lot of times when the wind helps the first one a little bit, I’ll have the guys hit a wood or a 3 iron just to get it down and leave them something to about 150 yards into the green. With this guy I knew he needed the biggest face in his bag. It was the driver. I told him ‘Just aim for the bridge to the left of the first green and do it fall over there, nice smooth.’ I backed off but only for a few seconds when I realized he was shaking too much to put his ball on the tee I helped then went back to the bag glancing at the other caddies fearing what what was going to happen. He swung and hit the ball…but fair. The ball came straight off his driver’s toe and went straight to the right, passed us off the tee side. He then slammed into one of the white poles around the tee, flew through the air and came to rest on the path in front of the R&A clubhouse, approximately 15-20 yards behind the first tee Out of bounds The starter was right there and picked up the ball and gave it back to the guy with a smile saying, “I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve never seen a ball end up there before.”
You can probably sense what was going to happen next.
“So we let the other members of the band hit, and I tried to tell my guy that everything was fine and it was just the release of his nerves that gave him a bad swing. Tee it up, bridge left of the green, good swing. No problem, right? Bad. Same swing, same contact, toe shank driver who crossed the tee, across the green, hitting the fence of the green. other side and rolling down a path, finally stopping on the other side of the starters hut. Again, behind the first tee.
“I picked up his ball and we just walked down the fairway. Needless to say it was a long day.
Needless to say there was a lot of story from the first tee and the first hole. With around 50,000 games played at the Old Course each year and players hailing from all over the world, it’s easy to see why the history and notoriety of the place might overwhelm people. Even the strongest characters.
“It was the early 2000s, late summer and I had an American’s bag at the Old,” David told the Caddy Pavilion. “He was a big guy, tall and muscular. Really friendly and chatty and clearly very excited to play the Old Man. We team up with a few other players and start the first one. The guy comes off the tee, and I follow him with the other caddies and notice that after about 40 or 50 yards he has stopped. My first thought was that maybe he forgot something or was going to pull out his camera and take a picture. He was quite upset and crying.
“Turns out he had just returned from a military tour in Afghanistan and was taking his first leave in two years to go to Scotland and play golf. He had dreamed of playing the Old Course and the feeling of coming off the first tee was ultimately a lot for him.
Speaking with other caddies, it’s interesting to hear that tears and emotion, like with the military, aren’t so uncommon at the Old Course.
“I’m not religious,” said one, “but this place has a special aura and it strikes everyone when they come to play here. Whether it’s when they come to town, step off the first tee or finish on the 18th green. There’s usually a time when they soak in. It’s cool to see.
Going from the first tee to the third hole, a caddy named Fraser tells the story of a visitor who visited more than the Old Course during his visit.
“So the third hole is a short par 4, nothing too bad for most players,” Fraser says. “However, if the wind comes from the west and goes left to right, it’s a battle for the players to slice the ball. Normally we would tell them that their miss should be left, but that’s easier to say what to do when it howls on the left.
“So I’m off the tee with one of our senior caddies and his player has a slice, evident by the ball on the first tee which started OB left and almost finished OB right. It’s the biggest fairway in golf, so it’s safe to say that this guy had one of the biggest slices in golf. Anyway, on the third tee, the caddy lines it up on the fence on the left side of the 16th hole. Swing, smack and that ball starts with the right hand. After about 50 meters in the air, it begins to turn like a fighter jet to the right. Higher still, slice more. By the time he lands he’s missed the 16th hole where they were aiming, missed the third fairway we were playing, missed the rough between the Old Course and the New Course, and worked his way down the middle of the fairway at the 18th hole of the new course.
“We take off on the third hole on the Old and they take off on the New. I’m watching them closely as I hope to see the second shot come back into play and help my younger colleague figure out where it ends. The guy pulls off a headgear and I can see the caddy pointing to the third hole, giving him a generous line based on the slices we’ve seen so far. I expected the shot to come our way and then slice through the hole, but instead it went straight…again. Losing his battle against the wind, he blew hard from left to right and finished on the second hole of the Jubilee Course. At this point the guy hit two shots, a driver and a fairway wood and I’m not sure he was any closer to the hole we were playing. In two strokes, he had started on the Old, hit on the New, and finished on the Jubilee course. Suffice to say, he enjoyed the back nine more than the front!
And it’s not just the slices to be wary of with visitors. This is the story of Alex trying to educate a player on how to play golf on the Old Course.
“It was the second hole not too long ago and we were about 60 yards from the green but the wind was in and I suggested my player try a 7 iron, you know to keep it under the wind, a little throw. He seemed fine with the idea and took the club, so I took a few steps back and was just looking at the distance book when I heard the impact and I immediately knew what happened. He hit the 7 iron but a full one. This thing was dead in line but was taking the green out about 70 or 80 yards on the third fairway. A good lesson in being clear with your instructions.
If in doubt, just ask your caddy. This would be the advice for the golfer above. However, quiz the caddies at The Old on their favorite questions, and it’ll open a Pandora’s box of stories.
“Is this the same pitch they use for The Open?” was probably my favorite encore.
To finish the stories of the caddies, we will go to the hole that ends the Old Course. The famous 18th hole played alongside The Links, the road that runs along the right side of the Old’s final hole.
“There’s a noise you hear on the Old Course that only signals one thing, and that’s when a group takes a deep breath as a ball rolls off the 18th tee. We’ve all seen it here. We we’ve all heard it.
“I heard it recently when I was on the 17th green and a player from the front group sent a ball down The Links. Most of the time, a ball goes in this direction, it misses everything and sometimes even comes back into play. On this occasion, bang! Car windshield smashed, car alarm set off, guy was gutted.
“The group walks through the hole and over the Swilcan Bridge and comes up next to the car. The caddy puts the bag down and the player opens a pocket, presumably to pull out another ball. No. He pulls out his car keys, turns off the car alarm, opens the passenger door, retrieves his ball and drops it into the fairway five meters from his own car which he has just run over with his departure. He went back to his bag rather sheepishly and the caddy just laughed. The player laughed too, and the whole group came to join us. A fun ending to an Old Course round.
Fortunately for The Open players, there will be no cars parked on The Links during the tournament.