Golf, Fate and the Old Course

Written by Charlie Epps on 01 July 2010.

The British Open returns to the Old Course at St. Andrews this month. They call it the birthplace of golf, and for good reason. It's the oldest known course in the world, and certainly the most famous. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the game's governing body, sits adjacent to the Old Course.

The longtime pro at St. Andrews, Laurie Auchterlonie, told me the story that many believe to mark the beginnings of golf. Back in the 1500s, when sailors came in from fishing trips, they'd anchor in the firth next to where the fourth hole at the Old Course rests today.

The sailors came ashore, went into town to sell fish and stock up for the next trip. For recreation, they found pieces of dead wood and gathered rocks. They hit the rocks with the wood sticks into rabbit holes. They did this on the way out to sea (when they were leaving), and they did it on the way into town. That's where the terms "going out" for the front nine and "coming in" for the back nine is said to have originated.

Auchterlonie also told me that the average size of those rabbit holes was 4¼-inches, which is the exact diameter of today's golf holes.

That's the lore of the game. Do I believe it? Yes, I do.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, I took more than 300 golfers over to the Old Course for the St. Andrews Heritage Pro-Am. I'd take groups of four-person teams from Houston Country Club, where I was the head pro, and I'd also bring over groups from historic Houston clubs such as Champions, BraeBurn, Lakeside and Westwood. That pro-am was one of the last tournaments won by my dearly departed buddy Dick Harmon.

There always has been a connection between golf and mysticism. If you've read Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy, you know what I mean. Fate plays an integral role in the game, and no one is immune to it.

Bobby Locke would be one of the first to admit it. In 1957, he won the British Open by three shots. But the day after the final round, the R&A reviewed the tape. Locke had moved his ball mark because it was in Bruce Crampton's line. Locke forgot to replace his mark and putted his ball about three inches away from where he should have.

The R&A eventually ruled that it was an "inadvertent mistake" and no action was taken. Locke should have been assessed a two-shot penalty, and who knows if he would have made the putt.

Was that fate?

Jack Nicklaus suffered perhaps his most devastating defeat in 1977 at the British Open at Turnberry—the Duel in the Sun—when Tom Watson took a one-shot lead after Nicklaus missed a short birdie putt on the 71st hole. After Watson stuck his approach on the final hole to 2 feet, Nicklaus snaked in a 40-birdie. Watson made his birdie, though, and won the championship.

Nicklaus said he was satisfied even though he lost. He gave it all he had and was content to wait till the next year to settle the score. So a year later—at the Old Course—Nicklaus rallied from a three-shot deficit over the final five holes to win his third British Open.

Was that fate?

In 1984, the British Open returned to the Old Course, where Seve Ballesteros edged Watson. The loss crushed Watson, who didn't win again until 1996 Memorial.

Golf is a funny game, and fate plays an integral role in how things unfold. That's never more evident than when the British Open is played at one of the best golf courses in the world. This is the year that Phil Mickelson needs to step up and make history.

Lefty didn't win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach like I predicted, but I like his chances to come back with a win at the Old Course. If Mickelson ever wants to break out of Tiger's legacy, this summer is his best chance.

Tiger never has been lonelier.