Over the Valley of Sin they strode, red capes swirling in the North Sea breeze. Two students from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, crossing the 18th fairway of a golf course. Not simply any course. Indeed not. It is the oldest in the world. To this unabashed romantic, sipping tea by a window in the Old Course Hotel, it was like flipping a page to the past. This is how, I mused, it must have appeared five centuries ago when goffer twosomes would sneak off to the links, daring to defy a ban on the sport imposed by King James IV. (So intently had his subjects been playing goff that they'd been neglecting archery practice--the national defense of the day.)
From this old gray town of St. Andrews, disciples have taken the game of golf to all climes. Even to the moon--if you count Alan Shepard's wild swing on his space walk. It is from here, the forbidding citadel of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (off limits to women), that the no-nonsense rules of golf are guarded. It is from this--dare I say?--rather plain-looking municipal course, designed and whipped by the forces of nature, that all the world's golf courses take their inspiration--for bunkers named "The Coffins" and "Hell." In ST. Andrews, tradition is everywhere--even in the open-to-the-sky ruins of the 14th Century cathedral where I stood the other day, bemused, before the tomb of Young Tom Morris. Morris was a beloved champion golfer of the 1870s, with the charisma of an Arnold Palmer. His grave stands out among all others due to a life-sized, quite joyful, bas-relief of Morris, dressed for a round with putter in hand.
Sooner or later, all true golfers feel the fervor of St. Andrews. Currently they're saying that the Old Course--for the first time ever--may begin staying open on Sundays. Egad!
What is more likely to happen, local folks believe, is that the New (1894), the Eden and the Jubilee--three courses that flank the Old--will be made more attractive to visitors. Yes, change is coming to St. Andrews. It has already, with the sale of the Old course Hotel and its conversion to a country-club concept with pro shop, hot tub and swimming pool (indoors). But it still--and I doubt not, always--will bear the standard by which meaningful golf is measured.
So after St. Andrews, what?
I began thinking of top-class golf courses I've loved both for their tradition and their comfort. For one, the Pinehurst Hotel and CountryClub in the center of North Carolina. America's golf mecca, they call it, because it owns and operates seven courses--more than any other hotel. Funny, because at Pinehurst, golf was an afterthought. Pinehurst was founded in 1895 as a health resort (complete with its own dairy herd for fresh milk), and the sports it offered were the ones then in fashion--polo, lawn bowling and archery. A few avant-garde guests, though, took to climbing the fences and disturbing the cows by trying the new sport of golf in the pasture.
Getting the hint, Pinehurst's owner hired a Scotsman fresh from St. Andrews to lay out a golf course. The Scot did better than construct one course; he made four, and 400 more across the United States, during his lifetime in this country as world spread of his talent. His name was Donald Ross, a name that today virtually means tops in classic golf course design.
Courses at Pinehurst don't have names, only numbers. And No. 2, nestled like the others within a forest of pines, ranks among the very best, with its angled fairways, ball-catching mounds and fall-away greens. It has been called demanding, delightful, difficult. What more could a golfer desire?
Courses No. 1, 4, 6 (by Tom and George Fazio) and 7 (by Rees Jones) are fine, too, but what really makes Pinehurst sing are the ways it caters to golfers. Breakfasts are cooked and brought super-fast, assuring players of being able to tee off 20 minutes ahead of their starting time. Friendly but vigilant rangers take over then, keeping play, in the Scottish-style, moving smartly.
After golf, however, all is leisurely Southern hospitality at the great white hotel with its wraparound veranda. I would hail a horse-and-carriage ride, or maybe walk, to the pretty New England-like village. Still, after dinner, I would succumb to more golf. (Films of famous old championship matches are shown every night in the lounge.)
MY THOUGHTS ALSO BEGAN to dwell on the Mauna Kea resort on the Kohala coast of Hawaii. Each time I visit, I'm as thrilled by the impact as I was the very first time I arrived. Stepping across the threshold (Hawaiian-fashion, there is no front door), I pause, staggered by the blue Pacific meeting the sky. My eyes drink in the flowers. My ears pick up the bird songs.