In the beginning God was good enough to create the Old Course in
St. Andrews, Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Best
work he ever did. Last week the British Open was contested once
again on those crinkly fields, approximately 600 years after the
game was first played there. Once again the Old Course was the
center of the sporting universe as Tiger Woods, of Orlando,
attempted to become the youngest man ever to win the career Grand
Back in Orlando, nothing of any consequence happened at the New
Course. Last Thursday, as Woods shot his 67 on a cool, dry day at
the Old Course, about 70 golfers played the New Course in a
sweatfest. Those who have played both courses noticed some
astonishing similarities. For starters the starter's booth at the
Old Course is a boxy wooden shack, directly on the sprawling,
closely mowed 1st tee, and it is typically manned by a taciturn,
cap-wearing Scotsman who reminds you to take neither mulligans
nor practice swings. The starter's booth at the New Course is
also a rectangular wood hut, right on an expansive, shorn tee and
staffed by a polite pensioner with a name tag, his noggin encased
in a headset, the kind football coaches wear. The starter at the
New Course, which is 12 years old--the New Course in St. Andrews,
by the way, is 105--greets you warmly and gives you a package of
tees. But nothing, of course, is truly free. Your gift tees help
spread the good name of the Grand Cypress Resort and its 45
holes, all designed by Jack Nicklaus. As for your mulligan, it's
a given, the cost of it factored into your greens fee. Is there a
resort course anywhere that would dare to charge three figures
for golf and prohibit you from taking what President Clinton
calls a do-over? The whole point in being at a resort is to
escape the overregulated real world.
Years ago I played the Old Course several times, and those rounds
linger with me still, the richest golf experiences of my life.
Because of the petite scorecards, because of the indecipherable
salty wind, because of the massive double greens shared by holes
whose numbers always add up to 18, because you play out into a
wet and woolly corner of the world and play home into such a
civilized and sturdy town, because the course is public and
because it has ghosts, the Old Course is unique and
unduplicateable. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to
When I called the Grand Cypress pro shop a few weeks ago to set
up a game, I was told the greens fee on the New Course for a
golfer not staying at the resort's hotel was $175, including
cart, practice balls and, though not specifically stated, tees.
That price is Grand Cypress's clever way of saying you should
stay in its hotel, which is opulent in every way. I signed up for
a golf package: a night in the hotel and a round of golf for
$268.70, plus a $10 "resort fee." I should have asked about a
breakfast plan. My room-service breakfast--two eggs, whole wheat
toast, fruit instead of meat, orange juice, coffee--cost $29.
Whatever. I was ready to hit the links.
Now if the very idea of calling an inland golf course a links
causes you to break out in hives, I would urge you not to play
the New Course. I, however, went in with a positive attitude.
Over the phone I had been told I could walk the course--it's flat,
although there are long hauls between greens and tees--and carry
my own bag. They would even arrange for a caddie, if that's what
I wanted. (I didn't.) My defenses were down.
As it happens, only two of the holes on the New Course are copies
of Old Course holes, although the rest of the track is inspired
by the Old Course. The duplicates are the 1st and the last, and
they are both wonderful. You play a pitch shot over a wee burn on
number 1, and you negotiate the Valley of Sin on number 18, just
as you do at the real home of golf. Naturally, playing high shots
on spongy Bermuda grass in Florida during the rainy season is
nothing like playing bouncing shots on the firm, sandy linksland
of St. Andrews. Still, the New Course shots are fun to play, the
course is wide-open, the flagsticks are as thick as broom
handles--and there's not a damn tree in sight.
I played the course as a singleton on an oppressively muggy,
still weekday--the place was empty--and as I began my round, I
found myself missing, more than anything else, the Old Course
weather. Then, as I stood on the 9th tee, a big wind kicked up
in my face, the temperature dropped 15[degrees], and suddenly I
had to tee the ball low and hood the face and move the ball back
in my stance and play a shot, create something. At that moment
the golf became exhilarating.
The 17th on the New Course doesn't have a road running along the
right side, and it doesn't have a hotel sign to draw your shot
over, as the Old Course's 17th, the Road Hole, does. There's a
cart path instead of a road, and instead of a hotel sign, there's
a bunch of juniper bushes (for good or for bad, gorse doesn't
grow in Florida) at which to aim a drawing tee shot. I hit a high
fly--a draw long enough to carry the shrubbery--then nutted a
three-wood from about 220 yards. The impact felt perfect, but a
fraction of a second later I heard a sickening da-hood sound and
looked up and saw my ball dribbling along the fairway before
quitting on me halfway to the hole. I quickly figured out what
had happened: I had hit a big man-made hump right in front of me.
When you're playing in Florida, on a former orange grove, you
tend to forget about humps.
Then to the home hole, which on the Old Course is called Tom
Morris but on the New is called number 18. It's pretty darn close
to a carbon copy. There's a Swilcan Burn Bridge, a fairway as
wide as a football field, a Valley of Sin and a tilting green
with a fence beyond it. (All that's missing is the Royal and
Ancient clubhouse, the street of shops and clubs called the
Scores and, last week, the massive grandstands around the 18th
green, filled with golfheads and other pilgrims.) I aimed my
drive for the 1st tee, played an approach shot to a yard,
two-putted and asked myself the age-old question, the ultimate
litmus test for a golf course: Would you like to give it another
go? I answered yes. I never had more fun playing a resort course
Now, is it linksy? Not in the slightest. I could provide you with
a long list of U.S. courses closer to the spirit of St. Andrews
than the New Course at the Grand Cypress Resort, but I'll spare
you all that and name just three, all munis: Pacific Grove, a few
miles north of Pebble Beach and within earshot of pounding surf;
Bellport, on Long Island, on the Great South Bay; and Palm Beach,
an 18-hole par-3 course nestled between the Atlantic and the
Intracoastal in South Florida. Any course can be called a links,
but you need a sea breeze to have links golf.
The pros at the New Course charmingly attribute Mark O'Meara's
victory at the '98 British Open at Royal Birkdale to a pre-Open
acclimatization round he played at the New Course. Not very
likely. I would say his 63--nine under on the New Course, which
measures 6,800 yards from the tips--was good playing on a good
course, nothing more, although that's a lot.
When I returned home from the New Course, I called Ron Whitten,
the co-author of a hefty tome titled The Architects of Golf,
which some of my golfing friends and I refer to as the Bible. Did
I really like it as much as I thought I did? A modern resort
course in Florida? I was looking for a second opinion.
"Any course that wants to try to take inspiration from the best
features of the Old Course, be my guest," Whitten said. "Charles
Blair Macdonald was trying to duplicate Old Course holes almost
100 years ago, and many others have tried since. These courses
that imitate the Old Course, they're like Elvis impersonators. We
know they're not the King, but some are better than others. The
goal at the New Course is to give the resort golfer in Florida
something different than every other resort course in Florida.
Viewed that way, it works." I was relieved. It wasn't just me.
The saving grace of the New Course, it seems, is that it doesn't
pretend to be anything it's not. "I've never had anybody tell me
they like it more than the Old Course," says Brad Doyle, who
until last month was the longtime director of golf at Grand
Cypress. "But many people have told me it captures the flavor of
the Old Course."
One person who wouldn't consider that a compliment is Scott
Hoch, who lives in Orlando. Hoch has played both courses. The
New Course he would return to. The Old Course he would not. In
fact, he was exempt from qualifying for the Open this year and
still didn't go. "I don't like it," he says of the Old Course.
"Why don't I like it? The list is too long to get into. If you
put it in 80[degrees] weather, it might be all right." The New
Course, at least, has 80[degrees] weather. Much warmer weather,
"That's the one thing we couldn't duplicate, the weather," says
Tom Pearson, the course architect who oversaw the New Course
construction for Nicklaus. "The owners loved St. Andrews, so
that's what we gave them. It was never supposed to be an exact
replica, but one thing that happened was kind of spooky. We were
deciding where to put the double greens, and we weren't thinking
a bit about the Old Course and how the numbers of the holes on
its double greens always add up to 18. But when we finished our
routing we realized that the numbers on ours did, too. I sat back
in my chair and a chill went through me, like the golfing gods
were with me."
I believe in the existence of golfing gods as much as the next
guy, I just happen to think they have better things to do than
work the New Course. Then again, I could be wrong. The day
O'Meara shot that 63 on the New Course, he was playing with one
of his Orlando neighbors, Master Woods. The kid shot 62, then
finished a shot behind O'Meara at Royal Birkdale. When he teed it
up on the Old Course last week, maybe he dipped into the memory
of that very low round at Grand Cypress two years ago, looking
for inspiration. Maybe, but I doubt it.
In any event they've got a nice resort course over there. Free
tees. No trees. No gorse, either.