Change of Direction

Every April in St. Andrews, golfers celebrate the Old Course by playing it backward
July 11, 2005

I have always had a subversive streak when it comes to classic courses. During college I worked as a cart boy at Pebble Beach in the summer, and in the afternoon I'd sneak out with the boys from the pro shop to play the course. After the last group of the day reached the backed-up tee at the par-4 8th, we were free to zigzag across the preceding part of the front nine, inventing our own holes. One of my favorites was playing from the 2nd tee to the 3rd green, a sharply doglegged par-4 requiring a bold drive across a busy road. From the 6th tee we would play all the way to the 7th green, surely the greatest par-6 in the world. ¶ The first time I teed it up on the famous 16th hole at Cypress Point, I was trespassing in the middle of the night, packing glow-in-the-dark balls and bail money. So when I heard that I could play the Old Course in reverse, I knew it was a journey I had to make. Never mind that I had no idea what playing the Old Course in reverse meant. ¶ St. Andrews has been the site of something resembling golf since the 15th century, but in 1870 the Old Course morphed into the layout that we know and love. That was the year Old Tom Morris added a new green to the west of the Swilcan Burn, reshaping the 1st hole and making possible the routing that's used today. Until 1870 the Old Course played as a completely different track. ¶ If the layout of the links can be thought of as a long, slender loop, then the new Old Course is routed in a counterclockwise direction. Before 1870 it played clockwise, or what is known today as "reverse" (the magic word). To understand what this means, it is instructive to visit the sacred earth of today's 17th hole, the famous Road Hole, which doglegs to the right around the Old Course Hotel. On the 1st hole of the reverse routing you tee off from a spot not far from today's 1st tee, but you play across the Swilcan Burn to the Road Hole's tiny green, which is a terrifying target from any direction. From there you're off and running, albeit backward. For the 2nd hole of the reverse you use a special tee next to the present 17th green, driving the wrong way down the Road Hole toward what is ordinarily the 16th green. The resulting route is a dogleg left that skirts around the hotel.

Both the clockwise and counterclockwise routings were used from the 1870s through World War II, usually in alternating weeks. For tournament play the counterclockwise routing was preferred because it created fewer bottlenecks due to the crisscrossing of holes. As the Open Championship grew in stature after the war and pilgrims began arriving en masse in St. Andrews, there was a clamoring to play the layout that Bobby Jones and Sam Snead had conquered. In the 1960s and '70s the reverse routing was used only in February, but even this limited schedule proved unpopular. By 1978 the reverse routing was abandoned altogether, consigned to the scrap heap of history along with the gutta-percha and the niblick.

In the mid-1990s an enterprising American reporter talked the czars of St. Andrews into letting him re-create the reverse routing. (Sadly, no one around the Old Course can remember the identity of this enterprising Yank.) This rogue round stirred up a certain amount of debate among the tweedy fellows who run the Old Course, ultimately leading to a decision to offer the public a chance to play the reverse on April Fools' Day, 2001. It was so popular that on every April 1 since, the St. Andrews Links Trust, which oversees the Old Course, has re-created the reverse. It is now marketed as a special experience for the intrepid golfer, and this April, reverse play lasted four days.

I was on hand to partake in the lunacy. I knew the townsfolk were in the proper mood when, on my first night in St. Andrews, a cabbie, upon hearing of my assignment, suggested that I have dessert before my meal to, you know, get into the reverse spirit.

To appreciate the Old Course backward I thought it would be helpful to play the course the other way, so on March 31 I teed it up for a regular round. Alas, there was nothing regular about it. My golf bag had been lost en route, so not only was I using foreign rental clubs, but I was also wearing well-worn rental shoes, which I have to admit grossed me out. March 31 also happens to be the last day of the Old Course's low season, which begins on Nov. 1. To protect the turf during the cold-weather months, any shot from the fairway must be played from a strip of Astroturf about the size of an eight-ounce steak, which golfers or caddies have to lug around with them. It was so odd visually to see my ball as garnish atop this strip of turf that I hit a cold-shank on the 2nd hole. Thereafter my benevolent caddie, Scott Bechelli, kicked my ball from the fairway into the light rough, allowing me to eschew the Astroturf. So there I was at the home of golf, playing soccer in the fairway with my ball.

The sense of dislocation was heightened by the course itself. I had played the Old twice on the same glorious day back in 1997, and I covered the Open Championship in 2000, but even so I felt completely lost on the front nine. The 2nd through 7th holes have blind tee shots, and the fairways are pockmarked with unseen danger. On the 4th hole I thought I had smashed a perfect drive, only to discover that my ball had taken up residence in the dastardly Cottage Bunker. On the 6th tee I could spy nothing but a forest of gorse, forcing me to hit and hope. Even though you're flying blind on the front nine, almost every hole is downwind, and I was startled by how short and easy the course played. I went out in 41 despite taking an unplayable and not making a putt over six feet.

The back nine is stouter, thanks in part to what I have decided is the most impossible hole in the world, the 172-yard par-3 11th. From an elevated tee you play to a shallow green pitched severely from back to front, with three deep bunkers standing sentry around the green. The 11th almost always plays straight downwind, and in my two previous stabs at the hole I had hit credible shots only to have my ball skip to the back shelf of the brick-hard putting surface, leaving frightening putts down the hill. It took me a total of seven jabs to navigate the green during those two previous rounds. This time I tried to feather a six-iron to the front edge only to dump my tee shot into the Strath pot bunker, where it was confronted by a four-foot-high wall of sod. After a lengthy excavation I was lucky to escape with a double bogey. My only consolation was that at the 1921 Open, Bobby Jones suffered a similar misadventure, leading him to tear up his scorecard and withdraw on the spot, an act of pique he regretted for the rest of his career. Moping off the 11th green I whined to Scott, "I freakin' hate that green."

"You'll like it better tomorrow," he said, sounding like a man who knew something I didn't.

One of the joys of the Old Course--or its most maddening affectation, in the eyes of some--is the sense of discovery as hazards reveal themselves while you tour the links. The back nine has a couple of doozies. On the tee of the 523-yard, par-5 14th, all you can see is St. Andrews's beautiful skyline. It is only on the second shot that the enormous Hell Bunker comes into view. More chilling is the discovery of what lurks in the 12th fairway. From the tee all that is visible is an expanse of grass. But as you march down the hole, you get a startling glimpse of the five pot bunkers that dot the fairway. Picking up on my wonderment, Scott offered another prediction. "It'll make more sense tomorrow," he said with a twinkle.

On April Fools' Day I was handed a yardage guide for the reverse stamped PLAYING THE OLD LADY BACKWARDS. The suggestion of mild vulgarity only heightened my jolly mood, for that morning I had been reunited with my own clubs and shoes.

Standing on the 1st tee for the reverse, with the R&A headquarters at my back, it felt like the start of any other round on the Old Course, but discombobulation quickly set in. After striking my approach on the 1st hole and marching across the Swilcan Bridge, I didn't know which way to face to re-create Arnold Palmer's famous wave to the gallery.

It's a heck of a way to start a round, having to navigate the Road Hole green. My approach shot, with a hybrid club, had hopped off the back of the putting surface, trickling onto the gravelly path, hard against the celebrated rock wall. I did well to get down in four blows from there, starting with a double bogey.

The reimagining of the St. Andrews iconography continued on the 2nd, an awesome 452-yard par-4. As I strolled the fairway, the Old Course Hotel was on my left, rather than my right.

The 3rd hole--a 356-yard par-4 played from what is normally the 17th tee down the 16th fairway to the 15th green--made it clear how different the Old Course's hazards were going to play. Guarding the fairway was the Principal's Nose, one of the Old Course's most recognizable bunker complexes. Playing the 16th the day before, the Nose was more than 200 yards from the tee, and I never even considered the hazard as I mindlessly bashed a drive well beyond it. On the reverse the bunkers were very much in play, and my power fade--a polite term for a screaming slice--landed within a few yards of one of the nostrils. Phew!

One of my favorite holes of the reverse was the 7th, a 364-yard par-4. It plays from what is normally the 13th tee down the 12th fairway to the 11th green. All those bunkers that had been inexplicably hidden in the fairway the day before finally made sense. Obvious from the tee, they forced me to thread a drive into a tight landing area. Now I had to play to the godforsaken green that had caused me so much misery. But coming in from a different angle let me use its fiendish slope to my advantage. Scott ordered me to play to the front-left corner and let the ball funnel down the slope. That's exactly what I did, hitting my best shot of the day. I missed the 10-footer for birdie but was still elated. "I love this green," I shouted as I walked off.

During the middle of the round the reverse routing gets a little screwy, as the holes stack up on top of each other. Following the reconfigured Old Course can be so confusing at times that last year a foursome of Americans without a caddie wandered onto the adjoining New Course and played a hole and a half before realizing they were lost. It was Scott who rescued them. "I saw a head pop up over the dune, and they were like, 'Dude, where's the Old Course?'" he said.

The only really awkward hole on the reverse is the par-4 12th, which has a blind drive to a very narrow fairway, followed by a blind approach to a green tucked behind a mountain of gorse. (I birdied it, so I'm not complaining.)

The finish is fantastic. The 14th is a long par-5, just as it is in the counterclockwise routing, but a different angle on the tee shot brings the Hell Bunker more into play, and the third shot, into the 4th green, is more exacting because the putting surface slopes dramatically away from the fairway. One of the best holes I played in two days on the Old Course was the reverse 17th, a 375-yard par-4 that forces you to hit the tight, twisty fairway of the 2nd hole. From there the approach is a nail-biter, as you play into what is ordinarily the 1st green, with the putting surface plunging away from you toward the Swilcan Burn.

Then there is the wondrous finale, playing to what is the 18th green for both routings. The reverse tee is much further left, bringing the burn more into play and also making a greater hazard of the road guarding the right side. Instead of aiming at the clock on the R&A building, I picked out a turret on the massive redbrick Hamilton Hall next door and let fly. One last bogey and my great St. Andrews adventure was over.

So what's the verdict? At 6,350 yards the reverse is a couple of hundred yards shorter than the counterclockwise routing, but it is definitely more demanding--I putted better but still shot three strokes worse than the day before. The reverse has fewer blind holes, and to my eye it makes better use of many of the Old Course's most celebrated bunkers. The reverse gets bonus points for making the 11th green more playable--at least for me. At next week's Open Championship expect some of the players to opine that the Old Course is the best course in the world. Little do they know that it's even better backward.

Backward Glance

Study the Old Course's reverse routing and you'll learn one thing: You need a caddie

DESIGNER: Mother Nature
ORIGINAL ROUTING: Clockwise (reverse)
CURRENT ROUTING: Counterclockwise (regular)
SKINNY: Many of the bunkers are out of play or invisible from the tee on today's course but come into play and can be seen on the reverse routing.

[This article contains tables.  Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]


1 399 4
2 452 4
3 356 4
4 363 4
5 445 5
6 345 4
7 364 4
8 176 3
9 276 4
OUT 3,176 36
10 371 4
11 162 3
12 321 4
13 358 4
14 525 5
15 375 4
16 329 4
17 375 4
18 358 4
IN 3,174 36
TOTAL 6,350 72


1 376 4
2 448 4
3 397 4
4 482 4
5 568 5
6 412 4
7 390 4
8 175 3
9 352 4
OUT 3,600 36
10 380 4
11 174 3
12 345 4
13 465 4
14 605 5
15 456 4
16 423 4
17 455 4
18 357 4
IN 3,660 36
TOTAL 7,260 72

*Championship tees

The concept was so wildly popular that on every April 1 since, the St. Andrews Links Trust has re-created the reverse.

I knew the townsfolk were in the proper mood when, on my first night, a cabbie suggested I have dessert before my meal.

Standing on the 1st tee, it felt like any other round on the Old Course, but discombobulation quickly set in.

Last year a foursome of Americans wandered onto the New Course and played a hole and a half before realizing they were lost.

B/W PHOTOST. ANDREWS LINKS TRUST (1890)1890 From the 1870s until after World War II the Old Course was usually played in reverse on alternating weeks.
COLOR PHOTOBOB MARTIN (2005); SKY EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING2005 The author (left) tees off on the reverse 18th, finishing his round on the routing that was revived in the mid-'90s. COLOR PHOTOBOB MARTIN REVERSE LOGIC Figuring out where to play the next shot is only part of the challenge. COLOR ILLUSTRATIONJASON LEE    


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)