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Public Access: The Old Course

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The look on his face said more to his disappointment than the one-word, four-letter expletive he tried to keep under his breath, but let get caught in the morning breeze.

It is 6:30 a.m., a half-hour before the first scheduled tee time, and there are already 17 people ahead of Tim Powell.

“Guess I’ll get here earlier tomorrow,” he says.

Andrew and Stephen Reyes were advised to show up before 5:30 in the morning. The brothers obliged, but were still fifth and sixth, respectively.

In the ultimate spot of envy for this crowd is Mark Baldwin, a soon-to-be 50-year-old and 9-handicap from Richmond, Va.

It took a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call, a 3 o’clock leave of absence from his wife, and a 4:20 arrival for him to earn his position at the front of the line.

His prize for such diligence? The best possible chance among the wanting group to play the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“It is THE course I always dreamed of playing,” Baldwin says. “It’s not like I’m getting on Augusta.”

The Old Course is golf’s most venerable venue. It’s birthplace. Aged over 600 years, walked or won on by nearly every legend the game has ever produced.

For the first time in major championship history, three of the four majors will be contested on public courses: Pebble Beach Golf Links (U.S. Open), the Old Course at St. Andrews (Open Championship) and the Straits Course at Whistling Straits (PGA Championship).

It might require a bit of savings, but if you can afford the cost and make the time, all three golfing landmarks are accessible to everyone.

As for the Old Course (greens fee runs roughly $175), a phone call or click of a computer button can book an advanced tee time. There is also the daily ballot, a simple process which allows groups of 2-4 to enter an on-site lottery system where names are drawn to fill out the following day’s tee sheet.

If the lottery fails you, forethought is not your forte, or you are a single golfer, there is yet another option:  Get in line (and get there early).

When ballots are pulled, the tee time is granted to whoever is on the card. If that’s two players, then only two players are listed. That leaves a couple of open spots and the possibility for two 11th-hour singles to join – if the original group complies.

Groups have the right to say no. For instance, a threesome consisting of family members might not want to take the chance of adding a possible 18-hole yapper.

Monday, May 24, there are 12 open slots on the tee sheet. Once the starter arrives, at 6:38 a.m., he tells hopefuls that number is more of a false front; it’s closer to nine.

“There is an indication on the ballot if groups are receptive (to add-ons),” says Old Course starter James Johnson.

Russ Tobias, a 54-year-old research and development director for Kodak, was in Birmingham, England for a conference when he decided to fly to Edinburgh and make the subsequent trip to St. Andrews.

“I had to,” says the 5-handicap from Dayton, Ohio. “I couldn’t come all this way and not play the Home of Golf.”

Tobias showed up at 4:30 a.m., about 10 minutes after Baldwin, and stands second in line. Behind him are Rob Noble and Jim Eichenberg.

A resident of Brisbane, Australia, a 22-handicap and 60-year-old semi-retired business consultant, Noble was on his way to Paris to celebrate his wife’s 60th birthday with family and friends when he made a planned pit stop at the Old Course.

“My father played here in 1977,” Noble tells. “It was a bit of a dream come true for him, and kind of became a dream of mine.”

Like Noble, Eichenberg has never played the Old Course. Only six months removed from divorce, the 41-year-old sales rep from Las Vegas decided to begin a quest to play his “bucket list of courses.”

“No better place to start than here,” says Eichenberg, a 13-handicap, who won a sales contest for five nights at any Fairmont hotel and chose, without hesitation, the locale in St. Andrews.

“I’m proof that even a hack can get a chance to play a course like this.”

Adds Tobias, “It’s great to watch on TV and follow your heroes, but what a thrill to play the courses that they play.

“Golf should never exclude the public.”

With 18 people anxiously waiting in line, the starter takes names and handicaps, putting them on a numerical list and telling some to hang around and others to check in later.

Baldwin relays his information and then makes a hasty exit off course premises. For all his doggedness, he is still in need of one thing:  golf clubs.

After renting a set of Callaways, he returns and is soon greeted with that which he has so desired:  a 7:20 a.m. tee time on the Old Course.

Mike Amrine and two of his fellow servicemen from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany have graciously allowed Baldwin to make their group a foursome.

“It’s golf,” says Amrine, a 45-year-old 19-handicap. “The more the merrier.”

Hitting clean-up in the third group out this morning, Baldwin stands over his ball facing 200 yards worth of horizontal fairway and nary a heavy eye on him.

Yet the pressure is palpable. After the second striker hooks his drive into the adjoining 18th fairway, he walks back to his friends and says, “My hand was shaking putting my tee in the ground.”

Baldwin’s tee shot barely clears land on takeoff and races down a straight line to the green, kicking up dew in its wake.

He exhales a deep breath, smiles, looks over and says simply, “Unbelievable.”

Shortly thereafter, Tobias and Noble are granted entry into the 7:50 slot.

“I can’t wait to tell my wife,” Noble says giddily, before scurrying off to the putting area near the first tee for some final preparation.

While others on the waiting list, like Eichenberg and the brothers Reyes, stick around to see if they get the call, Craig and Kayli Wicker head back to their hotel.

The father-daughter duo was 14th and 15th in line, and after checking back with the starter around 9:30, they are told their chances of playing the Old Course are “bleak.”

They kindly ask the man in charge to phone their hotel should circumstances change, and then go to nearby Balcomie Links for a last-minute, 10:10 a.m. tee time.

Kayli is a 21-year-old rising senior on the women’s golf team at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. She’s a 2-handicap, while her father, 52, is a 10.

Craig is paying off a bet to his daughter for earning her first collegiate top 10.

“The bet was for Scotland,” Kayli says. “I told him as long as we play the Old Course and Carnoustie, you can pick the rest.”

The last time Kayli won a bet like this was the first time she beat her dad. The reward:  a trip to Pebble Beach, where she played on July 27, 2004 – her 16th birthday.

Kayli, who is studying abroad this summer in Paris and London, has never played the Old Course; Craig has. When he did, he came home with plenty of stories for his daughter.

“I threw a hissy fit,” she says of her reaction.

The two already have a scheduled tee time for Carnoustie on Wednesday. If they don’t make it on the Old Course this day, and don’t win the lottery for the next, they have a plan:  “Be first in line [Tuesday],” says Kayli.

After shooting 73 to a par of 68 at Balcomie, Kayli enjoys a lunch of fish and chips with her father.

The two return to their hotel about 5 p.m., where they are informed the starter has called with a possible two-ball opening at 5:40, the last tee time of the day.

“We raced down the street and checked in,” Kayli later wrote via e-mail. “It seemed like forever before the other two players arrived and we were introduced. They were very gracious and agreed to let us play.

“I was going to get to play the Old Course!!!”

Amped with adrenaline, Kayli and her father have no issues walking another 18 holes. They aren’t able to procure caddies this late in the day, but one of their playing companions is a local.

“He was able to give us some of the history of the course and tell stories about various holes or bunkers, and the events that happened during prior Opens. That really added to the round,” Kayli said.

A par on the famous Road Hole 17th is the highlight of Kayli’s 75 on the Old Course.

That, along with playing the world’s most famous course with her father, an experience on offer to anyone and everyone who has the dream and the desire to make it happen.

“It’s amazing, just standing on the first tee and realizing who has walked here,” Craig said. “And that you can play the same course as the game’s all-time greats.”

“It was,” Kayli said, “a truly magical journey.”