Take a look at St. Andrews, Scotland through the eyes of someone who once called The Home of Golf home.
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Bobby Jones famously said, “If you take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews, I would still have a rich, full life.” His family may have felt otherwise – as mine would – but I understand where he’s coming from. My name is Gil Capps, and I was fortunate to attend the University of St. Andrews for a junior year abroad. I’ve returned many times, as I will for the 150th Open in my long-standing role as editorial advisor on NBC’s golf team. Here a few of my favorite places in this special Scottish Town.
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Formally constituted in 1413, the University of St. Andrews is the third oldest in the English-speaking world, but there’s no campus in the traditional American sense. The centerpiece is this idyllic quad tucked off North Street. Recently refurbished, it’s surrounded by lecture halls and a chapel that famed writer Samuel Johnson once called the neatest place of worship he’d ever seen. The clock atop the tower is older than The Open. There’s a reason this has been called The Ancient City.
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St. Andrews has the reputation as one of the most haunted towns in all of Britain. Forget the ghosts, because for university students the scariest thing is the cobblestoned initials “PH”. This was the site where faculty member Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake during the Scottish Reformation five centuries ago. Legend has it that if students step on it, they will fail their degrees. Anyone in doubt should gaze up the nearest wall to see what appears to be a face looking down at the spot.
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Arguably Scotland’s most glorious stretch of beach, the West Sands have been the site of horse races, automobile races and foot races (at least in a famous scene in the Academy Award-winning "Chariots of Fire"). St. Andrews is a walker’s paradise, but global warming and rising oceans are a threat to these two miles along the North Sea. Ongoing work to fortify the dunes and, in turn, the links, is an initial step to make sure the Old Course is here for the 300th Open.
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Only in St. Andrews can something called the New Course be 127 years old. Its ninth hole has always been my favorite on the links – and maybe anywhere. Located above the Eden Estuary at the end of the peninsula, this long par 3 is a stout 225 yards. The tee shot is basically a blind one – the first time you play it – to a recessed green with a large ridge in front. It is charmingly deceitful and full of the character every good links hole should possess.
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This photo doesn’t do justice to the fifth and eighth holes on the Eden: a pair of par 3s that crisscross one another. The course was originally designed by the legendary Harry Colt in 1914 and, for a time, was promoted by some as the second best course in the world (only one guess as to the best). These two greens are representative of Colt’s flare, with No. 8 to the left featuring the largest false front of any green I’ve ever played. It’s probably the most fun of the St. Andrews Links Trust’s seven courses.
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Here’s the best kept secret in St. Andrews: a 1-½ mile path that starts in town off South Street. It takes on multiple personalities as it works its way through confined alleys and backyards before meandering along gentle waterfalls and wooded meadows. The end at Law Mill feels a world away from the town. Did I mention the Auld Grey Toon is a walker’s paradise?
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A fountain memorial for novelist George Whyte-Melville has stood in Market Street since 1880. This is the center of town, but there are slightly fewer pubs around these days. The Dunvegan has turned into the visiting golfer’s watering hole of choice, but historically none has more importance than The Keys, located just across from the fountain. Originally part of the old Cross Keys Hotel, this is where R&A members used to fraternize and folks such as Old Tom Morris conducted business.
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The town’s restaurant scene has beefed up more than Bryson DeChambeau in recent times, but still on the first page of my leaderboard sits Ziggy’s, now in its 40th year. Proprietor Phil Wishart has done a lot of things right, but his most important has been sticking with the same Swizzels Double Lollies as a post-dinner treat for nearly four decades. Touring pros take note: when something’s going right, don’t change.
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For a time, I felt like I single-handedly kept this local fifth-generation bakery in business. A quick stop-in on the way to class each day for an iced cookie (or two) was the breakfast of champions for a 20-year-old. Sure their fudge doughnuts are world renowned and Scotch pies award-winning, but I’ll stick with what got me here.
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This is a sneaky good museum town. There’s the St. Andrews Museum at Kinburn Park, the university’s Wardlaw Museum on The Scores, and the St. Andrews Heritage Museum on North Street. But for golfers, The R&A World Golf Museum is the must visit. There are too many significant displays and artifacts to highlight, but my favorite might be the first gold medal given to an Open champion: the one awarded to Tom Morris Jr. in 1872, the last of his four in a row.
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Here are the skyscrapers of St. Andrews: the west and east fronts of the cathedral and St. Rule’s tower. These ruins are the skeletons of what was once the largest church in Scotland and the country’s most important structure, welcoming pilgrims from far afield to pay respect to the relics of Andrew the Apostle that had been brought there. Five hundred years later, people are still coming to the town named for the saint, just on a different pilgrimage.
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My must-do when in St. Andrews is a pier walk. Built with stones from the cathedral ruins, it serves as a breakwater for the harbour (we’ll go with the British spelling) and one of the university’s most important rituals. Every Sunday following chapel, students in their red robes walk the length of the pier, climb the ladder at the end, and return atop the much narrower upper level that’s suited best for young nerves. Either way, the 360-degree views are spectacular, especially at sunset.
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Golfers are well aware of the Swilken Burn, but it’s not the only stream in town. At one time, more than half a dozen mills stood along the Kinness Burn. It cuts through the middle of St. Andrews, now separating the old town on the top of the hill from the newer side to the south developed over the last century. For decades, the stars of the burn have been the generations of ducks below Dempster Terrace. Bring a slice of bread and make a friend for life.
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I get nearly as excited over books as golf when I’m in St. Andrews. During my school days, Quarto Bookshop on Golf Place was the stop for golf and other second-hand books. With that store a memory, there’s now a Waterstone’s branch in town as well as my favorite independent book store in the world: Topping & Company. But the Quarto spirit lives on best at Bouquiniste, where more than a few pre-owned golf books will be destined for my home library.
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Without Tom Morris Sr., it is doubtful The Open would be back at St Andrews for a 30th time. He didn’t create the Old Course, but he did perfect it. His remodeling of its greens, bunkers, and angles of play remain timeless. And his method of topdressing the links with sand was an agronomic revolution. Sadly, his old shop has been rebranded, but the flat above it at 7 The Links remains in the family. From a window, Sheila Walker frequently looks out over the home hole that’s named for her great-great-grandfather.
Some of the best (and worst) looks from Day 1 of The 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.
Images from the Par 3 Contest held Wednesday at Augusta National, home of the 86th Masters Tournament.