It’s Sunday at the Old Course.
So was yesterday. Tomorrow will be, too.
Right now, every day is Sunday in the cradle of the game.
The links has long maintained a functioning relationship with the Sabbath. Dating back to the 16th century, it has faithfully observed religious law requiring the day to be used for rest and little else. Accordingly, playing golf on the sacred turf of the Old Course has customarily been as out of bounds as a drive launched over the West Sands Road.
Those caught breaching this directive were originally punished with the indignity of being cited in the town’s criminal logs. These days, hardly anybody tries. There’s a respectful acknowledgement that this is just the way they do things around here. Besides, it’s good for the course – this hallowed, paradigmatic standard-bearer of the game – to have the day off. As Old Tom Morris was apt to say: “If the goufer disna need a rest, the course does.”
A small metal plate, not much bigger than a sheet of A4, sits in the ground on the first tee, “COURSE CLOSED” writ large on it. The starter’s hut is unattended and locked. So, too, the Old Pavilion and, down near the first green, the caddie quarters have been abandoned. There are no bags to carry.
And yet this isn’t a typical Sunday.
Under normal circumstances, the course would be teeming today with dog-walkers, families, hand-holding couples, students playing football or frisbee. In days gone by, it wasn’t unusual to see locals drying laundry on the first and eighteenth fairways. This is, after all, public land and those were simpler times.
Today, such carefree gaiety is in short supply. A solitary jogger runs the length of Grannie Clark’s Wynd. A man throws a tennis ball for his Chocolate Lab to chase. The Old Course Hotel is closed, all 144 of its rooms lying vacant. In the Jigger Inn, last orders were last called weeks ago.
Up and into the heart of the town, there’s only the faintest pulse of life. Auchterlonie’s Golf Shop, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is shut, as are all of the town’s most famous 19th holes: The Dunvegan, The Keys, The Whey-Pat, The Westport, Greyfriars Inn, Ham’s Hame, The Criterion and more.
The cobbles of Market Street are empty. The six bells of St Salvator's Chapel Tower on the university campus don’t chime. The students have nearly all skipped town. The tourists who top up the population have yet to arrive.
The ghosts who roam these ancient streets have the place to themselves. It’s quiet. Eerily so. Spectral. Supernatural. It’s the middle of the night in the middle of the day.
And it’s Sunday.
Every day, for who knows how many more days, it’s Sunday.
* * *
The coronavirus epidemic has brought golf to a standstill the world over. For a place as ubiquitously bound to the game as St Andrews, the impact has been profound. Last year, for example, the seven courses operated by the St Andrews Links Trust generated almost a quarter of a million rounds. As a rough average, that’s between 20- and 25 million shots.
In the last twenty-seven days, not a single ball has been struck on any of them. The pins have been pulled from every hole and put into storage. The sea air that ordinarily carries the satisfying thwack of club on ball, or the cheers of golfers making improbable birdies, or panicked yells of ‘Fore!’ are currently saddled with no such baggage.
It’s unnervingly still.
Yet life goes on. Beyond the pared-back 'normal', work continues. There’s no alternative. When restrictions are lifted, and golf can resume, St Andrews Links, the game’s unofficial benchmark – to whom courses and golf facilities around the world look first – has to be ready to go.
It’s what chief executive Euan Loudon is calling the ‘transition to normality’.
“It is definitely surreal to see the courses empty,” he says. “I started working here in January 2011 and, in my first week, the courses were closed for six days on the trot because of snow. I remember somebody asking me how the new job was going, and I told them, ‘Not great – nobody’s hit a ball since I’ve been here!’.
“This, though, is on a whole other scale. As so many have noted by now, we are living in unprecedented times.”
At 8.30pm on March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the United Kingdom into almost total lockdown in an effort to ease the strain on an already overwhelmed NHS so that COVID-19 might be more effectively tackled.
He instructed people to shop only for basic necessities, limit their exercise to once per day and travel only to and from essential work. Beyond that, they were to stay at home. Additional to that, all businesses selling non-essential goods were ordered to close.
“When the drawbridge first went up, I think you go into a state of immediate shock,” adds Loudon. “You are then suddenly hit with a blizzard of administration details and there’s no template for how to deal with it. All you can do is stay calm and try your best to make logical and sensible decisions in a timely fashion. In that regard, I could not have been happier with how our team responded. They reacted much better than any reasonable person could have expected them to. It was humbling, actually.”
St Andrews Links Trust employs roughly 400 people. Of those, around 250 have been placed onto the Government’s furlough scheme. To maintain morale and foster a spirit of fellowship, the management team of the Links Trust has undertaken a raft of measures, including the creation of a virtual coffee shop for all staff members to use and teleconference quiz nights.
The PGA professional staff have been encouraged to give video lessons wherever possible. Furloughed staff have also been pointed towards engaging in CPD training and volunteering.
Impressively, the Links Trust, in tandem with other businesses and local authorities, has also developed an app that will enable other organisations to tap into resources and personnel during the difficult weeks (if not months) that inevitably lie ahead.
“For example, let’s say we have a chef who is on furlough,” says Loudon. “There might be a hospital who requires a chef to help out urgently and he or she on our staff may be looking to undertake some volunteer work until such times as they return to work for us. The idea is that this app will join these dots in the most structured and efficient way possible and to everybody’s benefit.”
Golfers, meanwhile, can still play the Old Course using the World Golf Tour video game. Used by 15 million people around the world, it is the No.1-rated 3D online game, and unlike many other popular online golf games, is not limited to a single platform. It can be played on PC, Mac or your preferred mobile device. Until such times as the links re-opens for real, actual play, golfers will be able to play the virtual Old Course for free.
“Just because the courses are closed doesn’t mean that we, as a business, have closed,” adds Loudon. “Far from it.”
Of the 250 staff who have been furloughed, 80 are greenkeepers. In line with guidance from the R&A and the British and International Golf Greenkeepers’ Association (BIGGA), a skeleton staff has been retained to carry out essential maintenance.
Four teams, working out of three separate facilities, are tasked with maintaining the seven courses. A challenge, but one that director of greenkeeping Sandy Reid and his colleagues are rising to.
“We’re just delighted to be able to do anything right now,” says Reid. “There are many other industries that you can’t work in just now so we’re fortunate. It’s a little strange preparing courses that nobody is playing. Our guys are used to having golfers chasing them all the way around pretty much every day but, so far, everybody’s coping pretty well.”
Of late, work has been restricted to cutting the greens once or twice a week and all other surfaces once a week. Some basic nutrition has also been applied, as allowed by the guidelines, but that’s about it.
“All things considered, the courses are looking good,” adds Reid. “Don’t get me wrong, there has been a little bit of frustration at times that we can’t do more. Things like the edgings and getting rid of daisies that keep sprouting up. Things that most other people wouldn’t pay much notice to but, because we’re looking at things with such a critical eye and hold ourselves to such high standards, those are the kind of bugbears. It’s only natural to feel that. But we can soon take care of all that once things get back to normal.”
Normal is, of course, a subjective term. Many golfers have already expressed an expectation that, when play does resume, it will do so on immaculate courses. No divots, no pitch marks, that kind of thing. Call it the silver lining of the lockdown raincloud.
Not so fast, cautions Reid.
“I’d advise people, no matter where they play, to manage their expectations,” he says. “The courses might look good, but the performance won’t necessarily be there. There’s a lot more to greenkeeping than just cutting grass. There will areas that will be unkempt. Bunkers, for example. Not just the bunker faces or the surrounds but the sand itself. I’m fully expecting complaints about soft sand, hard sand, no sand and so on. Surfaces will undoubtedly be softer, too, and for two reasons. One, lack of play. Two, restrictions on cutting and top-dressing.
“Hopefully, we’ll get two- or three-days’ notice when restrictions are about to lift that will allow us to take care of some of these things but even that won’t be enough.
“Getting them back to where they were won’t be entirely straightforward but my hope is that people will just be happy to be back playing golf again and so they’ll cut us a bit of slack.”
In that sense, Reid admits that it is a ‘relief’ that The Open – originally scheduled to take place in St Andrews next summer, and with all of the associated fanfare of it being the 150th edition of the championship – has been pushed back by 12 months.
“It has definitely helped,” adds Reid. “It gives us more time to get things where we want them to be. It means we have a greater window to carry out the restitution work we expect to have to do on the other side of all this. Things like firming the ground up and so on. As a team, though, everyone very much understands the decision that the R&A has made and supports it."
Despite the strict measures that have been imposed by the government – and notwithstanding recommendations made by the various amateur golf administrations in the UK – some people have openly flouted the temporary ban on golf. Pictures of people defying the orders and playing on closed courses around the country have popped up depressingly often on social media over the past few weeks.
Reid admits that St Andrews, too, has experienced some of that.
“There have been one or two incidents,” he says. “A couple of individuals had a par-3 tournament on the Eden Course the other way, it would seem. There was a little bit of activity in the first weekend [of lockdown] on the Balgove and Strathtyrum, and some more on the practice ground next to the Jubilee and up at the Castle Course, probably because it’s so remote. I don’t think anybody’s chanced their mitt on the Old yet. But, on the whole, people have been pretty respectful. I haven’t heard any bad stories about people damaging the course or taking the mickey.
“For the most part, I think people are respectful of what our courses are and what they represent.”
Reid has a team of four course managers, with whom he is in daily contact. Loudon, meanwhile, says that he, too, has been leaning on his contemporaries for support, both practical and moral.
“I speak with the CEOs of some of our key partners, such as TORO and Callaway,” he says. “It’s good just to be able to share ideas and re-affirm our commitment to one another.”
In a similar fashion, he is acutely aware that the managers of other courses will be looking to St Andrews for direction and leadership when this pause is over.
“In a completely unpretentious way, I’ve always thought that, rightly, we are in the vanguard of what goes on certainly as far as links golf is concerned in particular and, by extension, golf in general in the UK and Europe,” he says.
“So, yes, we always want to do the right thing. But what’s that old saying: ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. Doing what’s right in and beyond the home of golf is something that will always be a test for us before we make one of those, hopefully, good and timely decisions.
“It won’t always work out that way, of course, but if a ripple that starts in the KY16 postcode can spread and make a positive difference further afield, we will be delighted."
* * *
Nobody knows where,or how, or when all of this will end. Only that it will.
So, too, will these insufferable, successive Sundays.
When that day dawns, it will be time for golfers to congregate and worship at the altar of the game’s most holy land once more. To rejoice and scream ‘Hallelujah!’
What a day that will be.
Amen to that.