ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — In the birthplace of golf, I saw a puppy, not a putt.
The little dog raced across the Old Course's fine low grass, his mistress behind. Nearby, families posed on the Swilcan Bridge — the bridge that Jack Nicklaus kissed in 2005 during his final British Open.
How is it that the ordinary person can walk on the world's most famous golf course?
"Nobody owns the Old Course," sniffed the ticket taker at the British Golf Museum across the street. The land was given to all the citizens of St. Andrews by the king of Scotland in the 12th century.
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Most days, lucky golfers from around the world pay up to $200 for the privilege of playing a round on the historic, par-72 St. Andrews Old Course links, where golf was invented 600 years ago.
But every Sunday, the course is closed "to let it rest," as it's so quaintly put. That's when the public gets free rein.
On a sunshiny fall afternoon, I even saw people lying down on the fairway, soaking in the brief Scotland sun as if they were on the beach.
The city even has a love story: Britain's Prince William, and Kate Middleton, who announced their engagement recently, met while students at the University of St. Andrews.
Naturally, my husband almost swooned when he discovered the news.
He stood on the old stone bridge. He examined the bunkers. He explored the 17th hole. And the 18th hole. And some other holes. He marveled at the perfect practice putting green, its individual blades of grass no higher than an ant's kneecap. He even sneaked a peek in the windows of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club clubhouse to glimpse trophies gleaming on a shelf. He shopped at the Links Clubhouse giftshop and had a beer in the bar.
From there, it was a short walk to the Best Western Scores Hotel, where because it was off-season and a Sunday, we stayed in junior suite 204, which directly overlooks the course's first tee.
By the 1500s, golf was so popular in Scotland that it was banned because it kept luring men away from their archery practice. Later, towns had to pass laws against Sunday golf because too many people were on the links instead of in church.
Originally, the sport was played with wooden clubs and balls stuffed with feathers, which gave way over the centuries to much improved gear, if not improved golf scores.
The story is told at the British Golf Museum, which is golf's equivalent to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. A treasure trove of golf memorabilia, it includes John Daly's autographed glove from his win at the British Open at St. Andrews in 1995 and Tiger Woods' autographed red shirt and black hat from his last triumph in 2005. A practice putting area lets visitors try their skill.
Older artifacts charmingly reveal the sport's long history. On display is the oldest known British Open champ scorecard, from golfer Old Tom Morris in 1864 (he won $9, hardly today's $1.29 million prize). You can also read about old golf lingo — a "foozle" was a bad, bungling stroke, and to "miss the globe" was to miss the ball.
In a section on golf course design, there is a photo of sheep nibbling the greens to keep them short before lawnmowers were invented. And in a display of clubs over the decades, there's the Spalding Schenectady Putter from 1902, banned at St. Andrews for giving players an unfair advantage.
If you want to actually play golf on the Old Course, there still are reserved slots available in 2011 — but only from January to March (wear a parka) and after Oct. 11. However, St. Andrews has six other golf courses — the New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum, Castle and Balgove, all of which can easily be booked just a week ahead or so.
Because St. Andrews is a public course, visitors can drop in at the golf practice center, three clubhouses, bars and giftshops anytime.
Also, if you would prefer a tour of the Old Course instead of just wandering around, 40-minute and two-hour guided walks are offered in summer (see story at right for details).
As for us, we kept drifting back to the Swilcan Bridge, built hundreds of years ago so sheep can cross. In July, golfer Tom Watson kissed that bridge as he left the game during the 2010 British Open, the latest in a long line of pro golfers to do so.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The seaside town of St. Andrews, pop. 15,000, is an hour northeast of Edinburgh.
Lodging: Best Western Scores Hotel is across the street from the first tee of the Old Course and a block from the British Golf Museum and town. (A junior suite with breakfast is $220-$330/night, depending on the season. www.scoreshotel.co.uk)
—British Golf Museum. History of golf, great fun. ($9, www.britishgolfmuseum.co.uk )
—St. Andrews Links: Walk the Old Course free on Sundays. Also try the golf practice center or have lunch or a drink at a clubhouse.
The course also offers guided walks Saturdays and Sundays in June and daily in July and August (11 a.m., about $4). It offers 2-hour tours on Sundays in July and August (10 a.m., about $7.50; book via e-mail at hirestandrews.org.uk ).
If you want to play golf at any of the St. Andrews courses, see the reservations calendar and details at www.standrews.org.uk.
—Downtown St. Andrews: Castle ruins, pleasant streets, good shopping, aquarium, on shores of St. Andrews Bay and the North Sea beyond. Just outside of town see oat fields and sheep.
For more: www.standrews.co.uk