ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - The night before my foursome was scheduled to play The Jubilee Course at St. Andrews Links, we were asked by one of the local scratch golfers what was on the docket for the next day. When he heard that our morning round was The Jubilee, he raised his neat Scotch to his lips, lowered his voice, and hissed conspiratorially, "I hate that bleeding course!"
Bright and early the next morning - well early, anyway, this was Scotland after all - as we trundled down the hill from Burness House Bed and Breakfast to the St. Andrews Links, one of the neighboring innkeepers, after enquiring as to our round for the day, smiled sweetly and cautioned, "Don't think you've put a good round together until you've finished the last four holes."
The astute reader will by this point have deduced the following fact about the 106 year-old Jubilee Course: It is the most difficult track at the St. Andrews Links. For all the ways that The Old Course defines strategic design, The Jubilee exemplifies perhaps one of the earliest penal designs in golf.
A Stern Test
The Jubilee Course was laid out in 1897 by John Angus, who was paid just under 180 pounds to turn the sliver of land between The New Course and the sea into a 12-hole links. In just under two months, Angus and his crew of 20 men had the course ready for play, in time for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (hence the name).
In 1902, the course was expanded to 18 holes, which is quite remarkable since even a passing glance at a map of the parcel of land it occupies appears too narrow to accommodate one fairway, much less two side-by-side (one running out and one running back).
Further renovations to the course were made in 1938-1946 by former Open champion Willie Auchterlonie. And the final version, as it plays today, was completed in 1988 by Donald Steel. These newest improvements include elevated tee boxes affording vistas of the firth and town and exposing tee shots to even more of the wind.
At 6,742 yards and par 72 from the medal tees (6,424 men's, 5,956 ladies'), The Jubilee Course is truly the championship course at St. Andrews. In fact, it seems like The Open is just about the only championship not held on the Jubilee. And, as we were warned, it plays every bit as tough as one would expect.
Wind, sure. Evil bunkering, of course. Massive, unreadable greens, certainly. All of these things one expects from The Links at St. Andrews. But fairways apparently no wider than a bowling alley, lined with gorse the way that some fairways in the U.S. are lined with pine trees? And blind tee shots to these claustrophobic corridors? This is not your prototypical links design.
Aside from the golf-ball gobbling gorse and heaving dunes that swallow all errant shots, out of bounds comes into play on holes No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 14, 16, 17, and 18. And danger lurks not just for slicers; hookers get punished here as well. Basically, all you need to do, on every single hole, is hit the ball straight.
Or should we say, hit the ball straight and pray. You see, a few years ago, the fairways gave way to primary rough, then intermediate rough, and finally the brutal long rough. These days, though, the fairway leads to only a narrow strip of primary rough, which surrenders almost immediately to the long stuff. As such, even a well-struck drive could easily trickle off into high cotton. Sometimes you need to be lucky and good.
This said, it is in fact that back nine which burns itself most exquisitely into a golfer's memory. Be aware that no ball seems to carry as far as you think it will, nor do all yardages seem to jibe with yardage markers or the yardage book. For example, on the 428-yard, par-4 16th, the yardage book advises players that the line off the tee towards the blind fairway is half-way up the left-hand dune. One of my foursome crushed a drive exactly on that line, only to discover that the line led only to more gorse and dunes. As it turned out, there was plenty of room to the right-hand side of the 16th fairway.
Possible yardage book misprints notwithstanding, several holes intentionally feature deceptive yardages. The best hole on the course - and one of the best links holes in the Kingdom of Fife - is the 356-yard 15th. A fairway wood from the tee to the left side of the fairway leaves an approach to a green that appears to be much closer than it is. The illusion is achieved through a combination of a 20-foot high dune occluding the right side of the green and a deep swale spanning a good 30 yards in front of the putting surface.
Do Play It, but Be Prepared
So should the visiting Yank avoid The Jubilee? Well, The Old Course is more historic. And The New Course is perhaps the best at The Links. And The Eden Course is likely to yield a low score. But The Jubilee gives you the best fight for your money.
So do play it, but be prepared. The greens are the hardest and least forgiving at the links, so be precise. And even though it is the toughest course at The Links, players are not required to provide a handicap card, so be prepared for one of the longest rounds in Scotland (4.5 hours). And finally, since The Links belong to the people of St. Andrews after all, locals generally walk and jog all along and through the course, so be careful.
And remember that a good front nine does not ensure a decent score on the back nine, so be humble. And if The Jubilee Course ends up as a gorse thorn in your side, I know a pretty good local golfer you can commiserate with over a nice single malt.