Golf Wasn’t Always the Reason for a Pilgrimage to St Andrews

Hundreds of thousands of fans will flock to the home of golf as St Andrews prepares to host the 150th staging of The Open; but it wasn't always golf that brought huge numbers to this Scottish town.

By Justin RouillonThursday 14 Jul 2022SportReading Time: 3 minutes

Main Image:  The Swilcan Bridge greets golfers as they make their way up the 18th fairway at St Andrew’s Old Course (Noah Jurik).

The golfing world is set to celebrate one of the game’s iconic events this weekend, with the 150th staging of The Open at The Old Course in the Scottish seaside town of St Andrews.

The first players will take the tee on Thursday afternoon (Australian time), with golf’s elite players eyeing off the famous Claret Jug, and the opportunity to be crowned champion golfer of the year.

St Andrews is steeped in history, with the Old Course dating back to the 1500’s, and the father of the modern game, Old Tom Morris, designing the 18 hole layout at St Andrews that would become standard for a round of golf in the mid 1800’s.

Teeing off at the 1st hole on the Old Course with the Old Course Hotel in the background.

The Old Course at St Andrews is now seen as the spiritual home of golf, and despite it not being particularly long for today’s big hitters, is still one of the toughest examples of links golf in the world.  Bobby Jones, who took out the golfing ‘Grand Slam’ in 1930, said that a player must win at St Andrews to be considered great.

But it wasn’t always golf that drew hordes of pilgrims to the town, which lies around 35 kilometres north-east of Edinburgh.

St Andrews was named after the patron saint of Scotland, and was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland; seeing pilgrims travelling from all across Europe to view relics of the saint and ‘seek the prayers of Saint Andrew’.

Andrew, along with his brother Peter, were Jesus’ first disciples, with Andrew dying a martyr’s death on an X-shaped cross.  That diagonal cross, which is known as a saltire, is depicted on Scotland’s national flag.

It was said that an eighth century monk brought some of Andrew’s bones to Scotland as relics, including finger bones, an arm bone and a kneecap, which saw the population of St Andrews boom as pilgrimages became common place.

The town is also home to the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral – built in 1158 and the centre of the Medieval Catholic Church in Scotland before falling into disuse and ruin after the outlawing of Catholicism during the Scottish Reformation.

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral (Leonhard Niederwimmer)

This spiritual history also finds its way into the golf – with the Old Course featuring many references to spirituality.  The wide fairway of the 14th hole is known as Elysian Fields; the Ancient Greek concept of paradise and the afterlife.

But golfers on the 14th hole also need to be careful of one of the most famous bunkers in golf – the aptly named Hell Bunker.  At almost seven feet high, it has plagued even the most experienced professionals, with Jack Nicklaus famously taking four shots to escape Hell in the 1995 Open.

And as golfers walk up the 18th fairway and across the famous Swilcan Bridge, there is one task at hand – to stay out of The Valley of Sin, a large natural depression in the surface that protects the 18th green.

The 150th Open Championship from St Andrews begins at 3:30pm Thursday AEST.  Coverage is via Fox Sports, Kayo with limited coverage on The Open’s website.