In November 2019, the Old Course at St. Andrews will offer something rather shocking: a completely new playing experience. It is reviving the reverse, or left-handed, routing for one weekend of play. In the late 1800s, the course was played in reverse on a weekly basis. As the standard, or right-handed, routing became world famous, the reverse course fell out of use. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t something to behold. As with everything at the Old Course, the land and the golf remain marvels no matter which direction they’re played.
The first time I played the Old Course at St. Andrews, I walked off the 12th tee and almost stepped into a bunker. “Weird place for a sand trap,” I thought. It was only about 50 yards in front of the tee and tipped the wrong way, away from the line of play.
Someone in my group—this was back in 1975, so I cannot be sure if it was a fellow player or a local caddie—mentioned that if you looked backward and imagined playing from there into the 11th green, the bunker was actually well positioned.
I had too much on my mind at the time to think through the mechanics of playing this iconic routing a different way. But five years later I came back, this time as a graduate student with just enough of a research affiliation with St. Andrews University to warrant a student pass onto the course for a month. I supplemented this with afternoon rounds caddying. And that’s when I started looking seriously at the genius of the landforms and realized how playable the Old Course was in reverse.
Loop or reversible golf has become somewhat fashionable of late. Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Michigan, now sports two courses designed by Tom Doak that occupy the same ground. Played on alternate days, the Black Course plays clockwise and the Red Course runs counterclockwise.
Also reversible, but not so strictly symmetrical in its alternative forms, are two layouts by Dan Hixson at Silvies Valley Ranch in eastern Oregon. Craddock makes a big right-hand turn; Hankins goes the other way. Each course has three solo holes that are not shared.
The Old Course is the oldest recorded reversible layout, with play documented on what became known as the left-handed course as early as 1872 and continuing through at least 1904 on a regular weekly basis. After that, it was used intermittently for maintenance purposes or the occasional special event. Major championships were held on the standard right-handed layout, with the notable exception of the 1886 British Amateur, when the rotation called for the reverse sequence.
Sometime after World War I, the left-handed routing fell out of use, to be revived only a few times, in the first decade of the 2000s, to coincide with April Fool’s weekend.
Golfers today have grown accustomed to the right-handed course, with play proceeding counterclockwise along the right side of the double fairways and greens with the exception of the loop holes out at the turn, Nos. 8 through 11. The left-handed course, by contrast, proceeds clockwise, with play opening from the first tee to the 17th green and ending with a crossover shot from the second tee to the 18th green.
There aren’t many par 72s in the world with only two par 5s and two par 3s. Better yet, St. Andrews also sports symmetrical nines in terms of par sequence: 4-4-4-4-5-4-4-3-4 going out and 4-3-4-4-5-4-4-4-4 coming in. Incredibly, that exact sequence of par is preserved when the course is played in reverse. That makes for a second version of what mathematicians call a palindrome. (So, the next time someone asks you about the St. Andrews reverse course, you can explain that it’s doubly palindromic.)
In some ways, St. Andrews’ left-handed layout is completely alienating. Conventional hazards from the standard routing, like the Principal’s Nose on the 16th hole or Hell Bunker on No. 14, are transformed into insignificant flyover territory for drives. In other cases, unexplained oddities, like the fall-away alignment of the 14th green and that little unnamed pot bunker to the rear of it, now become central features whose logic is obvious and profound. All of a sudden, you’re playing over a tiny front bunker to a putting surface that supports the approach shot.
The reverse seventh
Such is the effect of the reverse seventh hole, played from just east of the standard 13th tee to the 11th green. The tee shot plays across the ground conventionally occupied by the 12th fairway. What used to be readily visible from the tee goes into hiding and what was obscured suddenly looms as a substantial hazard.
Admiral’s Bunker, a nuisance to be sidestepped when walking off the standard 12th tee, is now central to strategy. At 225 yards to reach and 240 yards to carry, it’s in the middle of most players’ landing area and at the narrowest part of the pinched fairway. Carrying it off the tee might be a temptation, but this is among the narrowest landing areas on the entire course, with crazed whins and unkempt, gnarly land left. And we have yet to account for the wind, prevailing out of the west, which forces everything right on the reverse seventh.
Even a successful drive over it is not the end of one’s troubles. The following shot is a short wedge from a tight lie—less than a full swing, yet one that has to carry the notorious Hill Bunker stuck right in front of the green on the approach line. Downwind, the factors are even more compelling, because the strong hitter must then face the prospect of either driving it into Hill Bunker or, if off to the right a little, running into Shell Bunker—leaving a 60-yard shot from sand.
The smart play—a term seemingly so quaint these days—is to tee off with less than a driver and play short of Admiral’s. All the tee shot has to do is carry Stroke Bunker—140 yards will do the trick—and the full width of the fairway is available, leaving a short iron in.
Among the many magical enumerations of golf on the Old Course—in either direction—is that the 11 double greens all add up to 18. That’s true on both the normal course and the reverse one. When it comes to those greens, we’re dealing with size on an entirely different order than virtually anywhere else in golf.
The average golf-course green is about 6,000 square feet. There are several ways to figure out the average size of greens at St. Andrews. If you took the total putting surface and divided it by 18, your average hole would sport 13,608 square feet of green, more than double a standard complex. But there are actually only 11 greens on the course, making the average putting surface 22,267 square feet, a bit more than half an acre. The seven double greens average 28,063 square feet, about two-thirds of an acre. The largest of the seven double greens, shared by the fifth and 13th holes, spans 37,846 square feet and comprises exactly seven-eighths of an acre. It takes a single crew member with a walk mower 90 minutes to cut that surface, registering a walk of 7 miles in the process.
The shared seventh/11th green is one of the smaller double greens, measuring 21,779 square feet. What makes it awkward for play on the reverse seventh hole is that it presents a narrow target when viewed across the approach line: about 18 yards across, most of it tipped steeply from left to right, on a slope accentuated in intensity by the prevailing wind, which is behind and from the left. All of this makes the Hill Bunker up front and the notoriously deep Strath Bunker on the right all the more difficult to avoid.
No matter how familiar one is with the Old Course, playing it in reverse will feel like a foreign experience. The beauty of this special tract is that it provides for the opportunity of an experience entirely of its own when played in reverse—one that can be equally as fulfilling as, if differently demanding than, play across the normal sequence of holes.
Architects of reversible courses today know how difficult it is to make things work in opposing directions. It takes meticulous attention to make the slopes work bidirectionally, the greens to work together—even to determine where to put tee boxes. The genius of the Old Course is that this element of its playability evolved or was teased out slowly, perhaps even accidentally.
The origins of the reverse course are not known. That planning document—if it ever existed—has yet to be discovered. What remains today and gets revived periodically is the ability to marvel at a golf course with so much flexibility. Any way you look at it, the Old Course still offers one of the world’s most compelling rounds of golf.
Bradley S. Klein is a senior writer with Golf Channel/GolfAdvisor.com. He’s a former PGA Tour caddie, author of eight books on golf-course architecture and the 2015 winner of the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement by the American Society of Golf Course Architects.