ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - As you drive onto the property of the St. Andrews Links Trust toward the Eden Clubhouse, you're greeted with a sign that says, "Danger Golf in Progress." If you hit the ball like most of us, that pretty much says it all.
Now, however, there's hope for all the hackers (and players) who want to hone their games in the Auld Grey Toon. Not only is this the birthplace of golf, a series of recent renovations and expansions have been undertaken aimed at attracting new players to the game and keeping them active.
Despite record-shattering numbers of rounds played on the famed links at St. Andrews, golf in Scotland - as in the Colonies - is suffering through what everyone hopes is only a temporary malaise. The expanded Golf Practice Centre (GPC) and growing juniors program are thus a welcome shot in the arm for golfers of all handicaps and ages.
According to Brendan Duffy, manager of the Golf Practice Centre, "Up to 3 million balls are hit at the GPC annually. In summer, 40,000 per day are hit. Between 75,000 and 100,000 people use the centre a year." Duffy also adds that the GPC uses 30,000 balls a year, which are replaced annually.
Opened in 1993, the GPC operates seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with floodlights at night. There are 32 outdoor bays and 12 indoor bays, along with an area of grass tees.
The short game area, with its undulating surfaces, is especially designed for links golf. There is a chipping area, three bunkers (including one that is a replica of the Road Bunker), and a green that was once part of the Eden Course.
At the far end of the GPC there is an Academy area, which has 45 grass tees, two putting greens, a large chipping green, and three bunkers (two greenside and one fairway). This area is used by tournament players and top amateurs alike.
Seven pros teach at the GPC. They are independent of the Links Trust, but pay a facility fee for the use of bays. They charge pupils about £25 for a half hour lesson. Clubs are also available for rent to the public.
According to Duffy, next year will bring some major expansion to the GPC. Plans include extending the number of covered bays to 28, four of which will have roller doors and will be used for advanced training, using swing analysis and virtual reality. New floodlighting is to be introduced to cut the glare from the present system. The lights in the roof area will be degraded from 1000 watts to 300, and lights will be inserted in the ground.
"This year we introduced Power Tees, an automated teeing system," says Duffy. "These are popular with older golfers and low handicappers alike, who can swing with the minimum of effort in setting up a ball." The GPC also has air cushioned mats, which are changed yearly, to ensure both a realistic turf feel and minimal shock to the hands and wrists.
The GPC is used by Scottish National Golf Squads. And the St. Andrews Links Junior Golf Association (SALJGA) uses the GPC as part of the extensive training program in place for local children. 350 children and 65 volunteer (all level 1 PGA accredited) take part. British Open Champion Paul Lawrie is Honorary President of SALJGA, and Ben Hogan Golf donated lorries full of equipment (although the company is no longer involved with the program). The program and practice facilities appear to be working: Two of the SALJGA boys have played in the Dunhill Links Championship.
Locals, including Paul Kirkaldy, reservations manager for the St. Andrews Links Trust, hope that this upswing in the popularity of golf takes permanent hold. Despite the long history of the game in St. Andrews, as of just a couple of years ago, Kirkaldy lamented the fact that only two local boys had low single-digit handicaps, and there had not been a junior scratch golfer locally for several years. Today, there are 15 kids in SALJGA whose handicaps are 6 or under (13 boys and 2 girls), and it is expected that more will join them in the next year.
With the expansions and upgrades of the Golf Practice Centre, the children of Fife should have no trouble finding time and opportunity to work on their games.
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.