The Golfers' Bridge at St Andrews
Referred to in some quarters as the Lourdes of Golf, the iconic Swilcan Bridge on the Old Course at St Andrews entices golfing pilgrims from far and wide.
As far as is known, none has witnessed an apparition atop the ancient and tiny stone bridge, but it takes only a little imagination to picture a steely-eyed Old Tom Morris pausing there to cast an appreciative eye over the Home of Golf – if not quite the master of all he surveys, then not far off.
How is it that such a small landmark – it is just ten large strides from one side to the other, is eight feet wide and six feet tall, and spans the Swilcan Burn that runs across the 1st and 18th fairways – can hold such a place in golfing lore? The answer lies in its location on the most revered and famous of courses and in all those who have crossed it in years gone by. Such is its place in the game that the World Golf Hall of Fame, in Florida, has installed a full-sized replica.
Whether a competitor in The Open Championship or the Women’s British Open, a leading amateur, a top-ranked junior, or just an everyday club player, it is almost impossible not to stop on top of the bridge and to reflect on the fact that you are walking in the footsteps of giants.
What you will see before you is one of the most famous backdrops in the game, The Royal and Ancient Clubhouse on the left, the imposing Hamilton Grand on the right. And it is just such a backdrop that met the gaze of players of the ilk of the Great Triumvirate - JH Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid – in the early 1900s, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Sir Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods et al.
The Swilcan Bridge – known in the 1800’s as the Golfers’ Bridge - originally provided a link between harbour and town for merchants, farmers and shepherds. It is believed that a structure has been on the same spot for around 800 years, although it is designed like an 18th century packhorse bridge – constructed with low parapets so as not to interfere with a horse's panniers.
Club minutes of the St Andrews Society of Golfers, from September 7, 1810, authorised the Secretary “to employ tradesmen to repair the Golfers’ Bridge on the Links, which is at present almost impassable, and to pay the expense thereof”. Two hundred years on and the stonemasonry has comfortably stood the test of time.
At this year’s Champion Golfers’ Challenge, on the eve of The Open, there will not be a player who doesn’t stop on top of the bridge to pose for the customary photographs and to acknowledge the applause of the hundreds of fans lining the 18th fairway. This is not the bridge of sighs, but the bridge of smiles.
Among those to have won Opens at St Andrews and keen to retrace their footsteps will be Woods, Faldo and Peter Thomson, of Australia. Missing, sadly, will be Kel Nagle, Thomson’s countryman, who won the Centenary Open at St Andrews in 1960, but who passed away in January at the age of 94, and the most dashing player of them all, Severiano Ballesteros.
Needless to say, the Swilcan Bridge has become a place of fond farewells. From iconic landmark to iconic images, it is impossible for anyone who witnessed them to forget the long goodbyes of Palmer and Nicklaus – or, for that matter, Sam Snead’s impromptu little jig.
Nicklaus, the most successful player of any generation, fittingly chose St Andrews as the place to bid farewell to The Open. The Golden Bear won three Opens, two of them over the Old Course, so his leaving of the scene in 2005 was something to behold.
Playing with Tom Watson and Luke Donald, Nicklaus, who was to miss the cut, teed off the 18th for the last time and then strolled to the bridge, his playing partners encouraging him to go on ahead. Followed by a phalanx of press photographers, he put one foot on the side wall of the bridge and waved like golfing royalty to the thousands of fans who had turned up to pay tribute. This year it will be the turn of Watson and Faldo.
In 2007, the Women’s British Open was played on the Old Course for the first time. Paula Creamer, the leading American player, was so enamoured with the place that she performed a cartwheel in front of the bridge to provide one of the most joyous, novel, and enduring of images of all. She simply couldn’t resist.
And that’s what the Swilcan Bridge can do to you. Needless to say, this year’s Open Champion will almost certainly be pictured there with the Claret Jug. And so will the next one, and the one after that. Put simply, it’s set in stone.