Just beyond a village center in Scotland there’s a stone footbridge indiscriminately hoary by more than half a millennium of North Sea winds and rain. It’s been continuously smoothed, chipped, and smoothed again by millions of leather and hooven footfalls.
This saga has been playing out since before Columbus left Andalusian shores for the New World.
Despite its modest measurements, it’s indisputably the most famous landmark in golf – if not all of modern sport. Those who’ve crossed those 30-odd feet of weathered Scottish stone know exactly what I’m referencing – Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Before the first shot was ever struck at St. Andrews, Swilcan Bridge was the final burn crossing for herdsmen, farmers, and peasants seeking comfort after working a long day in the rich estuarial fields north and west of the village.
Since around 1300 A.D., it has been a cairn of sorts, marking a return to hearth and home.
What follows is not the definitive story of Swilcan Bridge. Rather, it’s simply one of millions.
Swilcan Bridge is, by the best estimates of people who might know such things, approximately 700 years old. That puts its creation sometime in the early 14th century. Accepting this, we know it was built around the time of the Great Famine that ravaged Europe’s population in the early part of the 1300s.
It was during this same period when William Wallace was furiously battling for Scottish independence from King Edward I. Wallace’s story ends in 1306 with him being hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Scotland’s story was just beginning.
Robert the Bruce took up the fight upon Wallace’s death and finally secured Scottish Independence in 1326. Scottish golfing veterans might note that the remains of the castle in which Robert the Bruce was born lay a short pitching wedge from the 10th tee at Turnberry’s Ailsa Course on the opposite side of Scotland.
I mention all this not for the benefit of those who haven’t seen Braveheart but to place Swilcan Bridge in its proper historical context. The history of Swilcan Bridge runs perfectly parallel to the history of Scotland.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that, as Robert the Bruce defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Scottish herdsmen were gathering and crafting the glacial scree that would one day constitute the most famous landmark in golf.
Swilcan Bridge is the holiest of sites in the orthodoxy of golf. Its crumpled stones are caressed by passing golfers in the same manner Catholics rub the bronze foot of St. Peter in his eponymous basilica.
The stones that comprise Swilcan Bridge represent a kind of alpha and omega of golf. Crossing it is a short walk upon the long journey of golf; the past, present, and future of the game.
Swilcan Bridge doesn’t just connect a tee box and a fairway. It’s emblematic of the Home of Golf and the origins of the sport. It is the defining image of St. Andrews, iconically marking its status as the most famous course in the world. And it will point the way home for every golfer competing in the 150th British Open in 2022.
Anchoring the view of the 18th is the red-stoned Hamilton Grand. To the left sits the Camelot Castle of golf; The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
Between the two buildings, golfers on the tee of the 18th hole can see the solitary Martyrs Monument in the background. It appears to rise from the sea itself. The spire commemorates the 1528 execution of Scotland’s first Protestant martyr, Patrick Hamilton, who was burned at the stake at nearby St. Salvator’s Chapel for his beliefs.
It was around that same time local nobles were beginning to wander the fields just west of the village pursuing a game that had recently captured the Scottish heart.
To return to their village, our golfing forefathers had to cross a narrow burn that separated the rudimentary links from the village proper. They called that place Swilcan Bridge.
The small footbridge is crossed in a northeasterly direction as you leave the 18th tee. It makes poetic sense when you realize Swilcan Bridge points you in the direction of the first tee box, not the final green. It’s a subtle nudge to return back to whence you came some four hours earlier. It marks not the end of a round as much as an invitation to another.
In golf, everything – quite literally – points back to St. Andrews and Swilcan Bridge.
I was with my father and two friends the day I had my trip around the Old Course. Our cheeks were ruddy and chapped from the afternoon round. The late August sun, in full golden-hour bloom to the west, lit the dramatic backdrop of the 18th. Crowds milled along the street and several people watched the course from their windows overlooking the 18th.
As I crossed Swilcan Bridge, the world paused. The universe seemed to graciously bow its head for a moment of silence. Though I know it to be untrue, every golfer and caddie on the course stood still. It was one of the most profound experiences in my 51 years on earth.
I was aware of it as it happened. It unfolded in slow motion. I was able to consciously revel in the experience in real-time. My memories are still crystalline-clear some five years later.
Swilcan Bridge, I learned that day, is more threshold than crossing. Standing upon it is to pause at the intersection of life and golf.
It brought tears to my eyes. I experienced that rarest of occasions where time stops, the universe suspends itself, and a person is given the briefest moment to ponder all that they have had, or ever will have, in this life.
The caddie told my Dad and me to stand on the bridge; the 18th green and the R&A framing us. He took my father’s big DLSR and snapped-off a few shots. We honestly didn’t know if he’d captured a usable image, much less the great one we discovered later.
It was a good thing the little photo op happened so quickly. My normally chatty demeanor on the course had been replaced with silence as we stood there. My Dad noticed and asked if I wanted a shot by myself on Swilcan Bridge.
“No,” I answered. “That one will work.”
The tears were gathering in my eyelashes and I turned away, reaching down to touch the low rail of the bridge. I was a little embarrassed by my rush of emotions. Men are funny that way sometimes.
Then it was gone.
I felt a big smile come over my face and I stood to take in the fairway ahead. My two buddies, now striding down the fairway ahead, turned to check on us and I gestured to let them know we were on our way.
In front of a modest crowd of tourists strolling the sidewalk between the Royal & Ancient and the 18th green, we putted out to finish the round.
We didn’t shake hands after our final putts fell, we hugged. I’ve played countless rounds with these guys and I’m certain that was the first time we ever hugged each other on an 18th green.
I turned to my Dad. I hugged and thanked him for reasons that had nothing to do with golf.
The sun was mellowing into an orange glow as we looked back to the 18th tee and the next group preparing to tee off.
Our moment in the sun was over. It was time for the golfers behind us to burnish their own memories on the biggest little bridge in golf.
A round at St. Andrews Old Course will change how you see and feel about the game of golf. It might even change how you feel about the game of life.
It is special. It is home.