Few religions have spread quite so rapidly as golf. Though its origins may lie as far back as the 14th century, it was only about 150 years ago that it became recognisable as the sport we know today. Since then, it has swept the world like Alexander's irrepressible Greek army. Its centre, as every school boy knows, is St Andrews, which is to golfers what Utah is to the Mormons. Golf and St Andrews go together like pitch and putt. Even in February, on a Saturday morning that is numbingly cold, the fabled Old Course is host from first light to the game's adherents, negotiating their tortuous way round the links as the wind howls and white-capped waves break on the West Sands, the breathtaking backdrop to the movie Chariots of Fire. In July this year, the North Sea will form a more likely backdrop to the drama of the 129th Open Golf Championship, the Millennium Open.
From the sanctity of Rusacks Hotel, which overlooks the 18th hole, where so many great golfing dramas have unfolded, the Old Course, with its fearsome reputation, looks a tameable beast, a bumpy green sward tenderly manicured and immaculately maintained. Coming up this final fairway, as the hotel's guests take breakfast, the early-rising golfers place plastic mats under their balls to protect the rock-hard turf. To raise a divot at the Old Course during the winter months is sacrilege.
But this morning, the golfers behave more like sacristans, performing their individual rituals with habitual fastidiousness. Where their balls land is impossible to see, but it could be anywhere for the wind is getting up, snow is beginning to fall and St Andrews is transformed from a dozing lapdog into a howling wolf. But still the golfers turn up at the first tee, making windmill motions with their arms to restore circulation, placing the dimpled ball as if they were lighting a votive candle. It is a curious sight, unfathomable to those who are not followers of this strange human pastime.
"What does he think he's doing," asks the King of Oom, in P G Wodehouse's short story The Coming of Gowf, when he sees his Scottish gardener - captured by an admiral on a raid "at a spot known to the natives as S'nandrews" - preparing to hit a shot. "It is some species of savage religious ceremony," he is told. "According to the admiral, the dunes by the seashore where he landed were covered by a multitude of men behaving just as this man is doing. They had sticks in their hands and they struck with these at small round objects."
Soon, the King is an obsessed convert, as he insists are his subjects, and his kingdom is given over to the worship of "gowf". As his handicap falls, so does prosperity rise. Crime is a thing of the past. Unemployment is no more. His Scottish gardener is treated like a maharishi, and installed in a luxurious apartment where he could be found at almost any hour of the day "fashioning out of holy wood the weird implements indispensable to the new religion".
The King of Oom may have been one of the first to have been gripped by golf fever, but he was no by no means the last, as a visit to St Andrews testifies. Driving eastwards from the station at Leuchars, the landscape is soon given over to golf, mile after mile of harmonious banality. "The inherently snobbish game is golf," wrote Orwell, "which causes whole stretches of countryside to be turned into carefully guarded class preserves." One course merges with another, each mapped out by the architects of the game who are handsomely rewarded for providing a test to the game's ever-growing legion of addicts. As the world shrinks, the links are besieged by golf's conquering heroes coming to their Mecca from all points to pit their skills against the records of the super-stars of the game.
At the Old Course's first tee, there is much sport to be had watching while tourists limber up as they have seen their favourites do, only to slice or hook their balls into briary oblivion. Local lads make decent pocket money by retrieving errant balls which are sold as "experienced" in nearby shops. But despite the almost inevitable humiliation, more will come this year than ever before. The Millennium Open is also coming and already the town is making ready. New hotels are being built, restaurants opened, shops refurbished. St Andrews' population of around 13,000 will multiply daily as an army of golf fans descends on the town.
In an area of relatively high unemployment, it is a heaven-sent opportunity to wipe out the overdraft. Some, many of whom are associated with the town's ancient university, rent out their houses and escape the madness. Others bunk with friends and split the profits. Thousands of pounds change hands for a week's rent for a modest town house. Accommodation is so sought-after that caravan parks in the environs are already fully booked. Restaurants, too, report that they can take no more reservations; even taxi companies have already been hired by far-sighted companies worried that their corporate guests will have to use their legs to get around. Off the coast at Anstruther, ten miles south of St Andrews, the QE2 will be berthed for the duration of the championship, with passengers bussed daily to and fro the course.
For golfers, this is nirvana, the Oom of Wodehouse's dream. But there is a growing sense in St Andrews, which boasts the oldest university in Scotland, that golf, like any other fundamentalist religion, is getting increasingly out of control; that a once diverting game is threatening to turn a characterful seaside town into what one American writer called "a strip-mall variety golf theme park". In 1900, the town had three golf courses, including the Old Course, which first hosted the Open in 1873. Today it has seven, one of which comprises nine holes. The Kingdom of Fife has a total of 42 golf courses.
At present, building is under way at Kingask, just three miles from the town centre, where a £60 million project will turn 520 acres of coastal farmland into a 36-hole golf course, including a 230-room hotel and conference centre. A planning application is pending for another course and several more are said to be in the pipeline. A recent consultation by Fife council put no upper ceiling on the number of future courses, saying that each application must be judged on its merits. As international developers survey St Andrews and it verdant surroundings for potentially lucrative developments, heritage societies are up in arms, crying "Enough!".
Increasingly, the debate is becoming polarised between those who golf and those who don't, or, as one academic said, "between those who believe and those who don't". Problems have been compounded by a shift in power at local government level, leaving the Lib Dems in charge at district level and Labour controlling the region. There are unproven allegations of "brown envelopes" changing hands and favours being given for oiling the wheels of the planning process. Ultimately, however, it is an argument about money, and the ability of a town to retain its soul. St Andrews, say the developers, was content to milk its reputation as golf's magnetic source when it could control supply and demand. But, with the game increasingly asserting its global credentials, international backers are looking for ways to exploit its wealthy amateurs. This doesn't mean building only golf courses but also hotels, and everything that goes with them.
St Andrews's problem lies largely in its relative isolation, which in the past was a large part of its charm. It is bedevilled by the lack of a railway link - although tracks ran alongside the Old Course until 1962, when Lord Beeching closed the line - poor road access and limited car-parking spaces. There is, too, the problem of the Old Course itself, which is the prime reason why so many make the pilgrimage to this blasted heath. Imagine, for example, Catholics arriving in Rome to be told that St Peter's was out of bounds. Some 42,000 rounds can be played on the Old Course annually, which means that many people arrive in hope and return in disappointment.
Nor is there much prospect of that number being significantly increased. The course, which is held in trust by the local authority under an Act of Parliament, is in theory open to anyone to play on, upon payment of a green fee, which is £80 in summer and £36 in winter. In practice, however, it's advisable to book many months, if not years, in advance, especially if you intend playing in summer. In winter, in contrast, you are almost guaranteed a game, as long as you remember to place your name in the ballot the day before you intend to play.
One simple way to ease congestion would be to open the Old Course on a Sunday, but that is so unthinkable it is never seriously aired. As Old Tom Morris, a devout churchman who won the Open four times in the 1860s, and who on his death was elevated to near sainthood by the citizens of St Andrews, used to say: "If the players dinna need a rest, the greens dae."
That St Andrews has managed to maintain the tradition speaks volumes for its innate conservatism and cussedness. But back then, golf was "gowf", a religion practised by a sect that was relatively small and mainly Scottish. The origins of the top players, many of whom came through the ranks as caddies, were humble and such prize money as there was barely covered their expenses. The real money was to be made through gambling, which Old Tom, despite his Presbyterian leanings, embraced enthusiastically. That at least has remained a constant, as golf burgeons to become one of the major betting sports. It is another reminder that whatever happens on the sacred links is merely an adjunct to the myriad wheelings and dealings which have turned golf courses into temples of networking.
In such circumstances, the historical, hallowed role of St Andrews is up for exploitation. And nor can it have much cause for complaint. Having sold itself to the devil, it has little option now but to live with the consequences.