ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND, JULY 16 -- The Old Course at St. Andrews is the ultimate public links. It's not much to look at, just a confused jumble of acreage with fairways shaped by grazing sheep and a few town spires in the background, but it has a slow seeping aura, like one of those Scottish mists.

A visitor is walking along, trying not to sprain an ankle in a sinkhole or an obstinate piece of gorse, and the apparitions of all the ghosts and martyrs suddenly appear. Young Tom Morris, the four-time British Open champion, dying of heartbreak at age 24, ensconced in a graveyard on a hill. The pieces of Bobby Jones's scorecard fluttering to the ground in 1921, torn up in anger. Jack Nicklaus's putter flashing through the air, almost killing Doug Sanders.

It lies here like some abandoned mansion, except for those occasions when a British Open is held on it, as the 119th Championship will be starting Thursday.

It loops along 94 acres with little reason, cluttered by gables and gray buildings on one side and a broad expanse of pale beach on the other. It is an essay in stumbling luck and confusion with 14 double greens and a variety of old stone walls and paths considered perfectly playable. It is called the birthplace of "the ancientt and healthfull exercise of golf," and it may also be the spirit of it, if the guiding principle of the sport is that it never was meant to be fair.

"It's the essence of the game," Tom Watson said. "It's how the game should be played. It's the most difficult to know and understand, there is so much blindness and misdirection inherent in it. We don't build courses like that today. If we did, we'd be laughed at."

The field won't shoot at the flagstick, because it can't see it, at least not the right one. They will tee it up and pray that the caddie knows the way to Elysian Fields, and that the Beardies or the Coffin Bunkers, Swilcan Burn or the famous gaping maw of the Valley of Sin don't suck them under. The wind will blow one way going out, and then reverse itself coming in.

Joyce Wethered, a British women's golf champion of the 1920s, described St. Andrews this way. " . . . Resigning all claims to independence, I delivered myself completely into the hand of my one-armed caddie. For the rest of the round I played obediently over bumps and bunkers, at spires and hotels in the distance, and finally at the 17th hole over the top of a large shed."

In 1754 the St. Andrews Society of Golfers was founded, 22 gentlemen contributing a few shillings each to play for a silver jug. In 1834 this little group became the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and from then on assumed the responsibility of stating the rules of golf, which the rest of the world now regards as the authoritative ones, save for the U.S. Golf Association.

The mystique of St. Andrews is derived from the simple fact that it has not changed since. Any alterations were made by sun, wind and rain, so it is a ruinous waste of open fairways, rough indistinguishable from fairway, with short grasping bushes and not a tree for miles. It is the archetypal links that requires intimate knowledge, the kind that can sound like ludicrous contradiction when voiced out loud.

Seve Ballesteros of Spain, the last winner here in 1984, said: "You have to put the ball in the right place. Which is left."

Few people would call St. Andrews imposing on first sight. Sam Snead called it a cow pasture. Harry Vardon was unimpressed, saying, "A good course, generally." Jones was so frustrated when he played it in 1921 that he stalked off at the 11th hole, tearing up a scorecard that included a 46 on the first nine.

But Jones came to study and know it, the only golfer ever to win both the British Amateur and Open titles on it. In 1927 he set a record of 285 that stood until 1955. In 1930 he won his Amateur title here en route to the Grand Slam.

"There is always a way at St. Andrews, although it is not always the obvious way," he wrote.

Nicklaus's way was not obvious to Sanders, who was forced to duck when Nicklaus won a playoff in 1970 and threw his putter in triumph. It was doubly distressing to Sanders, who had missed a three-foot putt on the 18th hole.

Watson, who seeks a sixth British Open title that would tie him with Vardon, thought St. Andrews had too many vagaries when he first played it, like the way the wind can alter the nature of a hole.

"You have to resign yourself to playing a 3-wood some days and an 8-iron others," he said.

But Watson developed an abiding love for Scottish courses and St. Andrews in particular, because the style reminds him of the scraping, bump-and-run sort of game he played in his childhood.

"This is the way I played as a kid," he said. "You had to learn the game on the ground. As a kid you're on the ground, and then you get stronger and learn how to play the game in the air. But here you better be able to do both."

St. Andrews is perhaps best typified by The Road Hole, the monstrous 463-yard wasteland that Ben Crenshaw summed up with another one of those malapropisms that applies to the whole course.

"It's the hardest par-4 in the world," he once said, "because it's a par-5." More fortunes have been wrenched there than perhaps anywhere else on the course.

The object off the tee is to carry over the front yard of the Old Course Hotel, and most choose to go to the right, courting the out-of-bounds stakes, rather than the rough to the left. Nicklaus aims at a spire in town, others at some old sheds. The approach shot is into a narrow, impossibly humpbacked green that is about 60 yards long and 43 feet wide. It is bordered to the left by a five-foot deep pot bunker, to the right by the road and a stone wall that give the hole its name.

"You have all these options," Tom Kite said. "And none of them are any good."

In 1960, it was the hole that frustrated Arnold Palmer's bid for a Grand Slam, when he played it in four more strokes than eventual champion Kel Nagle, and lost by one.

In 1978, Tommy Nakajima was just two strokes off the lead in the third round. He made the front of the green safely, but 70 feet from the cup and with the shoulder of the bunker in his way. Afraid of putting off the green and onto the road, he stroked it too gently, and the ball sucked into the bunker, where he needed four strokes just to get out, and took a nine.

The Road Hole settled a duel between Watson and Ballesteros in 1984. The Spaniard had bogeyed the hole every day and promised at the end of the third round, "If I don't make four tomorrow, I come back on Monday." He did get his par, with a magnificent, 203-yard 6-iron from deep in the left rough. "The more I look at that shot, the more impressed I get myself," he said.

Watson came moments later -- and crashed and burned. His 2-iron flew wildly across the road and ended up just inches from the wall. He barely had room to chop a wedge and save a brilliant bogey, but it cost him the tournament.

There is a sense that all the strange hops and twists come out even in the end here. For instance, Ballesteros's '84 victory made up for 1978, when he led during the second round until he got to the 17th. "I hit it over the chimney," he said. "I make seven."

Watson, that self-appointed curator of links golf, may have put it most concisely: "It can be described in four words. Luck of the bounce."