Scotland: How to crack the Old Course

On 17th tee at Old Course

On 17th tee at Old Course

Eleven years.

That’s the last time I had the good fortune to play the Old Course in St. Andrews. Yes, it is where golf started and is entirely worthy of a lifetime of study. But for North Americans, we’re lucky to play it a couple of times over a golfing life. It is essential, but the demands placed on the course make it a challenge.

Or is it?

Last week, at 6:50 am, I tipped it up on the first hole with my good friend, architect Ian Andrew. We had balloted the course two days previous, a simple process whereby you call, give the Links Trust (which operates the course, making it essentially the world’s best muni) your handicap and club affiliations and your credit card. The course isn’t cheap. I believe our round cost the equivalent of about $300. But figuring that I only play the course once every 10 years, I figure it is worth $30 per year of savings.

I first played the Old Course in 2003, once again balloting it with some friends. The ballot essentially brings democracy to the world’s most famous course. You can pay a fortune for a tour, or go in April and likely find a tee time. I’ve done it three times now, and we could have played more than once during the three days we were in St. Andrews had we wished. While chatting with Laurie, who heads up PR efforts for the Links Trust, he said April was a good time to visit if you wanted to test the ballot.

For our round we were paired with two Americans who appeared on the first tee with massive tour bags. I groaned thinking they were be yahoos who carried three dozen balls and took 5 hours to
play. Their caddies thought the same. It turns out we were wrong. The two gents were initially from Boston, though one did HR in London now. They were ticking off some great courses – Carnoustie, Gullane, etc. – and happened to get through the ballot as well. In case you’re wondering, 6:50 am is the second tee time of the day.

A few marginally struck tee shots in 3 degree weather and we were off. Three hours and 20 minutes later we emerged in front of the R&A clubhouse. Every time I’ve played the Old Course there are elements that struck me. Initially it was how low-profile the course is; this time it was the number of short par fours in the middle of the round and the fact that of the two par threes, only one – the Eden – is truly great.

And what of the much-discussed changes led by the R&A, which tinkered with a handful of holes?

I thought the addition of bunkers short of the second green was odd, and I didn’t mind the flattening of the Eden green, though my playing partner thought it egregious. The Road Hole bunker actually seemed relatively tame, and the tee shot for the pros, from the out of bounds area, still seems very odd indeed.

There’s so much for the mind to take in when playing a great course. You want to play well, but you’re snapping pictures and making mental notes of elements to consider later on. Three times round the Old Course isn’t enough—I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

Heading into the 18th, a short par four bounded by cars on the nearby road, one senses the history of the game as you emerge back in St. Andrews. We finished, shook hands with our playing partners and wandered back up the street to our hotel, pondering the course’s place in the game, and the changes that have been made to keep it relevant to players who have little in common with those that tip it up there on a regular basis.

ardgown Where to stay: We stayed at the Ardgowan Hotel during our time in St. Andrews. It is a boutique hotel literally around the corner from the Old Course. In fact, we simply walked down the street to the course, and when I’d forgotten my cold weather gloves (thanks FootJoy), I walked back to the hotel to get them 15 minutes before we teed off. It was comfortable, centrally located and in the center of golf culture in the area.

Where to eat: We spent one night at the Jigger Inn, the legendary golf pub near the Old Course Hotel. It is full of characters and character. Thejiggerinn beer is well, UK temperature, and the food is quite good. Besides, you sit right off the 17th hole of the Old Course, so how can you go wrong? We hung out one night at the Dunvegan, a bar nearby, and ate in the Ardgowan, where the restaurant, Playfairs, underneath the hotel is quite excellent.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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