What can we say about the Old Course that hasn't already been said? The Old Course at St. Andrews (ranked #6 in the world) is hallowed ground for golfers. The course can be a little disappointing on first sight. The ground is flat and featureless, the lies are tight and usually not very good. It is not one of the most scenic courses, nor the most difficult. However, there is a reason that three of the greatest golfers of all time, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods rank it at the top. The Old Course reveals its alleged genius slowly, only after you play it again and again.
The course has many hidden bunkers which you can't see while hitting your shot. The style of play is as different from what you generally get in the United States as I have found. No lush fairways and firing at the pins at the Old Course. The view of the seventh green below is typical of the Old Course, flat and uninteresting until you hit your shot and find a hidden bunker or your ball hits a hump and bounds 30 yards in the opposite direction than you expected.
View from the 7th tee is typical of The Old Course, it looks like there is no trouble, but beware
I found one of the more difficult aspects of playing the course to be the double greens, which can leave you with some very long putts.
The eleventh green at The Old Course, St. Andrews with its deep bunkers and humps
The seventeenth, the Road Hole, is one of the best in the world without a doubt. It is a classic risk/reward hole on both the first and second shots. Take an aggressive line over the hotel and have it pay off, and you will be rewarded. Mis-hit it and you will pay the penalty sharply. The Valley of Sin on the eighteenth provides a unique challenge, still not equaled on any other course. Pictures tend to flatten out hollows and hills on golf courses; it is more severe in person than it looks in pictures.
The 'Valley of Sin' in front of the 18th green on The Old Course
The first time I played the Old Course it was on a beautiful day with a dear friend visiting from the Punjab region of India and we didn't quite get why the course is so highly rated. Like many first time visitors it appeared to be flat and not particularly interesting except the finishing holes which are historic and interesting.
At the Old Course, it is hard not to play the tourist, and take a shot standing on the Swilken Bridge and of the magnificent R & A clubhouse. I don't care who you are, hitting off the first tee on the Old Course is one of the most special and rewarding things a golfer can do in his or her lifetime. It is probably the widest fairway in golf but you are indeed quite nervous hitting that shot.
The Swilken Burn guarding the approach shot to the 1st green
The Old Course at St. Andrews is best summed up by that great golf writer Henry Longhurst, who writes: "What is the secret? Partly, I think that before playing any shot you have to stop and say to yourself, not, "what club is it?" but "what is it exactly that I am trying to do?" There are no fairways in the accepted sense of the word; just a narrow strip of golfing ground which you use both on the way out and the way in, together with huge double greens, each with two flags. From the tee you can play almost anywhere, but, if you have not thought it out correctly according to the wind and the position of the flag, you may find yourself teed up in the middle just behind a bunker, and downwind. At this point fools say the course is crazy. Others appreciate that the truth lies nearer home."
I like the comments of golf course architect Desmond Muirhead who disputes the notion that the Old Course simply evolved without man's influence. He writes, "The truth is, the old course has been carefully manipulated with the same sort of refinement you might find in a Japanese garden."
Despite all the golf history I have read and all the great and learned people who love the course, I still can't warm to it. It still appears mostly flat and uninteresting to me except the last four or five holes. For certain, the course is over-rated as the #6 ranked in the world. It is fine to play once to have the experience but I find on subsequent visits I find the course less interesting. I would rather play nearby Kingsbarns, Crail or Carnoustie if in the area, rather than the Old Course again. The tees are too close to the greens and you have to watch flying golf balls everywhere you turn especially when near the holes around the Eden Estuary (9th-12th) where the holes criss-cross. The rounds at the Old Course are usually very slow as well, given all the play it gets.
Getting on the Old Course
Of all the courses in the top 100, The Old Course is not one of the most difficult to get on since it is essentially a public course, but you have to either spend a lot of money or be persistent. The rules are rather Byzantine and you can find them on St. Andrews Links Trust Web Site. Essentially there are three ways the layperson can get on the course:
1. Book well in advance and pay one of the tour operators for access. This requires that you stay in the town of St. Andrews for two nights. The effective cost of your round of golf is about $1,800 per person.
2. You can walk up and stand in line early as a single and your chances are probably 80% of getting out. I tried this on one very cold October morning and arrived at 6:00 am. I was the fifteenth person in line and did get to play at around 1:30 pm so I counsel patience. The gentleman who was first in line arrived at 2:30 am and had a sleeping bag. He got off around 10:00 am.
3. You can apply to the daily lottery, where a percentage of tee times is allotted each day to a random drawing. The cost to play the Old Course is about $250. George Peper, in his entertaining book about St. Andrews, estimates the chances of winning the lottery to be about 35% in season and 95% off-season (during the winter basically). My guess is these odds are about right having tried the lottery a couple of times without success in season. Unique among the top 100 in the world, St. Andrews actually posts the tee times and players going out the next day: List of Tomorrow's golfers at the Old Course .
If you can't get on the Old Course, the New Course right next store, designed by Old Tom Morris in 1895 is very good.
The Old Course has one of the largest memberships of any course on the top 100 list. It has 1,800 members. 1,050 are from Britain and Ireland, 275 from the U.S., 110 from the old Commonwealth countries and 50 from countries not included in the above. There are no women members. One of golf's sanctum sanctorum is the Big Room in the R & A clubhouse. Unlike almost every other club in the world where guests are allowed into the clubhouse, unless you are playing with an R & A member, you are not granted admission into the clubhouse. The Big Room is the one that overlooks the first tee with a floor to ceiling set of windows. Mental note to self to get inside the clubhouse one day.