Friday, July 07, 2006

The Old Course at St. Andrews

R and A Clubhouse

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.

7th from tee
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.

11th green
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.

Valley of Sin 2
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.

swliken burn 1
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."

hell bunker 14

The famous "Hell" bunker on the 14th hole at St. Andrews Old 

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.


Anonymous said...

St Andrews has no members. It is a municipal course. There are many clubs that use all the local courses to play on. The R&A is just one such club and their clubhouse is the most prominent. You can't get in when you play there because you are not playing the R&A's course.

Anonymous said...

Why is this course closed on Sundays? With all the people who want to play it,you would think they would be open 7 days a week. Are courses like Pebble, Bethpage and Pacific Dunes open 7 days a week?

What course in Scotland is closest to the Old Course in terms of how you play-such as trying to think about how you want to play the shot and hitting in front of the green? What's closest in terms of fairways and greens?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you didn't like The Old Course more. I have read all your blogs (a golf pro in northern Ohio has a lot of free time in the winter) and I recently came back from Scotland. My expectaions of the Old Course were tempered. Some people have said they loved it, others... not so much. But, in my opinion this place is pure genius. The thrill of the 1st hole, talking to the caddies about all the bunkers and slopes. the quirkyness of the 7th - 11th holes. And the 13th hole may be the best hole at the Old Course that nobody talks about. The Road hole is amazing and probably one of the toughest par 4s in golf.

Maybe you did love it, but it didn't come across in your blog as if it was one of your favorites.

PS, i'm really disapointed that I didn't get to play North Berwick, but there's always time to go back!! Good luck on your quest!!

Anonymous said...

I was there in 1984 & just walking at the 1st, 18th & walking on the 17th holes. The 17th (Road Hole looks damn hard. I am damn happy when the pros lose shots there. Usually a lot. ;) said...

Just came accross your blog and I really enjoyed your posts, it is something I have alwasy wanted to do, travel the world and play the top courses. I have played some great courses around the World and I was fortunate to get to caddy a number of them such as St Andrews for my uncle who played on the European Tour for many years. Although I didn't get the chance to play St Andrews it was an amazing experience and it just has something different and unique about it, not just the course with its bunkers, but almost like it has an aura with the amount of history it has

IanT said...

I have been fortunate enough to play the Old Course not once but twice. The first time I played there I was 12 years old, pretty good young golfer and knew about the history but never had a true appreciation. This year I got the chance to head back over to Scotland and Ireland for two weeks for my brothers graduation. We spent a week in Ireland then a week in Scotland. We finished the trip with a round at St. Andrews on the Old Course and this time, it was above and beyond special. We caught a good stretch of weather and got the opportunity to play the Old Course in rare form, 68 degrees, sunny and extremely green. The course was in the best shape it has been in for the past few years, even the greens were rolling true and scary fast. Being 20 years old, playing golf in college, this was a dream of mine to get to play a course that is sought after by golfers everywhere. I hear people all the time that have played here say, yeah its a great course because of the history, but going a second time, I realized it is also a great course. Showing up for my tee time, thanks to DrumGolf, we were instantly greeted by the starter who was exactly what everyone expects, an extremely welcoming local with a great personality. We then continued to tee off with our caddies on our bags. Another aspect that the Old Course brings to the table is the fabulous caddy program. Having been twice, I have two great caddies, both of which were extremely knowledgeable and friendly. The course itself is an absolute gem with an unfathomable amount of history. Each hole has been photographed numerous times and its no wonder why. Each hole is unique, some short some long, if its not the multiple pot bunkers its the fescue moving in the wind. But there is that one hole everyone waits for, the 18th. The bridge that any big name in golf has walked on, you literally get chills standing on it knowing that you are where history has been made a countless number of times. I made sure not to waste this opportunity again, I stood there for five minutes soaking it all in, taking pictures and knowing this could be the last time I ever set foot on St. Andrews again. It is the perfect setting for golf, the great town of St. Andrews as a backdrop along side the world famous R&A. It does not get much better than this, and it really bothers me when people say its not a great course. I was one of those people until the last visit, and I can say that it is a phenomenal place with phenomenal people and a phenomenal setting. I could go on and on about this place, I am extremely lucky to have been here twice let alone once. It is an absolute masterpiece and will continue to be for years to come as it will remain atop every golfers bucket list.

Unknown said...

I will agree with the author here. This course is a bit out of place as one of the world's best. It's fun to play for the sake of having played it. I have done so about 4 times now. One might play more but it's expensive for what you get at nearly $230 now. In order to host the Open they have installed a number of championship tees that are out of sight and not available to the layman playing the course. They are usually about 1/2 way down the previous hole between the gorse bushes. If you are a low handicapper you are forced to play the course at 6200 yards and herded along by the multiple marshals. When the course is hard and fast it plays like 5500 yards. That along with some of the bland holes mid round will have you thinking "they play the Open here"? You are basically playing for the final 5-6 holes which are quite memorable and a bit quirky (Road Hole). I would recommend visiting once, get your picture on the Swilcan Bridge and move along to some more interesting venues nearby. It's strictly tourist golf and priced accordingly.

Unknown said...

Golf is surely about more than the layout ? St Andrews is the reason we play 18 holes for our Monthly Medal, the first place that separated teeing grounds from greens, and they built the New Course because the traffic on the Old Course meant rounds were nearing a ridiculous 3 1/2 hours...If you love GOLF, not just playing golf, you must play the Old Course for the experience of walking from the town onto the tee and teeing off amongst the caddies, locals, tourists and fellow golfers finally realising their dream and conquering their nerves to drive to a target wider than a football field...and maybe still missing! There are some lovely views, great holes and truly some not so great holes. But I defy any true golfer not to thrill at playing back towards the old town and playing for a par at the Road Hole, the chance of a birdie on the last, or maybe an up and down from the Valley Of Sin in front of the Toun.
And if you are lucky enough to know a member of the R&A, an afternoon in the Clubhouse amongst the actual Jug, Young Tom Morris' Morocco belt, Old Tom and Harry Vardon's clubs, Freddie Tait's portrait...well, you can die happy. Please don't take reviews like this as justification for not making the effort; include the "better" courses nearby for the best value golf trip in the World, just so long as you complete your pilgrimage at the Old. I will be there on April 4th at the conclusion of 2 weeks' Scottish links golf (Turnberry, Dornoch...) and know it will be the highlight.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago on a non-golfing family trip to Scotland, I took a chance at playing the Old Course as a single. With no prior planning on a beautiful August day, I arrived at St Andrews about noon and politely asked the starter "What's the chance a single gets out today?". He looked at his tee sheet and responded "5 minutes". Couldn't believe my luck. Ended up being one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf I've ever played.

Dave Scott said...

Very interesting write-ups
On the subject of cost, my son and I played the old, new and jubilee courses last month (on consecutive days) for the princely sum of £135 pounds(that's 66 bucks a round)
Congrats on your achievement