It’s 17,000 kilometres from Sydney and Melbourne, but even that much distance can’t dull the magnetic pull of The Old Course on anyone who calls themselves a golfer. So if you’re travelling half a world away to visit St Andrews, here’s how to make the most of it.
Words by Scott Warren
Standing on the tee of The Road Hole on The Old Course at St Andrews, staring nervously at the old tram sheds you’re about to hit over, they say there are three targets to choose from depending on your level of confidence.
The wall facing the tee advertises the luxurious Old Course Hotel. If you’re just trying to keep the ball in bounds, you aim at the “O” in Old. If you’re hopeful of a par, but not willing to risk landing your ball on the hotel’s conservatory, you choose the “O” in Course. For the insanely confident or just downright reckless, it’s the “O” in Hotel.
Freewheeling, and with a headcold numbing my better judgement, I choose option three and block it even further right for good measure. But I’ve caught it flush with a helping wind, so to borrow the ancient town’s famous motto: “while I breathe, I hope”.
A spectator standing at the corner of the wall watches intently as the ball disappears and I stare toward him for what feels like a full minute, awaiting the verdict. Eventually he turns and gives the thumbs-up. I’m safe, I’ve got the second half of one of the most legendary holes in golf awaiting me and a precious four here would be worth the hefty green fee alone.
But before you get to the famous 17th hole on the world’s oldest links, you need to get onto the first tee.
Organising a round of golf is usually fairly straightforward: if it’s a private club you need to know a member, if it’s a public course you call the pro shop and book a tee time. But the demand for the jewel in the crown of the St Andrews Links Trust’s seven courses is such that getting a game is a literal lottery.
That said, if you plan your visit smartly, you can improve your chances of following in the footsteps of all the greatest players to have played the game, and millions of others who dreamed the same dream as you.
The double-edged sword of Sundays
If you want to walk the fairways of the Old, Sundays are a sure thing – just don’t bring your clubs.
Aside from major tournaments like The Open Championship, The Dunhill Links or the amateur Links Trophy, The Old Course is closed for play on Sundays. Locals flood the course for picnics, to walk dogs, toss frisbees and kick footballs around, reducing the most famous course in golf to a simple British common.
But that also offers a great opportunity to peruse the holes at your leisure, taking time to admire the likes of Hell Bunker at the par five 15th, the par three Eden hole (the 11th) and of course The Road Hole without any risk of losing a ball or making a single bogey.
But you didn’t travel 17,000 kilometres to dodge frisbees and footballs on The Old, so how do you get to play it?
Winning the lottery
Many who have visited St Andrews and played The Old Course will tell you they were successful in “the ballot”, but there are actually three ballots you can enter, depending on who you know and how far in advance you’re planning your trip.
In August/September each year, The Links Trust runs an advance ballot for the following summer, offering a guaranteed tee time on a date of your choice, and you’ll find out around November if you’ve been successful.
You need to have two-to-four golfers for the booking and will typically have to commit to a second round on another of the St Andrews courses. If you have your visit planned that far in advance, it’s a wonderful way of eliminating the “am I going to get to play it?” worry that will otherwise sit in your mind.
The regular ballot operates throughout the season for all golfers. Again, you need two-to-four golfers and you can put your name down daily to be drawn for a spot on the Old two days later (ie. the Thursday ballot is drawn on a Tuesday afternoon).
If your dates can be flexible, it’s worth looking at the Links Trust events calendar and steering clear of the “Busy Dates” when local clubs are holding their major events in town, as well as the days just before and after – there will be fewer tee times for the ballot when events are on, and demand will be higher in the days either side.
Simon Holt, who operates the St Andrews-based Connoisseur Golf, offers a reality check for those expecting to allocate a day or two in St Andrews and get a spot through the ballot: “In the peak season, the ballot represents about a one-in-eight chance of success. More than 800 people a day would put their names down.”
All the more reason to base yourself in St Andrews for as long as possible. And having played The Old Course both with three strangers via the singles queue option outlined below and through a ballot success with my mates, I can guarantee you that every upside of The Old is accentuated by having your mates alongside you.
In my case it was even moreso – the six in our touring party who missed out in the ballot appeared at various points through the round to walk with the four of us who were playing, culminating in all ten of us striding along together for the final three holes! As far as golf memories go, it’s one I will take with me to my grave.
If you know a member of a St Andrews golf club or a University of St Andrews student and they’re willing to host you, they can enter you in the local ballot, which has a far greater likelihood of success than the regular ballot and a choice selection of tee times. Knowing a local is obviously the big challenge for a golfer from Australia, but if you roll into town and buy enough pints for enough locals, you never know your luck!
If you’re a single golfer looking to play The Old, the good news is that the approach awaiting you is incredibly simple. The bad news is that during the height of the summer, it means getting out of bed before some of the caddies will have retired to theirs.
“There are days you can get really lucky, but for the most part, get in line at 3am and don’t expect to be the first guy there,” Holt warns. “The Old Pavilion office opens at 6am and they take the names then, along with giving you an idea of when you might get out.”
Any groups with two or three players who’ve secured a tee time in the ballot or through other avenues will typically accept a single to join them, and so a line forms in the early hours of the morning to get a good enough position in the queue to snag one of those spots. The ballot results will have been published by then, giving you a good idea how many spots are up for grabs.
If you’re lucky, there’ll be time to head back for a nap before you’re on the tee.
Braving the cold
If you’re visiting in winter, the process of playing will be cheaper and simpler – the green fee is halved from the summer rate and tourist demand is almost nil – you just have to hope the weather gods are kind.
Frost delays might end your round before it has begun and as someone who shivered through rounds in May and June, I shudder at the idea of a cold Scottish January morning, but as far as high-percentage plays go, this is certainly one.
But if all else fails, cash is king
Tour operators do get a selection of guaranteed Old Course tee times, but it comes at a premium and this avenue still requires that you plan your trip well in advance and, ideally, keep a decent window of dates open.
“We’ve already sold out for 2020 such is the demand,” Holt said. “Realistically you have to contact your operator of choice in February the year before if you want a specific date.
“We then have to apply by March for that exact date in the following year. If you come along after that, the tail wags the dog in terms of what dates you can play.”
During summer, the green fee peaks at GBP190 and many will baulk at paying the best part of AU$400 for a round of golf. This is where spending a few days in St Andrews can pay dividends.
While the Old Course green fee can feel steep, the demand that exists for a tee time suggests they could certainly charge even more, and it still comes in significantly cheaper than most other Open Rota courses. Even the modern Kingsbarns course a few miles up the coast charges a full hundred pounds more.
But the green fees for the other historic St Andrews courses, the New and Jubilee at GBP80 and Harry Colt’s Eden course at GBP50, are effectively subsidised by the cash cow that is The Old Course. They’re standout golf courses in their own right and playing the three in addition to The Old comes in at a hundred quid a round in high season.
Add in the other historic links dotted along the Fife coast in the towns of Crail (90 quid), Elie (85 a round or 105 for the whole day – and the summer days are loooong), Lundin (80 a round, 120 a day) and Leven (one of my absolute favourites and a bargain at just 50 pounds after 3pm) and you have almost certainly the best links golf trip in Britain all while sleeping in the same bed for a week.
But however you do it, it’s undoubtedly worthwhile
Every golfer I know who has had the honour of teeing off in the shadows of the R&A clubhouse to begin their trek through a history that stretches from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods has spoken of the nerves at hitting a flat, 120-yard-wide fairway.
The weight of history stops you making a calm, full shoulder turn, maybe looking up a split-second early just to check that you really are driving toward the Swilken Burn and all else that awaits you between the town and the Eden estuary at the far end of the course.
The nerves subside as you tack your way out and you maybe manage to focus on your play for a few holes, but then as you commence the iconic back nine, the distant St Andrews skyline creeps slowly closer until you’re hitting your final drive right through it (and if you slice a couple off the 18th tee like I did, even bouncing off it!).
You putt out to a polite clap from the assembled tourists soaking in the scene and the nerves will give way to a satisfaction that you’ve now got your own Old Course memories, just like Old Tom, Jack, Seve and Tiger before you.
It’s just a more special experience than anything else in golf, and a walk that every golfer should take at least once.