A host of elements make the Old Course what it is. Most often people focus on the history of the course, and for good reason. Simultaneously, however, the history sometimes detracts from what makes the course truly special. If one were to take away the Open Championship history and the design’s overarching influence on the game of golf you’d have the most fun golf course in the world. Those elements certainly don’t detract from the experience – it’s just that the golf course should be considered the main event. Here’s my attempt to explain why…
My first two trips around the Old Course left me wanting:
“It’s not that scenic.”
“Way too many awkward shots.”
“How am I supposed to nip a 60 degree of this hard pan?”
I harbored all of these thoughts during and after each of my first two rounds about St Andrews. And yet when I walked off the 18th green two summers later I declared that the Old Course was my favorite golf course in the world. Whoa!
It would be unfair to blame 29-year-old me. Inexperienced with links golf, I played Connect4 in lieu of the chess match demanded of the Old Course. I looked at the wide fairways and pulled driver at every opportunity. I did my best to “stay left,” as I had been advised (both on the motorways, and on the Old Course). I was out of position on nearly every hole, and I didn’t even know it – hell, I didn’t even know what out of position meant. With mounds and death-bunkers between me and the flag, reaching for the lob wedge was almost compulsory. And each time that lob wedge bounced off the hardpan and skidded into the equator of the ball. Maddening.
Fast forward to 2017: I’d transformed from a links caterpillar to a links butterfly. Trajjy 3-irons off the tee, punch 6-irons into greens, and bumpy 8-irons on the aprons were now second nature. I was armed with a much better understanding of both course management and my own capabilities. The Old Course was now a fair fight.
On the very first hole, I went against my caddie’s advice, which was to crank driver into the wind. Listen, Brett…. I’m not your average American. I know how to play links. Give me the 3-iron. After a good strike, I was left with 190 yards to the hole, with a wee burn in my path. Brett was already frustrated and told me I had to lay up as I wouldn’t get the next one over the burn. That wasn’t an option – I tried to prove him wrong. Into the burn I went. Carded a six. Dejected, I meandered over to the second tee. I’d teed off twenty minutes ago determined to re-write my personal history at the Home of Golf, yet my round was already washed away after playing one of the easiest holes on the course. Screw this place.
From there on out, I followed Brett blindly. With wind coming into and off the left for the entire front nine, Brett had me pound driver and let the stiff breeze blow my tee shots down the right side of the fairways. From there, I was stunned at how playable the golf course was. Assuming more risk down the shit-lined right side meant a better your angle for the approach. Lights started going off in my psyche. “Don’t be fooled by these wide fairways – be specific and strategic!” I told myself.
Angles matter at the Old Course. Having grown up in the States I can’t say I ever fully understood or appreciated the importance of angles. It wasn’t until I started playing courses with firm conditions that required landing the ball in front of the green and running it up that I recognized the importance of playing a hole backwards. Instead of mindlessly bombing away off the tee and figuring it out once you get there, you need to position yourself so that you have the right distance in from the right section of the fairway depending on the day’s pin position. This style of golf is paramount at TOC, and infinitely more interesting than the “hit it here, then hit it right here” style that’s often viable stateside.
It took a caddie like Brett to really hammer that home for me. He carefully studied the day’s pin position the wind, married those variables with what he’d gleaned from my game and offered up personalized, decisive advice based on those observations. Simply put, Brett opened my eyes to an entirely foreign game more than any caddie I’ve ever employed.
I’m not sure how many rounds Brett has caddied there, but there is a care that Brett puts into every shot that makes the player feel more invested in his/her round. I felt it the first go-around with him, and even more so the second time. As easy as it would have been for him to be on cruise control, nothing was routine. He didn’t just mindlessly hand me driver and tell me to swing away. Everything was conscientious and considered.
At times, this meant playing down an opposite fairway either to avoid trouble off the tee, or to create a better angle at the flag. Or both. There’s no set way to play any of the holes at the Old Course, and the options can be overwhelming. Again, this is where having a great caddie makes a world of difference. Going out here alone, you wouldn’t even know that some of these options exist!
The moment that gave me the most joy the first time around was a simple one: I had 156 into a par-4 on the back (I believe it was the 15th.) The wind was slightly helping, but it was about as easy of a club selection as I could make. Stock 9-iron. Brett re-centered me, and told me I had 112 to carry a swale, and all I needed was a 115 shot. Trusting him implicitly, I grabbed my 52 degree and hit a little punch shot that landed right at about 115. The ball rolled for what felt like a minute, and ended up 10 feet from the hole. Those previous mediocre rounds at TOC were clearly a “me” problem.
That day a miraculous up and down par on the road hole, and a mashed drive into the Valley of Sin brought us back into the town. With a modest gallery gathered I coaxed a ten footer down for a closing birdie. Four birdies on the back brought me home in 33 and I signed for a 73 from the back tees on a day the wind howled – probably the most fulfilling round of my life. Executing a shot down the “wrong” fairway because it was the right play was more satisfying than the purest of drives down a straightaway hole. I can’t recall ever walking off a golf course more in love with golf. I felt like an archeologist uncovering Pompeii.
On our return trip this past summer, I had to get Brett back on the bag. We lined up at 3 AM and begged for a tee time when they opened the doors at six, and were on the tee in the early afternoon.
With a completely different wind, Brett put 5-iron in my hand off the first tee. I made the mistake of walking onto that first tee box thinking I had this golf course figured out after a measly three rounds on it. I got tripped up several times, including at the second where I pulled a 3-iron after Brett suggested driver.
Not one shot was similar to any other shot I’d ever played at the Old Course, and it made me wish I could play it every single day. I made five birdies, but chased them with a whopping ten bogies. Some of them so mind-numbingly dumb that Brett struggled to hide his astonishment. Despite not being able to recapture the magic from the previous year, my appreciation for the course still grew. I’m often guilty of getting too caught up in my score, but that wasn’t the case here. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face coming off a three-putt on 18 for my highest score of the trip.
Add in the aforementioned layers of the history, the setting in the town, and the genuine excitement that comes from teeing it up at a place where the game was essentially invented, and you have a day of golf that can’t be topped. I can’t wait to get back.
THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD: Chess.
HOLE NOTES: I’m not joking when I say I could do them all.
#1: As is typical with many Scottish courses, the first hole is designed as a warmup. Driving ranges were not even close to being a thing yet. It’s literally the widest fairway in the world, just inviting you to swing away as you wish.
#2: The chess match begins. The first seven holes are all played with shared fairways with back nine holes, but the second is the first one where the angle really matters.
#5: The first of two par-5’s. The mounding is deceptive, and with an elevated and blind green, it’s difficult to manage your distance.
#9: Another double wide fairway, but centerline bunkers make you be definitive on your line, and make you really consider whether you want to give it a go with driver downwind.
#11: The Eden – one of the most copied templates in the world, and an incredible hard per-3.
#13: Choosing a line off the tee and committing to it is essential, and it’s another hole that would be different every day you play it.
#14: Check the image above to see the incredible array of options you have on this tee.
#17: The Road Hole. The best hole in the world.
#18: An easy finish, and one of the more fun holes in the world, considering the setting.
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: Bobby Jones hated the Old Course so much that, at the 1921 Open Championship, he stopped keeping his score after the 11th hole and refused to turn in his scorecard. He later came full circle, and near the end of his life, claimed “if I had to select one course upon which to play the match of my life, I should have selected the Old Course.”
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?: Come in with an open mind, and be ready to play golf holes differently than you have in your life.
CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: Somewhat lacking. There’s a small hut near the first tee where there are snacks, water, and coffee available, along with a restroom. But there’s no clubhouse that you can access. There’s also an entire town right behind the 18th green…
TEE TIMES: Can be booked way in advance for the following year during late August and early September. You can also enter the ballot system two days before your desired date of play and hope to be drawn. If that is unsuccessful, you can line up at 3AM at the Old Course Pavilion and hope to get on the tee sheet when doors open at 6AM.
GREEN FEES: January-March: 88 pounds; April 1-15: 123 pounds; April 16 -October 14: 180 pounds ($250 US); October 15-31: 123 pounds; November-December: 88 pounds
ACCOMMODATIONS: St. Andrews is a tourist town so there are options aplenty. There’s the Old Course Hotel, but that’s only if you really want to open the pocket book. Same deal with the Rusacks, which sits just to the right of the 18th fairway. Decent hotels are plentiful in the area, as are small BnB’s. The ultra budget option is the dormitories, which is where we stayed and quite enjoyed our the space it afforded. We set up shop in the David Russell apartments at the University of Saint Andrews, just a short drive from the Old Course. The accommodations were basic yet ample – nice common area with a kitchen , each guy had a bedroom to himself, and a bountiful breakfast buffet was included each morning. Dormitory chic, I would call it. Would recommend.