Even after being blasted by the wind at Murcar, with my nose running from the cold and rain pelting the road for much of the nearly two-hour drive to my next bed, the Skoda seemed full of energy because I was headed to the Home of Golf. Golfbreaks and VisitScotland had helped me secure spots on St. Andrews Links’ hallowed tee sheets for four rounds, and as I thought of all the golfers in the world who weren’t me on that drive into the Auld Grey Toon, I almost felt bad for them.
I crashed into my bed that night at the Spindle Guest Rooms, a small personally run bed-and-breakfast just half a mile from the first tee of the Old Course. I haven’t slept that hard in years, and I needed it, because the next day I had 36 holes scheduled for the Jubilee and Castle courses, both run by the St. Andrews Links.
If you have never played at St. Andrews, take all the excitement you would expect upon your arrival and double it. That’s how it feels in the clubhouse parking lot, not to mention the first tee. It’s familiar – if you’ve read this far into this story, then you’ve certainly been privy to these scenes on television during British Open coverage – and yet it’s all new at the same time. There’s an electricity in the air.
Golfers from around the globe gather here to pay homage, camera phones at the ready. Walking past the R&A clubhouse, sampling the various golf shops and pubs on ancient streets, just standing and staring at West Sands Beach adjacent to the courses, people-watching as golf bags are carried through town on the way to a tee time – it’s as if whatever path you have taken as a golfer, all the roads lead here. The Home of Golf sums it up quite nicely.
First up for me was the Jubilee, and I was joined on the opening tee by Kieran Moran, a content creator for the St. Andrews Links. His office is nearby and his work life revolves around the courses, but even he couldn’t quite contain his excitement to be playing golf in St. Andrews. That kind of enthusiasm made him a perfect guide for 36 holes that day.
The Jubilee Course, opened in 1897 as a 12-hole layout in concert with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and expanded to 18 holes several years later, is considered by some players to be the toughest test on the peninsula it shares with the Old and New Courses. Architect Donald Steel overhauled the Jubilee in the 1980s, and on a breezy day it may be either relentless or beguiling and probably both, depending on the numbers written on your scorecard.
As with both its older neighbors on the peninsula, the Jubilee features an out-and-back routing that reaches the waterfront at its farthest point from the clubhouse. It’s all about pot bunkers, firm ground, sea breezes and a continuum of sometimes stern golf tests for those who venture offline – no golfer should miss the Jubilee even if it’s not as famous as its neighbor just a few hundred yards away.
Moran and I shot out of the parking lot after holing out on No. 18, rushing on the 10-minute drive past the University of St. Andrews to the much more modern Castle Course for a tee time with Alan Grant of VisitScotland.
Laid out by David McLay Kidd – a Scot made famous for his design at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s first course in Oregon who has followed with several highly ranked tracks around the world – the Castle offers a series of stunning views and a mixed track record of early criticism.
When it opened in 2008, the Castle Course – ranked No. 25 on Golfweek’s Best list of modern courses in Great Britain and Ireland – was maligned by some as being too difficult, too artificial. Kidd had to move a lot of earth to build the Castle, which is perched on cliffs overlooking the town in the distance, and many critics point out that he moved too much. That resulted in over-the-top fairway mounding on a site that isn’t true linksland. The greens in particular can be a bit too much – sometimes way too much – with severe undulations and pin locations that are nearly impossible to approach.
My take after just one round on the Castle Course: It isn’t the Old Course. It isn’t subtle. It’s tough to score on, especially for mid- and higher handicappers. It’s a hard walk. The tall rough ate too many balls. The scenery is incredible, especially when focusing beyond the layout. There were some unforgettable shots mixed in.
It’s just a lot to take in, especially in a country famous for natural links. The biggest knock might just be that the Castle is too American, too modern, too artificial, too much of everything. Those are fair points. But I couldn’t help thinking that if the Castle was built along the same time in the U.S. with those kinds of views, players would flock to it. The Castle was never going to replace the Old Course in people’s hearts, but it certainly was worth my afternoon go-round to have a look.
And after climbing each nine of the Castle Course, I felt more than entitled to dine on an entire pizza and pass out early as I prepped for a day every golfer should experience: a round on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
It can be difficult to score a tee time on the Old. Players can book through a licensed travel provider such as Golfbreaks months in advance, but that comes with an increased cost. Players also can enter the ballot two days in advance for a spot on each day’s tee sheet, but there are no guarantees of scoring a time. Players also can arrive early in the morning and wait to see if the starter needs a player to fill out a foursome, but this option might consume a whole day with no guarantee of playing.
I was able to skirt most of these issues thanks to a connection made through VisitScotland. I was introduced to Chloe Goadby, a St. Andrews native who won the 2021 Scottish Women’s Amateur and who turned pro shortly after our round together. Locals receive priority status on the ballot, and Goadby was able to score an early-afternoon time. I realize this isn’t an option for everyone looking to play the Old, but I was extremely thankful that I didn’t have to wake up at 2 a.m. and sit in the cold, hoping to be squeezed into a foursome.
Even with that late tee time, I woke before dawn that morning with a sublime sense of anticipation, same as I get when playing any great course. I lingered for hours around the St. Andrews Links clubhouse, watching groups tee off on other courses, then headed back up the beach road to the Old’s practice green – I could linger there for days. A touch of sprinkles from a gray sky in no way soured my mood. After coincidentally being paired with the same American father-son combo with whom I had played at Brora a week earlier, Goadby and I set off across one of the great landscapes of any sport, with the Old Course ranked No. 2 among classic courses in Great Britain and Ireland.
I don’t get nervous much on first tees. Here, however, the jitters struck. Yes, No. 1 of the Old shares a fairway with No. 18 and stretches some 125 yards wide. But after watching one of the other Americans smack a wicked slice out of bounds directly into a crowd of onlookers, I opted for a bunty 3-wood down the middle. And we were off.
After appearing on television for so many years in so many Opens – and also being featured in various video games and of course all the history books, paintings and photography – people think they know the Old Course. It’s just so familiar. But it’s not. Not really.
It’s difficult to know where you are at any given moment in relation to the hazards because the course, especially its tee boxes, lies even flatter than expected. Many of the obstacles are just out of view behind small sand dunes and native flora, or sometimes sunk into the ground. It appears as a great expanse of turf and sky, but there’s not a lot at which to aim from many tees. Goadby was my guide, and she was terrific as she pointed out steeples and cell towers miles away as targets, but there was a frequent sense of unease as I attempted to decide exactly what to do with any given shot.
The pros make it look so easy in the Open, sending balls bounding past deep pot bunkers and other trouble. On the ground with a club in your own hands, it’s a different matter. And that’s the strategic brilliance of the place. There are miles of open fairway out there, but the hazards frequently appear random in their placement. The layout gives you so many options, and there’s nothing more confusing than having too many options. It requires thinking and commitment to every tee shot, every approach and every putt, and it’s brilliant. Even solid strikes on the Old might meet calamity as balls bound into hazards either unseen or unaccounted for.
One swing of note from my foursome: The American father hit the one shot many golfers fear most on the Old. On No. 17, the notoriously tough Road Hole, he drilled his tee shot directly into a window of the Old Course Hotel. The impact resulted in a horrible “doink” on the reinforced glass, and the ball actually bounded back into play. We all got a good chuckle out of that shot – well, at least three of us did.
But even that blind tee shot on 17 isn’t the toughest challenge of the Old, at least in my experience. That biggest threat to a low score is the gigantic double greens. The average size of the putting surfaces is 22,267 square feet, nearly four times the size of a typical green in the U.S. Most of the Old’s greens service two holes, one on the outward nine and another on the way back in. They feature much greater undulations than can be seen on television, and it’s not uncommon to have a 100-foot putt. Forget chipping and pitching, you’re often left scrambling even after hitting a green.
With my handicap hovering somewhere near scratch, I was able to hit 13 of the greens in regulation, but I three-putted four of them. I spent so much effort avoiding bunkers with famous names and gorse and tall grass, but most of my seven bogeys were the result of miscued putts as I signed for 76.
And I couldn’t have been happier. This literally is holy ground for a golfer. Old Tom lived here, as did his son, Young Tom. Almost every top-tier competitive golfer has played this links, with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and the like earning trophies. The ground itself is so perfect for golf, so inviting and so intricate – I’m not the first to write that the Old can be played a myriad of ways depending on weather and skill, but I can certainly vouch for the notion.
If you have never been, I have to tell you: The Old is even better than you can imagine. After my round I stood at the back of the 18th green and watched several more groups wrap up, unwilling to let go of the sensation of having experienced this course.
After that high, I was mentally prepared for a letdown as I tackled the New Course the next morning, my last full day on this Scottish marathon. I mean, c’mon, what can compare to playing the Old? The skies finally cut loose as my tee time neared, the most serious rain of my trip. I was to play alone in those conditions on a course that wasn’t the Old, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to muster the energy.
I shouldn’t have worried. The New, laid out by Old Tom Morris and opened in 1895 and now perhaps the most misnamed course on the planet, was a blast. Undulating fairways, beautiful iron approaches, tricky greens – the New stands on its own as a terrific links challenge, even if it wasn’t directly next door to the Old. The New offers scoring opportunities in places and rejects a golfer’s best efforts in others. It’s natural, charming and beautiful.
I birdied the par-4 first, and for once my scoring expectations proved not to be too unreasonable. A string of pars were mixed with a handful of birdies and bogeys, and before I knew it the rain had cleared, the sun broke free and I needed to get down in two putts from the collar of the 18th green to shoot an even-par 71. My first putt rolled some three feet past the cup, and I was more than a tad nervous trying to shake in that comebacker beneath the St. Andrews Links clubhouse and the handful of players loitering about. I didn’t make the greatest stroke, but the ball found the hole. That was it. One final par, and I was headed home.
Those final steps off the New were a mixture of exhaustion and elation. Not just at having shot a decent score but in having been immersed in the links game for so many days. I had played newer courses, and plenty of the classics. Rain, sun, wind – I had seen it all. There had been bad bounces off firm turf, and good bounces too. As I strolled the shops of St. Andrews on my way out of town, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it all. Even weeks later, I’m not sure I ever will.
And please, don’t ask me about all the courses I missed on this trip. I’ll be back as soon as I can.
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