(Written by Jim Allen) … History is a great topic, especially if you truly appreciate it and it involves the sport you love. Or better said, playing at the birthplace of golf on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland can take your average history lesson to a whole new level. Walking the same course that Kings played in the early 1500’s and legendary golfers have done for the past 200 or so years is something most of us will never get to do in our lifetime. Unless you figure out a way. With that in mind, a foursome of Golfestian’s saved up to take the journey across the pond for what can be regarded as one of golf’s most ultimate bucket list experiences. Unlike most famous golf resorts, St. Andrews is an off the beaten path golf destination that requires some time and effort. In our case, that involved 10-hour flights from Southern California and Arizona, followed by a four-hour train ride, followed by another hour of private transportation. Of course we didn’t accomplish all of that on one day as much as we made St. Andrews the centerpiece of a 12-day vacation adventure through London, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Dublin (Ireland). And because we are smart (or just knew better), we brought our significant others with us on this Golfest adventure. Otherwise we knew we had no realistic chance of ever setting foot on the United Kingdom.
But once got there, it was mesmerizing. For example, just standing on the first tee box at St. Andrews turned out to be a very unique experience. And on this 18th day of October, we had another playing partner. We gladly welcomed Mother Nature to our group, because she delivered near perfect weather that is about as rare in Scotland as a winning lottery ticket. The sun was out in full force, the clouds were way off in the distance, any kind of wind resembled a whisper, and the temperature hovered around 50 degrees. At that point, I realized that hauling rain gear 6000 miles from home and not needing it was a prayer answered. In front of us lay the wide-open first fairway that is so expansive that it’s almost impossible to miss. Behind us is the castle-like headquarters of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the UK’s historic world-renown version of the USGA. To our left is the famous 18th green, which we admire every five-years on television as the legends of golf battle for the coveted (British) Open Championship. And the backdrop of that same 18th hole features buildings that are older than the United States of America. Now that’s some real history. Heck, we were already enjoying the Old Course and we had yet to tee off.
Our starter provided some basic instructions and our caddies pretty much handled the rest: Chase the red flags on the way out, and the white flags back in. Be aware that there are five-shared greens and whatever you do, stay out of the bunkers and rough, unless you like writing “8’s” on your scorecard. With that in mind, all of us hit the fairway, but none of us hit the green in two due to a snake-like narrow creek running in front of the green. We figured out early on that the ball rolls a long way at St. Andrews and that includes into the water. Dropping three, hitting four. We all wanted to replay this hole again because we would have all played it different.
Playing the Old Course comes with a giant set of nuances and without a caddie, even the most knowledgeable golfer would be doomed. There are only two par-3’s and two par-5’s and 112 bunkers. From the second tee box on, where you think the fairway is, in most cases it’s not there. Our caddies were recommending instructions that had us aiming at ridges or bushes that they pointed out on the horizon. Most seemed to be in the wrong direction, but we didn’t know better and followed instructions. Once we built up a level of trust with our caddie and rental clubs, we were able to score well. In reality, the greens on the Old Course are surprisingly easy to hit and that is because they are absolutely huge. Five of the greens are double-greens as the course pretty much goes straight out nine holes, and straight back parallel nine holes. Everyone in our foursome could’ve shaved four or five strokes off our score if we had the choice of which flag to putt to. To truly be effective on the Old Course, you need to be a lag-putting God; otherwise three or even four putts become the norm. It’s not unusual to have a 60-yard putt here. Even being off the green isn’t necessarily a bad thing because you can putt from just about anywhere – and we did – over two or three undulations.
Now let’s talk about the bunkers for a second. Unlike most bunkers where your ball hits the front face and rolls back to the center for a shot at a sand-save, most of the bunkers on the Old Course are “pot bunkers.” This means your ball hits the face and drops straight down to a foot from the front edge, forcing a miraculous Phil Mickelson-esk flop shot to get out. Considering that none of our Callaway rental sets included a 60-degree wedge, we usually had to hit out sideways or backwards just to get out. A bogey sand-save was a good hole.
While the entire course is very entertaining and fun to play, time goes by in a flash – because a four-hour round is the norm on the Old Course. The highlight of the day had to be the 17th and 18th holes. The 17th, named the Road Hole, requires a tee shot over the Old Course Hotel. This was about the time our wives hooked up with us for some photographs. Three of our drives successfully launched over the hotel. But this author/golfer, who had hit almost every fairway in regulation up to this point, bit off too much and dinged the hotel. Just a little distracted. From there this hole is all about missing the famed “road hole” bunker and hitting the smallest green on the course – which is backed right up to the road. Once again, three of us eventually made our way to the green and I ended up in the penalizing road hole bunker. With my sand wedge opened up flat like a spatula flipping pancakes, getting a ball to pop straight up four feet and stop on a dime … is well … impossible.
We were all determined to finish strong and our caddies double-downed on the idea that we would conquer number 18. All four of our drives finished on the green stuff, but only one in the middle (mine). One was far to the right (Tom Gudvangen), a yard away from the road fence, and two (Mark Pickering and Jim Dee) were over near the first fairway where we started. From the tee box, it’s a cherished walk made by Kings, golf legends, and millions of fans, to the famous Swilken Bridge. More photos have been taken on this bridge than any other place in Scotland because it screams “Old Course at St. Andrews.” An old history lesson with a modern twist. We weren’t about to miss our opportunity and our caddies complied with a variety of cameras and cell phones. Once we had our soon to be time-savored keepsakes, we were off to our final shots of the day. With an audience behind the green watching our every shot, we transformed ourselves into self-described golf-gods. All four of us stuck our approach shots on the green – the first time that had happened all day. And when the final putts were rolled in, GolfestUSA ended up with one-birdie (Pickering) and three pars. It’s hard to write a better final chapter than that!
Old Course Tidbits:
- The Callaway rental sets only come with 12-clubs with the obvious need being another another wedge and a hybrid. If you want to score, you may want to consider shipping your own clubs – or at least a couple of wedges. If you are going to incur the cost to ship your clubs, plan on playing some of the other courses on property. There are a total of six others to choose from.
- Locals at St. Andrews can golf at all seven of the courses all year round for only 180 pounds a year (about $250).
- The town of St. Andrews is absolutely awesome to tour and enjoy. Some of it’s even older than the golf course. The Holy Trinity Church was built in 1134. It’s a university town, there is no crime, the people are friendly and the food and beer choices are great. I would move there if I could!
- While there is only one official Old Course at St. Andrews logo, there are many other logos that appear to be close, but are not the real deal. For authentic 18th hole merchandise, you have to go to the official stores. By the way, it’s very easy to spend $500+ in the Pro Shops and official stores. At least that’s what my VISA statement told me.
- There is a “roof top” hot tub on the Old Course hotel overlooking the golf course. Despite the hotel’s name, this is an American-owned Kohler Resort hotel and the amenities are very nice.
- Make sure you enjoy a drink at the Road Hole Bar in the Old Course Hotel.
- The family putting course next to the second hole is usually packed with families. So was the beach area. This is a family destination.
- If you get a chance, have a drink and some lunch at the ancient Jigger Inn, located directly behind the hotel. There is a collection of autographed golf hats on display that represent a “whose-who” of golf.
- Even though you reserve your caddie (and clubs) with your credit card, you pay them directly at the end of the round – plus tip. Make sure you have enough cash. We wouldn’t recommend golfing the Old Course without a caddie. Their knowledge is invaluable.
This is the view of the St. Andrews from famed Road Hole Bar in the Old Course Hotel.