Saturday, July 25, 2015

Playing (on) the Old Course at St. Andrews

Putting on the Old Course in St. Andrews

Earlier this week, the Old Course at St. Andrews finished hosting the 144th British Open. Scotland, of course, is the birthplace of golf, which has been played at St. Andrews since the 1400s. As one of the two sports invented by Scotland, golf looms large in the nation's sporting psyche and draws many thousands of visitors each year to play its famed courses.

The most famous course, and by far the biggest draw, is the Old Course in St. Andrews. Sportscasters intone solemnly about the Old Course as the "home" of golf. Experts expound on intricacies of Scottish winds and dreich weather, of devilish sand bunkers, of the blind tee shot on the "road hole" at the 17th. Golfers make pilgrimages to the Old Course, scheduling trips a year in advance to secure a coveted slot to play.

Holding a flag on the Old Course
Crazy old man seizes the flag on the 17th hole.
Many folks don't realize, however, that it's easy to play a round on the course.

{Ed.'s note: Really? Easy to play a round?}

Okay, that's not quite true. It's easy to play around on the Old Course. We've been to St. Andrews three times, and each time have frolicked on the links.

Yep, the Old Course is actually a public park

On most Sundays, the Old Course is open to the public. Which means you can wander around freely. Take a picnic. Walk the dog. Sunbathe. Throw a frisbee.

Roaming the Old Course with dog and beach ball
Bring a ball and let your dog roam (under control).
The right of the public to enjoy the links goes back to a charter set out by an archbishop in the mid-1500s. It's a "right" with limits — for the other days of the week, obviously, the course is reserved for golf — but nonetheless you have a good chance of showing up on Sunday and finding the course open.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at the first tee.
Locals and tourists alike stroll the course on Sundays. Some use it as an easy shortcut to get to the beach just beyond its edge. Others play fetch with their dogs. A handful take guided tours, either for an hour (my choice) or up to three hours. Many are content just to snap photos, smell the sea breeze, and head off for ice cream.

As a surprise to many, the Old Course, as well as several other companion courses in St. Andrews, is not controlled by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A), which sits at the first tee. Indeed, the R&A is only one of several golf clubs with access to the courses. Even local hotels can offer weekend packages and tee times.

Instead, the courses are managed by the St. Andrews Links, a public trust. Unlike a fiercely private club like Augusta with the Masters course, St. Andrews Links must provide access to any golfers with a sufficient handicap (24 for men; 36 for women). Some tee times are reserved months in advance, but nearly half are won by lottery 48 hours in advance. And it's possible to show up in the morning and squeeze into a duo or trio, who are supposed to "warmly welcome" a singleton or duo into their group.

Heather, hills, and Hell

For the times when it hosts the Open, the Old Course tends to get tamed and manicured for television consumption. But at other times, the gorse and heather are allowed to grow a bit. Scottish courses are generally less trimmed and proper than American courses. The rough is actually rough. With few landscaped trees, the wind can gust and swirl. And the frequent rain can leave spots boggy.

Gorse and heather on the Old Course
The Old Course can look a bit scruffy.
Moreover, the topography of the land determines the layout of the course. That's the reverse of most U.S. courses, which are designed and then landscaped into place. Scottish courses abound with awkward slopes, inconvenient patches of rough, and undulating greens.

As one tour guide told me, American courses are manscaped for ease and beauty, while Scottish courses are for men.

The most interesting feature on the Old Course, however, are the bunkers. All 112 of them. Each one named.

"The Spectacles." "The Sands of Nakajima." "The Coffins."


Hell bunker on the Old Course in St. Andrews
The bunker on the 14th hole called simply, "Hell."
The size, shape, and location of many of these bunkers were not predetermined. In fact, many have arisen naturally over the centuries. A good number were created by, of all things, sheep. Before the introduction of lawnmowers, sheep were often used to trim the course. Those same sheep often burrowed down into the sandy soil to escape the hard-blowing winds from the North Sea, a process which readily can be seen on the Isle of Iona's golf course.

Sheep creating bunkers on the Isle of Iona's golf course
Sheep range freely over Iona's golf course, creating their own bunkers as they burrow out of the wind.
Bunkers on the Old Course
Bunker cluster.
Some bunker walls on the Old Course reach as high as ten feet, though most seem to be roughly six or seven feet deep. The bunkers are notorious for golfers trying — and failing — to escape them by trying to hit over the high walls instead of backwards onto the fairway. One of golf's greatest golfers, Bobby Jones, hit into a bunker on the 11th, made four failed attempts to get his ball out, and simply walked off the course. The famed road hole bunker on the 17th is nicknamed "The Sands of Nakajima" after golfer Tsuneyuki Nakajima was tied for the lead in the third round in 1978, only to fall out of contention when it took him four shots to get out of the bunker.
Bunker on the Old Course
The bunker walls are built with stacked turf.

18 holes and not one more

Until quite recently, the R&A governed the game of golf worldwide, except for Mexico and the United States. (Nowadays, an offshoot of the R&A jointly issues the "Rules of Golf" in conjunction with the United States Golf Association.) Back in the 19th century, the R&A began standardizing and codifying the rules of golf.

One of the most significant reasons for why the Old Course reigns as the "home" of golf stems from its role in standardizing golf courses at 18 holes. In the early days, golf courses could be any number of holes, from five or six to 25 or more. In the 1700s, the Old Course itself was 22 holes, generally played by heading out for 11 holes and then turning around and playing the same holes backward toward the clubhouse. Incidentally, even today there are seven "double greens," which means fourteen of the holes share a green with another hole.

Eventually, the Old Course's first four holes and its last four holes were deemed too short. The members took these eight shorter holes and combined them into four.

18th tee marker on the Old Course
The tee marker for the Old Course's 18th hole.
And thus the Old Course settled on 18 holes.

With the Old Course's role as one of the rotating hosts for the British Open, and the R&A's role as the governor of golf rules, 18 holes became standardized across the world.

Go ahead, strike a pose on the Swilcan Bridge

Everyone does it, even the pros.

Built at least 700 years ago, the Swilcan Bridge originally helped shepherds guide their sheep (remember those bunkers?) over a creek. Today, it guides golfers and tourists over the channeled Swilcan Burn on the 18th hole.

Champions at the Open pose on the apex of the bridge, usually with the 18th green and R&A building in the background. Jack Nicklaus bid his farewell to golf atop the bridge. Tom Watson, on retiring after his final round, kissed it.

The pose on the bridge has become an iconic scene, one of the most famous in golf, and of all sports.

You can pose, too.

Conquer the Old Course . . . well, actually . . . er . . . its putting green

So you're not a real golfer, but you still want to play on the Old Course?

You're in luck. To the side sits the Himalayas, a miniature golf course set on the rippling hills of the real Old Course.

Putting on the Himalayas at the Old Course
Sadly, Nana didn't read the break to the right.
Operated by the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club, the Himalayas gives you a taste of playing the real course. Truth be told, making putts on the Himalayas is harder than putting on the Old Course itself. No joke. Your putting line may break both left and right, along with ascending a hill and trickling down the far side. Pin positions change daily, and the crew seems to delight in ensuring no one will make a hole-in-one. Be ready for three putts. And four putts. And five.

Okay, maybe a six, too. Ahem.

Playing mini-golf on the Himalayas in St. Andrews
Grampa Bill didn't make this putt.
{Ed.'s note: C'mon, admit it. You needed more than six.}

Fine. I got a frickin' eight on a hole.

The shame.

Toddler with an unorthodox golf grip
Unsurprisingly, this unorthodox golf grip does not lead to good putting.
What'll it cost you to play a round of either nine or 18 holes? All of £2. Note that kids under the age of six are only allowed to play nine holes — which, if you've ever played golf with a toddler, you'll agree is plenty.

St. Andrews is one of Scotland's most charming small towns. It has a gorgeous beach; a fabulous set of cathedral and castle ruins; an ancient university spread through town; cliffside views; a small aquarium; and, of course, golf. For many, the Old Course is a draw all by itself. Whether you walk the entire course, merely pose for a photo-op on the Swilcan Bridge, or play a round on the Himalayas, a stop at the "home of golf" is a must-see if you're visiting St. Andrews.

Studying the lie for a putt on the Himalayas


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  2. Hi Brian!
    My name is Natalie Sullivan and I'm casting an international travel show about expats moving abroad. We'd love to film in Scotland and wanted to know if you could help us find expats who have moved there within the last 15 months or have been there for 3-4 years, but recently moved into a new home. The show documents their move to a new country and will place the country in fabulous light. The expats on the show would also receive monetary compensation if they are filmed. They must also speak English fluently and can be buyers or renters for their homes. If you'd like more information, please give me a call at 212-231-7717 or skype me at natalieesullivan. You can also email me at Looking forward to hearing from you.

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