How can I play the St Andrews Old Course? is just about the most frequently asked question Faraway Fairways encounters. The most honest answer we can give in general terms is, “it depends”, and that’s when we begin launching into the various avenues open to you, which can cause an information over-load. The most important thing to grasp at the outset however is relatively straight-forward. There is a relationship between the cost and the certainty of getting a round. In broad terms, the greater the level of certainty you require, the more expensive it becomes.
So, let’s briefly explore the options beginning at the top-end of the market and the “guaranteed packages”. Before we do this though, we need to explain that the St Andrews Links Trust operates a “two course policy” which applies to all their ‘guaranteed’ packages. This means you’ll need to nominate a second course, or have one allocated to you. The consequence of this condition it’ll always cost a bit more for this, and that you’ll normally be required to stay additional nights above that which perhaps you wanted to.
Guaranteed Tee Time
The St Andrews Links Trust used to have two ways of distributing ‘guaranteed’ tee times into the third-party commercial market. The first involved dividing 1000 tee-times amongst the St Andrews Hotel and Guesthouse Association, who would then look to resell them as part of levered accommodation packages. These packages nearly always involve a three-night minimum stay, and a minority could try and extract a minimum expenditure on top of that (usually food related). Other accommodation providers might elect to simply sell their tee-times to tour operators however, which can cause yet another layer of price inflation.
This might sound like an obstacle, but three-night stays aren’t normally that far outside of golfer’s plans anyway as many seek to play Carnoustie and Kingsbarns on the same visit. With the two-course policy in place however, it’s likely that you’re going to be pinned to at least a four-night stay if attempting this combination
The other method they used concerned a company called ‘the Old Course Experience’ (OCE) who enjoyed a monopoly on this side of the supply. The OCE would focus their packages on the 5-star hotels, and consequently the top-end of the price spectrum. Quality was high, but the price reflected this.
Starting in 2018, the ‘Old Course Experience’ lost their commercial operator’s monopoly for selling ‘guaranteed’ tee times. The St Andrews Links Trust took the administration ‘back in house’. More tee-times were made available to designated ‘Authorised Providers’, identifiable by the logo below. An Approved Provider tends to be either a St Andrews accommodation provider or a larger golf tour operator. It’s difficult to speak generically about the latter, but they usually capitalise on their position.
Faraway Fairways have previously reverse engineered prices based on what we know it costs and detected that a round can be embedded at a price up to seven times higher (£1500) than what it actually costs. It would be wrong to say that all guaranteed tee-times sold through ‘authorised providers’ seek to obtain this level of mark-up though. They don’t. A factor of seven is just the highest example we believe we’ve detected
In terms of sourcing an ‘authorised provider’, perhaps the most important distinction to make is that advertising the existence of a ‘guaranteed tee time’ as an ‘authorised provider’ is generic. What providers really mean is that they only have guaranteed times for certain days. If these don’t coincide with your plans, you’ll expend a lot of time going up blind alleys trying to find the provider who dovetails with your preference.
It’s always possible too, that someone who latches onto your enquiry will claim they can meet the date irrespective of whether they hold the appropriate tee-time themselves. They might then seek to source it from someone who does hold the tee-time for that date concerned and apply another layer of margin. We couldn’t tell you how widespread this practise is however, but it wouldn’t be without historic precedent.
Advance Ballot (Guaranteed)
The St Andrews Links Trust make some advanced guaranteed tee times available for the following year by ballot. Applications can be made via an online form. Once all applications have been received a ballot (lottery) will be drawn. This can be a very cost-effective option. The window for applications usually opens at the end of August (10.00 am BST) and closes two weeks later at midnight on the first Wednesday of September. Results are notified to you in early October. The process is split into four packages dependent on the size of your group. It is definitely worth noting that single players make applications through the advanced system and will be allocated other solo players as playing partners
The big attraction of the advanced guaranteed ballot is that you pay the advertised green fee, there are downsides however.
You can only make applications for Monday to Friday on the advanced guaranteed ballot, and you can only make a maximum of three applications spread across two-week blocks in a single season. Your chance of success are felt to be below 50%, but that needn’t be considered low in the context
One downside risk to the advanced application is whether or not Old Course guaranteed packages sell-out whilst you’re waiting for the notification of the result and thus deny you a fall-back option. There is also a chance that your preferred accommodation, or even rounds on certain days at Carnoustie or Kingsbarns could also sell-out whilst you’re awaiting the confirmation of the result.
All your planning hinges on the advanced ballot and this can make assembling a group problematic (especially if you’ve identified three different blocks in the year and require everyone to be available for them). If your plans also involve playing the likes of Royal Troon, Royal Dornoch, and most definitely Muirfield, then waiting on your advanced ballot dates is likely to place this trio under pressure if you intend trying to book them after you have the result (you’d be most unlikely to secure Muirfield this way, as they open their diary even earlier).
The ‘Burns’ Ballot
“The ballot” is the least expensive way of playing St Andrews. The ballot isn’t subject to the two-course policy that is conditional to any of the guaranteed packages. If you’re seeking to roll up other courses as part of a high intensity, but comparatively short tour with limited time, you aren’t having to dedicate a day to observing the requirement to play a second St Andrews course. Critically though, it does carry a risk of failure.
The Links Trust notify us of their ‘busy days’ with ‘block out times’ for tournaments or club fixtures. Tour operators consult this schedule, and it definitely influences how overseas visitors in particular are managed. We can’t easily advise that people target a busy period in good faith (Faraway Fairways don’t). Not only is it ethically questionable to do so, it potentially leaves us wide open to allegations of negligence. It’s worth being aware however that known busy periods (days with a lot of block-out) can become subject to lower demand, and therefore less busy, as a consequence of being busy!. If that sounds like nonsense, then try and think of it in terms of ratios. If a certain day only has 10 tee-times available, but just 20 applications chasing them, then that would represent a better prospect than a day which has 30 tee-times and 90 applications chasing them
At Faraway fairways we like to describe the process in terms of ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’ variables. A static variable are set things which we can legislate for, such as the time of year, the day of the week, and any notified demands on the course. A dynamic variable is something which alters and is much harder to factor. This would include things like local weather conditions, or demands being made on neighbouring courses. It’s really a question of trying to load the dice as favourably as we can
The question you really want to know the answer to however is ‘how good are my chances?”.
The St Andrews Links Trust are notoriously reluctant to offer an opinion on likely ballot success. In truth, we don’t blame them. Quite apart from the fact that they have little incentive to do so because they’ll nearly always fill their tee-sheets, they will also get things wrong now and then (the law of averages applies). There have been instances when good faith but ultimately inaccurate advice, has then become the subject of occasional litigation. Whereas such an action always fails, it’s a distraction they could do without.
Faraway Fairways have spent a few years playing cat and mouse with the Links Trust and do occasionally succeed in extracting an informed opinion. In addition to this, we’re also able to draw on own evidence, and that which we’re able to extract from credible co-operative partners, but before we expand on this it’s perhaps worth sounding a note of caution at this juncture. We really don’t know how different ballots will behave. The whole process can be incredibly quixotic. Any guidance we’re prepared to commit to the record, is just that; guidance. Outlier values in any data-set can (and will) periodically defy expectation (which is another way of saying we can never be certain and can’t be held responsible for advice that ultimately proves inaccurate). If you play through the ballot, there is a known element of risk failure, and applicants have to accept that.
On any given day in the low season, the odds of winning a ballot are normally heavily on your side. In the shoulder season they probably edge to being a little bit better than 50/50. The peak season is different however. The odds of successfully winning a ballot on any given peak season day are against you. We build your chances up by making repeat applications over a period of days until such time as we eventually tip the scales in your favour.
To try and illustrate this, we’d crudely suggest that between May, to mid-June they’re probably weaker than a coin toss, but better than drawing a named suit from a deck of cards. It would the view of Faraway Fairways that in order to tip the balance in your favour (about 50-60%) for late June to early September, we’d need to make four applications. Anyone who claims three is enough, might be stretching things a bit, albeit they’d probably be within the realms of sincerity around the fringes of the date range – (we could claim the same with a clear conscience).
In the ‘super-peak’ window of mid-July to mid-late August, you’d probably need to make seven or eight applications in order to tip the balance to the point where you could reasonably expect to win (90%+). Note this is a higher bar than just being in your favour. This doesn’t mean however that you’d been pinned to St Andrews for the duration of such a stay. There is plenty of good golf to be had within a two-hour isochrone of St Andrews. The only thing we’d need to construct is a programme that allows you to respond with a day-trip to St Andrews at 48-hours- notice.
A typical ballot strategy
The day of the week you choose can help stack the deck. Thursday afternoons, and all-day Saturday are particularly favourable given that the Links Trust allocates more ballot times to them than any other windows. Ballot times exist on other days of course, it’s just that there isn’t as many of them. There is no play on the Old Course Sundays.
A lot of golfer’s seek to play near-by Carnoustie and Kingsbarns with St Andrews. We naturally have a three-day hot spot, and a corresponding number of courses.
The risk of failure on the ballot ensures we sometimes need to adopt a contingent ‘plan B’. This means booking a neighbouring course as a mitigation against a failure.
If we succeed with a ballot though, and should the tee time we draw clash with one of our contingent bookings, then we have a small problem. We would need to cancel the course concerned. Green fees for the cancelled course are invariably forfeited under this arrangement albeit a course will look to reschedule if possible. In managing this we need to balance the potential financial loss of a green fee against the quality of play. If we look to concentrate on less expensive courses to reduce our exposure we begin to risk stacking your programme with second or third tier courses (remember we’d normally expect to lose more single day ballots than we’d win).
To some extent the Saturday begins to come to our aid. The St Andrews New Course can’t be pre-booked at weekends. It’s a ‘present-and-play’ course, with the advice being “go to golf”. This might sound ad-hoc, but it works surprisingly well. Saturday would normally be considered our best ballot day, so we naturally have a good back-stop position that doesn’t involve laying down a pre-payment at risk
Our next best day is the Thursday. Kingsbarns is an easier course to rearrange than Carnoustie. There would be a reasonable chance that some groups who’ve booked Kingsbarns on the Saturday will also have made ballot applications for the Old Course. Some of them will win and cancel Kingsbarns, creating a late gap that we would be able to fill if winning Thursday’s ballot and needing to cancel our round at Kingsbarns. Kingsbarns also operates a ‘late booking’ gateway where we might reasonably be able to expect to pick up some availability on the Sunday too, albeit we might be playing in two-balls or solo by then to recover things.
The bigger risk comes from drawing a clash with Carnoustie on the Friday. This is harder to rearrange. We wouldn’t describe it as impossible, but we’d probably advise that you might have to consider it a price worth paying for getting an Old Course tee time. Even with a forfeited green fee, the overall price is still going to be significantly less expensive than a guaranteed package. We might still get a shot at a rearrangement on the Saturday for similar reasons outlined to Kingsbarns.
All this assumes a three-day strategy of course. Introducing a fourth day alters things quite significantly. Not only would doing this tip the advantage of peak-season success in your favour, it would also allow us to play Carnoustie first (a Wednesday maximises the number of days available to us to try and rearrange something) or last (a Sunday when we can’t possibly clash with the Old Course due to there being no permitted play). We would now switch Kingsbarns onto the Friday in order to reduce our exposure to the more likely clash point (Thursday afternoon). This then releases the Thursday to play a less expensive course at lower risk of financial loss. There would be numerous options available to you. Any of the St Andrews courses would be fine, so would the supporting links of Fife such as Crail, Leven, Elie, Lundin or Scotscraig. If you wanted to retain an element of name-recognition, the inland course of Gleneagles would probably be the next nearest, although this would put an expensive green fee at risk
The ‘Walk Up Rule’ and Solo Players
If all else fails, we need to consider invoking some Plan C’s. These are the sorts of things you do if we’ve lost every ballot and are getting a bit desperate. The most popular is called the “walk up rule”, which is basically what it says on tin (albeit it tends to omit the detail of hideously early starts and long waits until the play begins the following morning).
Any qualified golfer can present to the Old Course starter and ask to be slotted into the next available gap. You might hear stories of strange myths and legends concerning hardy golfers mounting all-night vigils in the area of the bandstand, in order to be the first in the line the next morning? Well in the peak season on a warm evening, this certainly happens I’m afraid.
There are typically in the region of about twenty slots on a tee-sheet each day which haven’t been made up to a fourball. The determined golfer who is prepared to lay an early siege to the starters hut will usually succeed. The system works on a first come, first served basis. When the starter arrives in the morning, they’ll make a list of names and you’ll be given a time by which to return in expectation of being called forward against the days tee-sheets. You aren’t required to hang around all day once you’ve got onto the list
Naturally you will be asking to join an existing two or three-ball. You won’t necessarily be able to play in an established friendship group. The group whom you’re asking to join aren’t compelled to accept you either, but a vast majority will do (golf is an honourable game). Indeed, should you find ever yourself being petitioned to accept a player into your own group, Faraway Fairways advise that it’s considered correct protocol to agree.
The walk-up rule is predominantly designed for single golfers as they aren’t permitted to enter the ballot (though can enter the advanced ballot as already noted). It can be a bit hit-and-miss however. As you might expect, the weather is a strong factor in determining how many people are prepared to try it. Faraway Fairways have seen examples of it completely failing due to high-demand, we’ve also encountered people walking up around mid-day in months like May, and playing two hours later
In truth, ‘walk-up’ is increasingly quite widely known about, and during the peak season there is no shortage of people seeking to utilise it.
The Dark Time Reserve List
There is a lesser known trick that involves something called the ‘dark time reserve’.
This is a screen-shot of a ballot sheet from late October
The times circled are ‘dark times’ and about half a dozen of them appear on the end of the tee-sheet each day. They’re actually called ‘dark’ not because they’re concealed, but rather because there is a chance that on a particularly murky day you could end up finishing in the dark. It’s sometimes suggested that these dark times are some sort of secret society in operation, reserved for the leading figures of the R&A and their friends etc. Not true. They’re actually reserved for local residents of St Andrews. If you present yourself to the pavilion after the ballot has been drawn, you can ask to go on the reserve list for the following day. If the time hasn’t been claimed/ confirmed by a local by 09.00 the following morning, they’re offered to the reserve list in the order that the waiting list was formed. The reserve list still requires you pay the full green fee regardless of whether or not you complete
Faraway Fairways have enjoyed a degree of success using this method (although we wouldn’t like to rely it). In early September we’ve managed to get eight players onto the Old Course in a single application. The thing to remember here is that locals can play the Old Course with a degree of discrimination. If the weather is poor for instance, they can wait until the following week, or the week after etc. Dark times can go unclaimed
Conclusion and Further Information
So what is the best way? At Faraway Fairways we believe in integrity, and trust that will take us places, so allow us to be honest.
If money isn’t a consideration to you, either the total cost or the principle of paying more than you need to, then a dedicated guaranteed package has its merits. If however, you find this difficult to accept, then it’s more likely you’re going to have to wrestle with the ballot, and have a strategy developed that suits your needs
Authorised providers will often tell you that the ballot is far too hazardous and that you’re unlikely to win it. If you were restricted to just one or two days in the peak season, that would be a fair comment. Operators who don’t hold guaranteed slots by contrast (like Faraway Fairways) will encourage you to believe that the ballot is easier to win than others would have you believe. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but we believe it skews towards our interpretation.
It isn’t that difficult to reduce peak season applications to a probability close to that of a coin toss, (or slightly better than). Is that acceptable? There is perhaps no definitive answer to that, but it’s worth remembering that even if you fail, you’re still likely bagging Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, and the St Andrews New Course. It’s top-quality compensation.
The key really hinges on how many days you can make available to be within striking distance of St Andrews, and what time of the year you wish to play. Even playing just outside of the super-peak window can go very close to giving you a mathematical probability greater than one if you’re able to think in terms of four days
It would also be Faraway Fairways’ opinion that you could slightly enhance your prospects of success by using a golf tour operator rather than an accommodation provider too (we would say that admittedly – but allow us to explain).
A lot of hotel rooms are sold remotely on-line. The inter-action between seller and buyer can be weaker. A specialist tour operator tends to develop a bit of dialogue and is perhaps more likely therefore to guide an enquiry into a better window of opportunity. In addition to this, accommodation providers primary line of revenue is room sales. They will sell their rooms in the hot spot windows regardless. They might possess a little bit more incentive to accept bookings in weaker windows as their reputations aren’t forged by their Old Course strike-rates, but rather the quality and value of their hotel. We don’t believe this is a significant difference however, but think we’ve detected that a golf tour operator holds a slight edge on some data we’ve seen. Should you choose to book through a St Andrews accommodation provider we’d still be very confident that they’ll do their best by you
You will occasionally hear dark rumours about the ballot being rigged and people claiming to know someone, who knows someone etc. Even if such practises might have existed once upon time (we really can’t comment as to whether they did) Faraway Fairways has no reason to believe they do today. The industry is to much of a business now. The risks of operating something outside of proper protocols has consequences. So far as we’re concerned, the ballot is a very egalitarian process.
You also hear stories of people who claim to know affiliated club members etc (often tenuously). This has a little bit more legitimacy to it however, as you can play as a member’s guest and enhance your prospects of ballot success. This isn’t a dodgy practise. It’s quite legitimate. We are under the impression however that the Executive Committee of the R&A must be receiving dozens of unsolicited communications each day for the frequency with which hear this. It probably isn’t wise to rely on being able to ask a favour unless the individual is quite well known to you.
The St Andrews Old Course features more than any other course in Faraway Fairways programmes. Click any of the buttons below to see how it can be woven into an itinerary.