chances of winning the old course ballot

One of the most popular question Faraway Fairways are asked is “what’s the chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot”. Although it’s tempting to retreat into answers about lengths of string etc we probably can improve on that in attempting to assist you.

The least expensive and most flexible way to play the Old Course is through ‘the Ballot’. In 2020 for instance, the real green fee for St Andrew was actually £195 (not the £1,750 that a guaranteed time can typically weigh in around) and is paid by you to the St Andrews Links Trust after notification of a successful result. The ballot also frees you from needing to play the mandatory second St Andrews Links Trust course too, so works out cheaper there as well

Although the prospects of winning a single ballot on any given day are usually odds against, we can build-up your chances by making a series of applications over a number of days. Basically we run the numbers game, so as to tip the balance in your favour by sheer weight of attempts

The St Andrews Links Trust advertise their ‘busy days’ in advance (fixtures and tournaments) and we can operate strategically around these

Every other tee-time on a Thursday afternoon, and all-day Saturday are normally reserved for balloted tee-times. Throughout the year (average), approximately a quarter of Thursday applications succeed, which rises to an estimated one third for Saturday, although this isn’t a uniform result as different months generate different results. Irrespective of this, these can represent some of our better prospects so as a consequence we try to keep these on-side (ballot times exist on other days too).

The ballot is rarely as straight-forward as looking at empty diary dates though. A successful application to play is really a function of supply and demand ratios. To use an exaggerated example, 30 players chasing 10 times are more likely to succeed than 160 chasing 40, but there’s the problem. A golf tour operator can’t easily target low supply windows in good faith (Faraway Fairways don’t) but we equally need to be aware that simply adding to the traffic by targeting the emptiest slots needn’t always be the shrewdest play either.

It’s actually as much a dilemma for a golf tour operator as it is for the golfer. Whereas an operator can pitch clients into clear windows in good faith and with a clean conscience, we wouldn’t always be convinced that doing so represents the best chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot however

What’s the bottom line?

The question you really want to know the answer to however is What’s the chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot? How good are the odds

Well we’re afraid the Links Trust don’t publish daily strike-rates and are notoriously reluctant to offer an opinion as they have little incentive to do so. They know they can always sell their tee-times and in the past they’ve been the subject of litigation for offering opinions, that although well-intentioned, ultimately proved to be wrong. Whereas any such action always fails, we can understand that they’d rather not have the distraction of contesting it.

Now in truth we do occasionally succeed in extracting off-the-record comment from the Links Trust. We’re also able to build up a picture of sorts through conversations we have with hoteliers, and golfers, and very occasionally a guarded chat with fellow tour operators when comparing notes. And of course, we also have our own observational experience to draw from based on our own experience. But this is only ever indicative at best and complicated further by the emergence of hot-spots within a month. It isn’t a complete picture.

Part of the ‘read’ in understanding the chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot involves appreciating the way visiting golfers (particularly overseas players) respond to the St Andrews ‘busy dates’ calendar that is published in the St Andrews Links Trust’s website. Seeking to get inside the psychology of how people react to this information might sound like we’re trying a bit too hard, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense

We might estimate that about two thirds of enquiries we receive are fairly general in terms of the dates they specify. They normally have an idea of the month or season. Only about a third will specify exact dates (and they nearly always seem to coincide with healthy playing windows which would suggest that the busy dates diary has already been consulted).

Allow us to use some hypothetical numbers

In July we might expect something like 400 golfers to be in St Andrews during a given week seeking to play the Old Course from the ballot. This probably equates to about 133 applications/ parties a day on a spread of 2,3, and 4 balls. Someone who is considering July and only has the one week to play will look at the diary and see that the window from 13th to the 18th is clear, whereas the window from the 20th to the 24th has 2½ hours blocked out on the 21st. How many of these 133 applicants take the decision to pursue an interest in the first week instead of the second? The answer is we don’t know for certain, but there could very easily be a disproportionate decision made in this direction

Let’s assume there’s 15 tee times available each day, multiplied by 5 days = 75, and on Tuesday 21st only 10 are available due to the block out (4 x 15 = 60 + 10 = 70)

Now let’s assume that 66% of golfing parties who faced the choice of which week to target decided on the first week, and 33% decided on what looked like the marginally less favourable second week

That would leave 87 applications chasing 75 tee times on week one

And 46 golfers chasing 70 tee-times on week two. It’s worth noting of course that successful applicants can (and do) re-apply during a week, so the number of golfers can get inflated

Now we’d have to concede that some of this is informed guesswork, (it is) but it also draws on our own experience. Like most golf tour operators, we have periodically been wiped out in a ballot. This has happened with greater frequency in completely clear weeks though than it has in weeks with little bits of block out dotted over it.

What we’re perhaps seeking therefore are two things

1: Windows that are clear for the five days we want, but surrounded by block out either side to deter people on a seven day programme from targeting that week

2: Windows that might have enough block in them to deter competing golfers from targeting them on a full week but not enough to make them unplayable, and which also have clear playing opportunity built around them to encourage competing golfers to target those alternatives

As we’ve already noted, the chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot is a function of the ratio between supply and demand. Overseas visitors in particular tend to plan long-term and it’s tempting to conclude that they heavily consult the ‘busy dates’ diary and simply harvest up the clear windows on the ballot. In 2019 for example this seemed to result in some heavy over-subscribing of what at face value appeared to the be most favourable opportunities. It’s actually classic ‘game theory’. With everyone targeting the same favourable windows, applicants collectively damaged each other’s chances of winning the St Andrews Old Course ballot. Dates which on-line appeared as not being busy (no fixture commitments) became busy as a result of not being busy etc.

The clearest windows aren’t always the best shot you can take. What they do offer us is the clearest conscience instead. Allow us to explain what we mean by that as a golf tour operator

It’s very difficult to recommend that someone plays in week 1 if it contains some block-out, when perhaps the following week 2, is completely clear. Even if we have grounds to believe that our prospects of success might actually be higher in week 1 as a result of competing golfers overlooking it and concentrating on week 2 instead, we still need to demonstrate we’ve done the right thing by the client. That’s a lot easier to do if we can point to a diary that has six clear days rather than three or four. Eventually we will fail of course making applications into sub-optimal windows. That’s the laws of averages, and when it strikes, we’re wide open to allegations of negligence.

So are we seriously suggesting a counter-intuitive strategy of targeting windows with heavy block out instead? No. Definitely not. Heavily blocked out windows are also unproductive.

What we’re trying to find is a ‘Goldilocks’ window’ which isn’t too hot and isn’t too cold, but just right . Spotting such a landing strip is one thing however, knowing how it’ll perform is still little more than an informed hunch.

We’ll use a real world example. In 2019 Faraway Fairways had sixteen golfers playing August in what looked like an unfavourable window. We achieved a daily strike rate of 40%. As we moved through the month and favourable windows began to appear our strike rate fell back to the 13% we’d expect. Ultimately we closed with 26% for the month (much higher than that which we achieved in May and June bidding into favourable windows).

The sort of landing strip that will probably perform best is one which has some manageable block-out (enough to deter people but not enough to seriously damage our own ballot prospects) allied to a clear week either side of it (something to tempt competing golfers onto a close proximity alternative).

2019 Post-Script

We alluded earlier to some hotel data earlier which we’ve blended with other proxy indicators to try and present an indicative guideline daily strike rate by month (albeit we need to remember that hot and cold spots exist within any given month).

  • April = 57%
  • May = 27%
  • June = 29%
  • July = 16%
  • August = 13%
  • September = 19%
  • October = 26%

At the time of writing (late-September, 2019) only one Faraway Fairways client who wanted to play the Old Course in 2019 had failed to do so, although we’d acknowledge that some had to use sub-optimal methods such as the ‘walk up rule’ to do so. We should perhaps point out that the individual who failed did so because they weren’t prepared to use the walk up rule, other members of their party were and they succeeded

In truth, there is a degree of good fortune involved with trying to second guess a ballot, and that’s before we factor good weather into the equation, which can of course bring the local golfer’s out to play. The ballot is quixotic. As a general rule though, if you’re determined, and if you’re ultimately prepared to endure a bit of inconvenience to play if necessary, you will usually succeed

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