ST ANDREWS OLD COURSE

St Andrews Old Course

 

OK, so it’s probably true that were some young architect to walk into the R&A’s headquarters today with a proposal to build the St Andrews Old Course, he might not meet with an enthusiastic reception. Were he to then suggest that his design should host major championships, he’d probably be in danger of tripping over the people rolling around on the floor in laughter on his way out through the door. But this kind of misses the point. Put simply, the St Andrews Old Course is probably the single most famous golf course in the world. The only one that could be mentioned in the same breath is the Augusta National, but the ‘auld grey toon’ has a couple of centuries on the young pretender, and from our perspective at least, it is possible get a round there!

The Old Course was laid down in an age before earth moving machinery, modern maintenance technologies, and various design paradigms could be brought to bear. It might have got first choice of the terrain, but it’s also a bit of a relic in the nicest possible way. Therefore it shouldn’t really come as any surprise that more modern courses have overtaken it in some aspects (you’d be concerned if they hadn’t!) but no architect can design authentic heritage, and for that reason alone, the Old Course will continue to endure

 

Founded 1522
Yardage Championship course white tees 6721 yds
Par 72
Golf Digest Ranking 7th in the world
Handicap Restrictions Men 24
Women 36

 

A big part of the initial challenge is not to get so sucked in by the heritage and sense of ‘place’ that your judgement goes. For such an iconic course a lot of people’s first encounters with it are actually quite mixed. Don’t be surprised if you don’t instantly fall in love with the St Andrews Old Course, but by the time you’re reviewing your round that evening there’s every chance that you’ve identified a couple of shots you should have played differently. As the post-mortem continues, you start to realise weeks later that actually there were a couple of holes you wished you’d played differently. Then after a few months you’ve probably identified half the round that you could have improved on. Ultimately this will often consume people over the course of the year. After they’ve identified about two-dozen things they should have done differently they fall for it. “I want another go”; and so it goes on!!! Golf can do this to you.

St Andrews Old Course

The Course itself

The opening tee shot is played to a particularly wide and flat fairway. It’s actually pretty difficult to make a hash of this, and yet first time visitors will consistently admit to feeling nothing but trepidation as they’re called forward. There are always plenty of people watching you. For many it’ll be the biggest gallery we face. The big bay window of the Royal and Ancients headquarters overlooks the tee box as well. You can be sure that there are always some unseen eyes waiting to cast a verdict. This is one place you really don’t want to hit a shank

The Greens

Back in the days of old it became apparent that it was easier to maintain fewer greens than it was all eighteen. To this day, fourteen of the holes are played on double greens. That’s right. The Old Course has two holes sharing the same green. As you might imagine therefore the greens themselves are huge and putting is tested much more on the Old Course than it might be on a normal links.

St Andrews Old Course

The double greens of the 5th and the 13th
– Image by Kevin Murray

The double green of the 7th and 11th is on the tip of estuary and is typically the most exposed part of the course. The eleventh in particular, ‘High, is worthy of special mention. A difficult par 3, it has earned the unofficial title of Scotland’s shortest par 5!

Bunkering

The Old Course has faced a not particularly unique challenge in recent decades regarding the advances in equipment technologies. It is perhaps more compromised than most however in terms of what it can do. There can be little doubt that the yardage has come back to the golfer. On a calm day the top professionals can take the Old Course for a merry dance today. If she responds with design and length though, she risks losing her character. There’s little enthusiasm for this. The weather can always add to the defence of the course, but it can’t be relied on. St Andrews does possess over 100 bunkers however. These aren’t shallow American ‘sand traps’ though. These round wrecking deep pot bunkers. Keeping the ball in play is usually regarded as sound advice that verges on stating the blindingly obvious, but here it really does kill you if you finish hard-up against a 10ft precipitous face.

Perhaps the mother of all bunkers can be found on the fourteenth. The name of ‘Hell Bunker’ doesn’t leave too much to the imagination. Get in tight against the face here, and the only sensible escape is a retreat the way you came. Blast away and you’re only likely to add to your pinball score, whilst digging a tunnel back to Edinburgh!

The 17th, the ‘Road Hole’

St Andrews, 17th, is one of the most notorious holes in golf. There is simply no easy way of playing this, and since it was extended to 495 yards, it’s become even more difficult. The tee shot involves playing blind over the old railway sheds. If you go too far to the right you end up in the hotel, or on a balcony (known as the Mickelson line). If you go to far too the left you run a very strong likelihood of careering through the top of the fairway and into the long rough. Your chances of reaching the green in regulation are virtually nil, albeit Seve Ballesteros famously managed it in 1984 when he swung the Open decisively in his favour. We’re not sure Tom Watson was ever quite the same again.

The tee-shot almost has an air of ‘Russian roulette’ about it. The fairway narrows the further you are able to advance the ball. If you carve off too much from the tee you risk missing the landing strip altogether. If you err too much to the left however you’re extending the distance that you require to hit your second. Reconciling this becomes critical to your strategy. It’s all about to get a whole lot worse though. Not only is the yardage working against you, the geometry of the green is doing you no favours either. Viewed from the air, the putting surface is a bit like the receiver of an old-fashioned telephone with two bulbous ends and a narrow handle in the middle. As you might have guessed, the narrow handle (16 yards) is where the flag usually ‘hangs out’. Perhaps a navy pilot could understand trying to land on this at an angle of 45 degrees from about 200 yards but mere golfer’s will usually baulk at the challenge.

The green of the 17th. The Road Hole bunker can be seen centre, with the Swilcan bridge just above it. The usual target area is in the foreground which leaves a tricky long putt over a ridge for a par (if you’re lucky)
– Image by Kevin Murray

As if it were needed, the challenge of playing for the pin is given an additional deterrent. Guarding the entrance on a direct line is the notorious Road Hole bunker. Deep and cavernous this monster has famously accounted for Tommy Nakajima (1979) and Costatino Rocca (1995) when the claret jug was firmly on their menu. The British media christened that bunker, for a while, “the Sands of Nakajima”.

The ground surrounding the bunker tapers into it. Anything that rolls just a little bit too close will nearly always continue and fall agonisingly into the trap. In effect the bunker plays about three times bigger than it actually is. So the strategic golfer elects to take half a club more then? Well this can be nearly as bad. Anything over-hit or coming in too shallow risks skipping through the green, picking up pace as it runs down a slope, and finally landing on the road behind, or more likely crossing the road and coming to rest against the adjacent wall. Golf was invented in Scotland, but then so too was tarmac! Come to rest up tight against this and you might find that you’re ‘lucky enough’ to attempt one of the most famous and outrageous escapes in golf. Play off the wall and trust the ricochet to regain the putting surface. In 1984 Tom Watson elected to decline this shot, but with a restricted backswing made a bogey and with it went the chance of an unprecedented clean sweep of Scottish Open venues.

The Swilcan Burn & Bridge

With the dreaded seventeenth behind you, we now turn to another the Old Course’s celebrated icons. You were first introduced to the Swilcan burn on the opening hole as it cuts the two fairways on its journey out to the North Sea. The old fish bridge is short walk from the final tee. Neither the burn nor bridge are in play, but the photograph is kind of obligatory!

Elegance through simplicity. Golf’s most iconic vista? The Swilcan bridge and burn on the 18th
– Image by Kevin Murray

Tom Morris (the eighteenth)

The 18th is more iconic than it is treacherous. Indeed, with a following wind it can now be routinely driven by longer hitters. The final inward holes have shown you the sanctuary of the St Andrews skyline calling you home. Gradually you get nearer. As you stand on the 18th the outer streets of St Andrews run down your right hand side with the R&A’s headquarters now firmly in view 400 yds away, and the famous red-bricks of Hamilton House behind the final target. As if to reacquaint with an old friend even the Swilcan Burn is back to welcome you in, albeit this time it doesn’t pose the threat of the opening hole. The hole does actually offer you a decent chance of ending on a high note. The only really trap that lies is the ‘Valley of sin’, a small depression short of the green which can be difficult to escape from without rolling back into it

St Andrews Old Course

The 18th green with the ‘valley of sin’ coming into view as a channelled depression in the contours to the bottom left
– Image by Kevin Murray

The eighteenth isn’t without its own victims though, and in golfing folklore that means the 1970 Open. Twenty minutes earlier Doug Sanders had miraculously chipped out from the Road Hole bunker to within inches, leaving a simple tap-in. It looked preordained, it was. Now standing over a three footer for the Championship on the 18th with the wind snapping at his trousers, Sanders, (attired in gawdy period purple) only needed to slide in a regulation tiddler. The worst started to go through the spectators’ minds when, just as he was about to take the club back and stroke the ball, he bent down to remove a blade of grass. You don’t do that surely? Lee Trevino tried to silence the gasps. Sanders reset himself, but made a hurried stab at the ball which duly slipped past the right edge. He’d just recorded the most famous missed putt in golf. Nicklaus won the playoff.

Every where you play on the Old Course, every hole, every green, seems to have a back story. That’s why the place remains magical, even if we probably know deep down that its all a little bit anachronistic. But then that’s it’s charm, who’d really want to change it?

St Andrews have put together an excellent slide show detailing each hole. Please click on this link to view

TO VIEW THE HOLE-BY-HOLE GUIDE TO THE ST ANDREWS OLD COURSE CLICK ON CLUB CREST

Additional information

Buggy hire, Trolleys, Caddies and Clubs

St Andrews doesn’t welcome nor encourage the use of buggies on the Old Course. Golfers who are registered disabled with a permanent condition of disability however may request a buggy. This comes with the following conditions

Available April to October only
Driven by a qualified caddie driver
Buggy is provided free but the appropriate caddie fee is payable
Disability documentation should be provided at booking or when entering the ballot

The use of trolleys on the Old Course is limited. With 14 holes played to double greens, the movement of golfers is severely restricted and care is taken to manage wear & tear of this very special course. Trolleys on the Old Course are therefore only permitted after 12 noon between the months of April & October – we recommend that you either carry your own golf bag or employ the services of a local caddie who will not only carry your bag but will also help guide you round the course. Manually operated trollies can be picked up on the day without reservation for $8

St Andrews caddies are self-employed but have to be licensed by St Andrews Links in order to work there. Caddie charges are payable in cash to the caddie on completion of the round. All gratuities are at the player’s discretion and should be based on the level of service provided. As a general guide, gratuities start at $25. If using a professional caddie, he or she must be licensed by St Andrews Links.

Callaway Golf are an official partner of St Andrews Links and provide all golf hire equipment. Hire clubs include sets of the latest RAZRX FIT XTREME & X HOT irons and White Hot & Divine putters and come in a Callaway stand bag. Men’s steel shafts in left or right handed, graphite only available in right handed. Ladies sets are graphite only in left or right handed. Clubs can be collected at the clubhouses. Shoe hire is available and includes a complimentary pair of socks

Time Check

Give yourself plenty of time and check in with the Starter at least 20 minutes before your tee-off time. There is a practice putting area for you to warm up and plenty of time to get pictures before you start your round.

Handicap

An official handicap card/certificate should be presented to the starter when playing the Old course. This should be no more than 24 for men and 36 for ladies. Make sure you bring your handicap certificate to the first tee and present it to the Starter. It’s your passport to the oldest course in the world.
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