I am one of the lucky few that has been able to call the St Andrews Old Course their home course. I attended the University of St Andrews and therefore lived an accessible four-minute walk from the Old. In my four years in St Andrews I was able to play approximately 175 rounds on the Old Course, and I plan to play many more throughout my life. The Old Course has a special place in my heart and if there is a slight tinge of bias in my write-up, I’m sure you’ll understand. This review strays away from a hole by hole account, and strives to capture the experience of walking the St Andrews Links.Something that makes the St Andrews Old Course so special is its accessibility to all golfers. It is the highest ranked public course in the world (#4), but any man, women, or child who meets the requisite handicap can play a round. On Sundays, no golf is played on the links, and the course effectively becomes a public park. Another completely unique feature is the Old Course’s designer. “Nature” is listed as the designer in the year 1400. The curves, humps, and bumps found on the Old are nearly all natural. Sheep nestling into the hillsides created the bunkers. The likes of Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris gently massaged the land into shape as the game’s popularity grew. More recently, Martin Hawtree took his turn tweaking the Old Course for the modern game. Photos of his work can be seen here and here.
“Anyone who raves about the Old Course after just one or two rounds there is either a liar or a fool,” said David Fay, Executive Director of the USGA. The course reveals itself over time. A new bunker, bump, or strategy is revealed with every new round on the Old Course. Strategy is key for scoring well on the links. The old adage “just aim left off the tee” is commonly heard on the links, but aiming left creates awkward and difficult angles into greens. Left also brings new bunkers into play. Aiming right and hugging hazards provides the best angles. You won’t see the golfer who wins the Open Championship pull hooking all of his drives into “safe areas.”
The Old Course is unmatched in terms of history. Golf owes much of its current grandeur and success to the Old Course. When the game was struggling through its infancy, St Andrews kept the game alive. It is one of the oldest golfing grounds in the world.
The figurehead of St Andrews golf is Old Tom Morris. He is one of my golfing heroes. Morris served as keeper of the green at the Old Course for a total of 38 years. He won the Open Championship four times. Morris also designed some of the world’s best golf courses including Prestwick, Muirfield, Lahinch, Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down, and a large role in designing Carnoustie among many other classic links. Old Tom Morris must be mentioned in any conversation on the history of St Andrews. He was born and lived the majority of his life in St Andrews. His birthplace, home, and gravesite can all be found in St Andrews within 10 minutes of each other.
The 5th hole on the Old Course is one of my favorites, and it embodies some of the unique features of the Old Course. Depending on the wind, the hole can be easily reachable in two, or challenging to reach even in three shots. Tee shots down the right side provide the best angle to the green, and left, while it is okay, provides a much more difficult blind shot. A large depression, or swale, runs across the fairway in front of the green. The depression catches balls and presents a very tough up and down. On this hole, similarly to all links golf holes, the wind can turn a birdie opportunity into a difficult par. Two deep spectacle style bunkers, guarding layups to this green, standing around 115 yards from the massive putting surface. The double green is nearly 95 yards deep, which is one of the largest greens in all of golf. Below are two photos of the fairway and green, both of which look back towards the tee.
In the past, the Old Course has relinquished lower winning scores during the Open Championship than other venues on the rota. Some people interpret this to mean that the Old is weaker than say, Birkdale or Royal St Georges. If the weather, which is the guard of any links course, shows its bite, the Old is just as difficult a venue as the other. However, more than anything else, this “complaint” against the Old Course touches on a flaw in modern golf. Harder does not equal better. Professional golf has perverted our views of great golf courses as tours do their best to “protect par” every week. Harder courses are not necessarily better.
The final stretch of holes on the Old Course is memorable and leaves a very lasting impression on any golfer. The 17th (Road Hole) is one of the most difficult on the course, demanding perfection on the approach shot. I have never birdied the hole and can count on one hand how many birdies I have personally witnessed. The drive over the Old Course Hotel is intimidating to say the least. The road on the right and the cavernous Road Hole Bunker on the left make the approach to the green difficult. It is another hole where erring left is safe, but creates nearly impossible angles into the green.Teeing off the on the 18th on the Old Course provides a somewhat indescribable experience. The view up the 18th of the Swilcan Bridge, Hamilton Hall, and the R&A Clubhouse is one of the most pictured in all of golf. Every golfing great in the history of the game, bar Ben Hogan, has made that walk. The walk up the 18th never gets old. Walking through the valley of sin and up onto the green is akin to being in the presence of every golfing great in the history of the game. You realize that you are standing at one of golf’s most legendary venues.
The entire town of St Andrews has a very unique and warming ambiance. For a golfer, there are very few better places. The pubs and restaurants in the town are great. Right in town, there are six additional St Andrews courses all offering solid golf and lots of challenges. The Himalays putting green, seen below without flags in place, is the home of the Ladies Putting Club of St Andrews, and on their public days, families flood the rippling stretch of land to enjoy the Scottish sun. My four years in St Andrews, having the Old Course as my home course, were some of the most enjoyable in my life.