I am one of the lucky few that has called the St Andrews Old Course my home course. I attended the University of St Andrews for four years and played around 200 rounds on the Old Course.
No other course in the world is like the Old and nowhere else has been able to replicate what makes it special. Rather than a hole-by-hole review, I want to outline some of those things that make the St Andrews Old Course so unique.
At the top of that list is the Old Course’s accessibility. It is the highest ranked public course in the world, and any man, women, or child who meets the requisite handicap can play a round. That said, the process for playing the Old can be complicated. I’ve written entire articles about how to get on the Old Course and also whether guaranteed tee times from tour companies are worth the money.
For those that get onto the Old Course through the daily ballot or through the singles line early in the morning, there is a real bond. You’ve solved the riddle to getting on the storied course and the seemingly odd process makes the round all the more special.
There are also other oddities about the Old that make it unmatched. On Sundays, the course is closed and it effectively becomes a public park. People walk their dogs, have picnics, and enjoy the linksland. I’ve gone out on a Sunday and taken a nap on the first green. Where on earth can you take a book down to the world-class course and plop down for a relaxing read?!
Despite its reputation as a world-class links course, the St Andrews Old Course is surprisingly divisive. Many people don’t like the course after the first, or even second or third rounds. It’s not as beautiful as some, it’s not as dramatic as others, but its genius reveals itself over time.
“Anyone who raves about the Old Course after just one or two rounds is either a liar or a fool,” once said David Fay, former Executive Director of the USGA. I totally agree with him. Even after many rounds, I continue to notice something new with each additional loop, especially as the wind directions change and my balls finds new parts of the course.
Many times I heard visiting golfers complain about the Old Course, calling it easy, boring, or any number of other negative descriptors. Nobody’s required to like the course, but I think many of those people entered the round with the wrong expectations. Look for the subtleties when you’re out there. Look for those crazy angles, unique pin placements, and constantly be thinking about how the course would change in a different wind or with different pins.
Strategic options are endless on the Old. The fairways are hundreds of yards wide in places and many of the double greens are over 25,000 square feet. That combination leads to a huge variety of angles and pin placements that, in combination with the wind, mean no two rounds are ever alike. When you only see the course once, you miss out on those options and personalities of the course.
Some days it’s an absolute brute, other days its fairly easy. Each time is different and each time you learn something new about the round. My favorite set of conditions is a wind into your face on the front, and downwind off the right on the back. An old local once told me over a pint that there is a perfect set of conditions where the front plays downwind and then switches for a downwind back nine. He went into weather fronts, tides, and moon phase telling me how to find the specific day… I think he may have been a few too many pints deep.
The connection of the town and Old Course is another part of what makes St Andrews so special. Other courses may be in neighborhoods or separated from a city by only a wall, but the Old Course is deeply connection to the town. The course literally begins and ends in the town itself. A public road bisects the first and 18th fairways and throughout the round the town’s profile is visible on the skyline. The steeples and rooflines of buildings act as aiming points on the inward nine and the 18th green is bordered on two sides by streets, typically lined with golf fans and town folk.
The connection between town and links is one reason that St Andrews has that special “it” factor. People fall in love with the town, and in turn the course, and both things meld into one another to create a single experience.
St Andrews is called the Home of Golf for a reason. There are older courses in the world, and it’s not necessarily the first place people hit balls with sticks in a field, but it’s where the game grew into its current form. This post isn’t an in-depth history of the course, but it’s important to acknowledge the town and Old Course’s lineage.
In books and magazine’s, “nature” is listed as the course designer in the year 1400. The curves, humps, and bumps found on the Old are nearly all natural. Sheep nestled into the hillsides to create the bunkers. Centuries of wind and exposure shifted the rumpled linksland and formed the hollows and dips found on the fairways.
Centuries after golf was first played on the Old Course, the likes of Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris maintained the land and massaged it into the form we recognize today as modern golf. The course expanded to 22 holes and then shrank again to 18. The earliest forms of turf care and maintenance were employed to get a consistent playing surface on the sandy soil. St Andrews was the epicenter for the modern game.
Although it is romantic to think of the Old Course as untouched and unchanged for centuries, that’s far from the truth. Changes have always taken place, but those changes have become more prominent in recent decades. From 2011-14, Martin Hawtree took his turn tweaking the Old Course for the modern game, particularly for play during the Open Championship. I was living in St Andrews during those rounds of changes, and took photos during each phase that can be found here and here.
It was my time in St Andrews and the Old Course that deepened my knowledge and appreciation for golf course architecture. It is the perfect place to learn about the game and every time you think you have it figured out, the Old throws you right back down with a completely different set of conditions that you’ve never seen. Bunkers you never thought were in play capture your ball, bumps that seem irrelevant suddenly present a challenge, and a pin placement you never thought about rears its challenging head.
After playing hundreds of rounds around the world, I’ve never seen another course like the Old. Some may be prettier or more dramatic, but none have the depth of strategy and command the endless interest of this shaggy old course in the town of St Andrews.