St Andrews Old Course – What Makes it So Special?

Graylyn LoomisCourse Reviews, St. Andrews18 Comments

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.

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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?!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

18 Comments on “St Andrews Old Course – What Makes it So Special?”

    1. Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you enjoy the site. I was one of the lucky group who could walk the Old Course every evening grabbing photos… Not a bad four years!

    2. Why don’t we know more about when the course was created? The course says it was established 1551 but Saint Andrews university was established 1418. There must be some records concerning this there that would shed light on how long they think the course had been there and who may have designed it. I know old Tom Morris made changes to it during his reign as greens keeper. And have read that golf was being played their before the university was opened. Could you direct me to where I could more information regarding this.

      Thank you,

      Ross Spallino

      1. Hi Ross,

        A great resource is the website that I’ve posted below. Have a look through it and its timeline when you have a chance. Lots of interesting insight. The University of St Andrews was founded in 1410 but was given official university status in 1413 (I was a third year student during the 600th anniversary celebrations in 2013). I haven’t seen any references to golf in St Andrews before the university, but I’m by no means an expert. If you find out more, feel free to comment here!

        http://www.scottishgolfhistory.org/

  1. Thanks for grt read. We are going in October for my 65th. Old course fully booked. I hear chances are still good via lottery. We have three firm prepaid starts at castle, new and Jub otherwise.

    1. Hi Bill, you’re going to have a blast over there for your birthday! Don’t worry too much that the pre-bookings on the Old are already filled. The vast majority of tee times are given out through the lottery, so definitely put your name in the ballot any day that you are free. If you don’t get the ballot, show up nice and early at the starter’s hut on your day of play to try and get out as a single! Castle, New, and Jub will be a perfect balance of classic and modern links with great views… have a blast!

  2. Great article. Both Tom Morris are true giants of the game whose legacy is eternally cemented. A friend of mine said it would be great to see them play today. I objected that it would not be good for their legacy as they clearly would have a steep learning curve what with all the new equipment, course designs, … I’m about a 15 handicap and I would say that if you brought them out today and gave them today’s equipment that I would be able to beat them thoroughly for a long time as today’s game really is night and day from the game they played. Plus, there were only like 8 people in the first Open (UK) Championship.

    Anyhow it’s great that there are people out here preserving the legacy of Tom Morris as their contributions were truly remarkable.

    1. Hi John,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! It would be equally interesting to send back a modern 15 handicap to play with Tom Morris with his equipment on those courses… If you are ever in Scotland playing, check out Musselburgh Old Links or Kingarrock – both courses are relatively unchanged from the ancient days and both places allow you to rent hickory clubs. It’s a blast and gives a huge appreciation for Tom Morris and his generation of players.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  3. I am thoroughly enjoying your reviews which I’ve recently stumbled across doing research for our next golf tour to the UK (I’m a South African). On our last tour, my brother and I played and loved The Old and New courses at St Andrews, as well as Kingsbarns. This time around we’ll be over for the Rugby World Cup in October and have already booked for Royal Troon, Celtic Manor’s TwentyTen Course and we need to decide on an English course near the Wokingham area, where we’ll be staying. Our options are Sunningdale Old Course, Swinley Forest and Walton Heath. We are trying to tick off ‘bucket list’ options, so perhaps you can recommend which one we should choose. I don’t see a review for Sunningdale, but given that it’s ranked 24th in the world versus 87th and 71st for Winley and Walton Heath respectively, and the fact that the Senior British Open was just held at Sunningdale, we expect the condition there to be excellent. Would love to hear your opinion and keep up the good work. R. Ross-Adams

    1. Hi Richard – thank you very much for taking the time to comment! I’m glad that the course reviews have been helpful and interesting. I will do my best to keep them coming! It sounds like you guys have already chosen some great courses for this next trip. You’re smart to get down to England – you’re really spoiled for choice down there. Out of Swinley Forest, Sunningdale, and Walton Heath, I would have to recommend Sunningdale. Although I haven’t played it, I have a very good golf buddy who just went down and played all three of those courses back to back days as part of a larger trip. He insisted that Sunningdale was the best experience out of all of the entire trip. He managed 36 holes and said every aspect of the place was amazing. You can’t really go wrong with any of the courses you named, but that would be my recommendation! Hope all is well down in South Africa – if I ever make a trip down there I’ll reach out for advice!

      1. Hi Gravlyn. Thanks for your prompt response. We have booked Sunningdale as per your recommendation and look forward to ticking another one off the bucket list. Lets just hope the weather is kind to us. South Africa has some amazing golf courses and fantastic weather, so I’d be happy to give you some recommendations if you ever make your way down here. Of the top 100 courses here, I’ve played 71 so far. Be sure to come in the Spring or Summer to make the best of it, and with the current exchange rate of ZAR 20/GBP 1, you should be able to have a fantastic holiday on a small budget. Cheers mate

  4. The Old Course is everything it’s cracked up to be. Just to stand there on Hole 1 to tee off takes your breath away. The cool thing is once you get to Hole #2, you’re now playing golf away from the crowds & clubhouse, so you can exhale. Having a caddy is a big plus for his/her knowledge. But be ready to whack yourself out of a few of the 112 sand bunkers.

    As you approach Hole #15 or #16 you look up and there out in the distance are the remaining 2-3 holes, including the famous #17 Road Hole and #18 with The Swilcan Bridge. You are back to “take your breath away” territory. You are walking (and swinging) where every single great golfer over the past century has played. Incredible.

    The Old Course will be one of my favorite golf memories ever. I didn’t play very well. My score was lousy. But that’s, maybe, not the point. It’s the experience.

    PS? The course is very well organized and runs like a machine. Emmy, @ Hole #1, gave us a little rundown of pace etc. Then you step up…and away you go.

  5. Hi Graylynn, My brother and I have a brief trip to Edinburgh this month. Have 2 shots at getting on at the Old course via lottery. If we don’t get on what are your recommendations for courses near Edinburgh that can give us an authentic tasted of Scottish golf? Currently have bookings at North Berwick Glen and Musselburgh.

  6. Graylyn,
    Great piece and I agree in every respect. First played TOC in 1985 after dreaming about it most of my life. Have been fortunate to spend my summers there since I retired in 2002. My # is now about 225 rounds and it special every time. From the opening tee shot to the last putt on #18 it never fails to give me the chills. I have actually had a few rounds with the wind at my back the entire round. Playing with people from all over the world who make the pilgrimage is so very special. I learn something new every round. My one wish is to play the course clockwise. On top of that, I always advise people who don’t play to still make the journey to SA to experience the town and its wonderful people. Can’t wait for July. Town matches and the Bing Crosby. Someday my ashes will be spread there. Cheers.
    Ron Fortson

    1. Hi Ron, I know how well you know the Old, so I take your comments to heart – I’m glad you agree with me! It really does give you chills every time and that feeling only gets stronger during events like the Town Match and the like.

      Like you, I’ve never played the course clockwise. Do you know when they stopped having a “backwards” day? I was told they stopped it around 2008, but I’ve heard mixed answers since then. It’s definitely on my bucket list, so will run over there to make that day if I need to!

      1. Graylyn,
        For some reason I think it was earlier than 2008. It seems like it was before I got my Links Ticket. Maybe not. I believe the date was April 1st. Like you, I will head back if they reimplement it. Tom Gallagher, the SAGC secretary has said it has been kicked around but nothing ever done.
        Ron

  7. My buddies and i made a bucket list trip last summer and your reviews, blogs and responses to my questions were a great help in our planning and appreciation of how special our trip was (Old and New, Kingsbarns, Kittocks, Carnoustie, Gullane, Berwick). For me, just the pleasure of walking in the footsteps of the greats of the game and having watched it so many times on TV make it special. Unlike Pebble Beach, which has the same sort of feel from its history and watching on TV – where the actual experience is somewhat lessened by “client” golf which can make for 6 hour rounds – on the Old Course you play golf the way it was meant to be – and with caddies that so enrich the experience. Of course, we apparently played in your favored wind conditions – which helped place my drive on 9 4 ft from the hole and sinking the eagle putt – might have something to do with my love of the place. To all – if you are thinking about going – don’t wait – life is too short!!!

    1. James, I’m very glad to hear that you guys had a great trip. Your feedback is valuable for all of the readers here! Congrats on that eagle on 9… you’ll never forget it!

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