From the Old Course to a 125-year-old nine-holer, two experts share their favourite hidden gems in and around the home of golf.
By Ted McIntyre
Welcome to St Andrews, where the Scots are so tight they won’t even shell out for a period after “St” or apostrophe for “Andrews.”
I’m of Scottish heritage, so I can get away with that. And truth be told, it’s a historical thing, “because the name of the town predates the use of the apostrophe, which dates from the 16th century,” observes the University of St Andrews.
You know a place is old when it predates punctuation. In fact, there has been a settlement on this site since at least the sixth century AD. The University itself was founded 602 years ago, while the Cathedral of St Andrews was constructed in 1160.
Named for St. Andrew the Apostle, now Scotland’s patron saint (the Scottish flag bears St Andrew’s saltire cross), the town’s history that most consumes me is the 600 years they’ve been playing some form of golf on these grounds. The R&A, which was founded in 1754 and which exercises legislative authority over the game worldwide (except in the U.S. and Mexico), makes its home here, as does the most revered 18 holes on earth: the Old Course.
“The first time I played the Old Course was right after my Honeymoon in 1976, between assignments for Canadian Press. I think it cost £5,” relates Canadian photographer Doug Ball, who has crossed the Swilcan Bridge an estimated 20 times since.
If you want to play the Old Course these days, it’s a cool £170 ($323 Cdn) in high season. A caddie is another £45 ($85), plus tip. “There are no buggies (power carts), save for a couple reserved for health reasons,” advises Ball, “and you can only take a trolley after noon from April and October. A good idea is for one of your foursome to take one good caddie, and as you’re walking down the first fairway, the other three guys tell the caddie, ‘We’ll give you £20 each after the round if you help us all.’ After all, you need all the information you can get. He’ll find your ball and give you your lines. It makes for a much more enjoyable day.”
While it embraces public play, the Old Course carries a handicap maximum—24 for men and 36 for women—and make sure you have official handicap cards when you book and photo ID when you arrive.
You can reserve times in advance, although you should probably start looking at 2016 at this point. And note that if you wish to play the Old Course, you can only pre-book for Monday through Friday, and when reserving a time between April and October, you must book and play at least one other St Andrews Links Course.
If you prefer to bank on Lady Luck, consider that nearly half of all Old Course tee times are allocated through the club’s traditional ballot, where two to four players enter a draw before 2 p.m., two days before they intend to play. The results of the draw are posted online by 4 p.m.
Should you be so fortunate as to secure a round on the venerable ground, take your requisite photos and enjoy the day, but don’t dillydally. You’re expected to play in a shade over four hours, cautions Ball, and if you get out of position, you might be required to skip a hole.
The home of golf, however, is also home to a bounty of other golfing pleasures. St Andrews Links alone counts five championship 18s—among them the New Course (1895), the Jubilee (1897, remodelled in 1988), the Eden (1914) and the Castle Course (2008)—as well as the shorter Strathtyrum Course and the 1,520-yard, par-30 Balcove nine.
“There are plenty of great places to play around St Andrews, but one of my favourites that often gets overlooked by visitors is the Balcomie Links at Crail,” says Graeme Dawson, Leisure Sales & Marketing Manager at Fairmont St Andrews. “The course offers a combination of stunning coastal views and hugely enjoyable golf.”
Want a sense of the club’s history? The Crail Golfing Society was formed in 1786, the year Davy Crockett was born. Seventh-oldest golf club in the world, Crail added a second 18 in 1998, the Gil Hanse-designed Craighead Links. The more noted Balcomie Links was laid out by the master himself, Old Tom Morris, just over a century earlier.
If money is no object, then a must-play is Kingbarns just 11 kms away, ranked No. 17 among the world’s best courses outside the U.S. by Golf Digest. At £226 ($430) in high season, it’s a steep price to pay, but the jaw-dropping 15-year-old Kyle Phillips seaside design looks like it’s been there for a century. “Everyone I know who’s played there just raves about it,” says Ball. “The only saving grace to the green fee is that if there are available tee times, you can play it again that week for half-price.”
Even higher ranked—albeit more punishing on your scorecard, if not the pocketbook at £77—is Carnoustie, roughly 45 minutes away. “But two real sleepers are the Fairmont St Andrews’ Torrance and Kittocks courses,” says Ball. “Pure Scottish golf, with a view of the town beyond.”
When it comes to hidden gems, Ball and Dawson sing the praises of nearby Leven, Lundin Links and the quirky nine-hole Anstruther, the latter of which was founded 125 years ago and is home to the Rockies, the 245-yard, card-wrecking par-3 fifth hole, which has been voted the toughest par-3 in Great Britain. Located nine miles south of St Andrews and stretching along the shoreline between Anstruther and Pittenweem, it offers breathtaking views over Anstruther Harbour and out to the Isle of May. (Incidentally, there’s a photo of Ball with the Anstruther starter hanging on the wall at Glencairn GC in Halton Hills, ON).
Another local gem, the well-treed Scotscraig, an Open final qualifying course that has been voted among Britain’s best courses for under £100, offers a bulk discount. While you can play there in June for £65 per person, you can book an entire foursome for £180 (saving the group about $150 Cdn.)
Whichever layout whets your appetite, Ball asks that you experience your round as the locals do. “One of my pet peeves is when I see visitors keep score,” he laments. “It’s a North American thing. Personally, if I don’t have a match going, I probably won’t even go out and play. There’d be many more rounds being played on this side of the pond if we played match-play all the time.”
It’s certainly a less frustrating way to keep score, notes Ball, particularly since big numbers are unavoidable, given the rivetted bunkers, thick heather, gorse and omnipresent wind that typically accompany Scottish golf.
And then there’s always the rain to contend with. But you’re better off to embrace Mother Nature than to spite her, advise the locals.
Or you could simply wait it out.
“Remember,” observes Ball, “that in the summertime, you can play til 10 p.m. in Scotland.”
St Andrews Golf Club: standrews.com
2015 Open Championship: standrews2015open.com
Fairmont St Andrews: fairmont.com/st-andrews-scotland/
St Andrews Tourism: visitstandrews.com