Two experts share stories and suggestions for first-timers at the home of golf
By Ted McIntyre
The Open Championship returns to St Andrews July 13-19, marking the 144th edition of the grandest of golf events. While a global field will be looking to pry the Claret Jug from the clutches of defending champ Rory McIlroy, rest assured the Old Course will once again steal the thunder.
It’s been that way for the best part of 600 years, when locals first began teeing it up on this venerable ground. But whether you’ve come to worship at the shrine of golf, where the game as we know it evolved, or to simply soak up the history, atmosphere and a few pints and drams in the Kingdom of Fife, it never hurts to have a tour guide. And I have two of the best at my disposal: Graeme Dawson, Leisure Sales & Marketing Manager at Fairmont St Andrews, and award-wining Canadian photographer Doug Ball, the latter of whom has missed a grand total of three Open Championships since 1983.
While there’s golf galore to be had in these parts—indeed, there are 117 holes on the property of St Andrews Links alone—there’s a lot to take in without ever teeing it up. The British Golf Museum is a mandatory stop, and there’s even an aquarium. “But the first place you’ve got to go is at the far end of town—the ruins of the St Andrews Cathedral and cemetery,” says Ball. Construction of the Cathedral began is 1160, although it wasn’t dedicated until 1318—in the presence of Robert the Bruce, no less—by which time it was the largest church in Scotland. A museum on site houses a collection of relics dating to the 8th century, but it’s the cemetery that represents the holiest of ground for golf fans, housing the remains of two of the game’s immortals: Old Tom Morris, beneath a simple, humble gravestone, and his son Young Tom in the adjoining grave, memorialized by a life-sized bust. “I almost start to cry whenever I visit here,” Ball says in true reverence.
Dawson lightens the mood with a more ironic twist of local lore. “On a clear day whilst playing Fairmont Golf Club’s Torrance and Kittocks courses—and perhaps the nearby St Andrews Castle Course—golfers can often catch a glimpse of Bell Rock, also called Inchcape Rock,” Dawson says. “It’s a sandstone reef in the North Sea—2,000 feet long and exposed a few feet at low tide, but submerged at high tide. A peril to navigation, the rock lies in the fairway of vessels entering or leaving the Firths of Tay and Forth, as well as ports farther north. During a storm in 1779, 70 ships were wrecked on the reef. A lighthouse tower, designed by author Robert Louis Stevenson, was built there in 1807-11. It stands over 115 feet high and, according to tradition, an abbot of Arbroath had ordered a warning bell—hence the name of the rock—to be fastened to the reef so as to respond to movements of the waves. This was destroyed by the pirate Ralph the Rover, whose ship was later wrecked at the same spot!”
That strip of beach, over which you peer, Ball reminds, was the scene of the famous Chariots of Fire opening sequence. “It was also the place where I snapped John Daly walking alone on the Monday after he won the 1995 Open Championship.”
And if you think Daly has bunker tale to tell, how about the one 12 kms southeast of St Andrews? Buried 100 feet beneath an innocent farmhouse lies Scotland’s Secret Bunker. Last year marked the 40th anniversary since the little-known facility was opened to the public, who now venture down a 450 foot tunnel and through the blast doors to discover a lair the size of two soccer pitches built to safeguard Scotland during the Cold War in the event of a nuclear attack.
If you need a stiff drink to contemplate that joyless prospect, you’ll be happy to know that neither you nor Rory can toss a three-iron in this town without hitting a worthy watering hole. “Like golf courses, this place has an abundance of quality pubs,” confirms Dawson. “For something a bit more modern, the West Port Bar & Kitchen is hard to beat, and Forgan’s, which opened in 2014, offers a great atmosphere, with Ceilidh dancing each weekend night. Many of the pubs in town offer live music in the evenings, but the most popular gathering with locals—and one of my favourites—is The Criterion on Thursday nights, when a local band known as Black Sheep play. It never disappoints.”
For Ball, nothing holds a candle to the Jigger Inn, especially during the Open. “The practice rounds are the most fun to watch in person, but once the tournament starts, the back patio of the Jigger Inn is one of the best experiences you can have in golf,” says Ball of the cozy, laidback establishment attached to the Old Course Hotel that dates to the 1850s. “You make your way out back—some of the doors are low enough that you have to duck—and then you find a chair against the wall, and you’re right on the 17th fairway, just past the landing area of the tee shots on the best golf hole in the world: the Road Hole at St Andrews. It’s just perfect. It’s awesome.
“But seriously, during the Open you can go to any pub in Britain and the BBC—Sky TV starting next year—will have golf on for 10 straight hours a day with no ads,” says Ball. “I love listening to those broadcasters—such an economy of words and turns of phrase. But the real treat is meeting the locals—people who really love the game. This summer I’ve got 16 people coming over for the Open and to play golf. I’ve specifically asked that the group tee times are spread out. That way they meet people—the group in front, in behind. It’s not just a golf trip; it’s travel, it’s an experience.”
When it comes to fuelling that group, Dawson can’t help but be a tad biased. “I know I’m a bit partial, but my favourite place to dine after golf is the clubhouse at Fairmont St Andrews,” he says. “The views of the North Sea and the St Andrews skyline are spectacular and there is no better place in town to take in the sunset. The locally caught seafood on the menu is my favourite; the fresh lobster is often pulled from the North Sea right in front of the clubhouse.”
“The best place to eat is the Anstruther Fish Bar, right on the harbour, about 10 minutes outside of town,” counters Ball. “They’ve won ‘Best Fish & Chips’ in all Great Britain. At The Ship Tavern, two doors down, Davey behind the bar will look after you.”
As for accommodations, apart from roughly 20 hotels in St Andrews, “there are B&B’s all over the place,” says Ball. “There are some great ones on the main road in Anstruther, a few hidden away in Pittenweem, and a few self-catering places in Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail. They’re probably a little less expensive than St Andrews, although the prices they charge during the Open are stupid. One four-bedroom place about 75 yards from The Ship is charging £5,000 for the week—that’s $9,500!
And as for packing, Ball recommends a few essentials. “Always bring a sport jacket and a shirt and tie, since if you meet people and get invited back to their club for dinner, it might be de rigueur.
“And bring an umbrella.”
—For Part II of The Insiders Guide to St Andrews, watch for the May edition of The Traveling Golfer.
St Andrews Golf Club: standrews.com
2015 Open Championship: standrews2015open.com
Fairmont St Andrews: fairmont.com/st-andrews-scotland/
St Andrews Tourism: visitstandrews.com