Is Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews Worth It?

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Photographs by Nicholas Hegel McClelland

In the luscious morning light, the view from the back of the 11th green on the Old Course at St. Andrews is one of the best in golf. The contrast between the bleak, wind-swept waters of the Eden Estuary, framed by the tender fields of farmland is magically serene. This is my first round on golf’s native links, and it should be a blissful moment, but instead I’m arriving at the painful conclusion that I’ve just experienced my greatest on-course meltdown, and also, I’m fairly certain I knew it was going to happen.

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Now, I’m not the first golfer to lose his shit at the 11th, though I’d love to be the last. Bobby Jones, who was a slightly better golfer than I, made several unsuccessful attempts to extricate himself from a bunker during the 1921 Open and, instead of taking another whack at it, picked up his ball and walked off course entirely. By that standard, I think I handled myself pretty well. I kept playing, at least.

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The Old Course isn’t one in need of a review, per se, but as a person who manages to get rounds in everywhere I go, I’m often asked if certain venerable golf courses are “worth it.” For me, St. Andrews is an obvious, “No Shit.” It’s simply a stunning golf course! The game was born there more than 500 years ago, and though it’s a cliché, it’s a pilgrimage every loyal golf fan should make once in his or her life. Also, it’s in Scotland, the home of Scotch, so it is easy to find some pretty damn good whisky to add an additional incentive.

Getting a tee time for the Old Course is, to be honest, obnoxious. It’s an old, exclusive, private club, but unlike the ones stateside, it allows the public to play. Still it is the charge of the Royal and Ancient, so, the ways to get on are a bit anachronistic. Number one with a bullet: Befriend a member of the Royal and Ancient — it’s good to know the right people. Sadly, I only know the wrong sort. Now, if you’re a person who can plan a year or so in advance, you can call and apply for a reservation. This is a level of foresight my life simply doesn’t allow. Another route to the Royal and Ancient’s first tee is through the numerous tour operators that can offer numerous guaranteed tee times, either at a healthy mark up or (more likely) as part of a larger package. This is a level of extravagance my wallet and my creditors won’t allow.

There are two riskier ways players can get on the links. The Old Course Ballot, drawn two days ahead of time, requires at least two players (got to love the buddy system), and the single golfers line, which, as a solo traveler, was my best bet for a first lap around the Old Course.

The single golfers line is both a miserable way to spend one’s time and a weirdly beautiful experience. I was advised to be there by 3 a.m. for the best shot at a tee time (the first several normally find spots), which meant a 2 a.m. wake-up call to make the drive from Edinburgh. (Blargh! But the bright side: no traffic.) On reaching the Old Course Pavilion in the wee, wee hours, I discovered that council had been a bit wanting. Competition for a slot had escalated. A couple of insomniacs had gotten to the door closer to 1 a.m., and a dozen more who arrived around two.

Dedicated pilgrims. It's 3:30 AM and I'm number 15 in line for the #OldCourse #StAndrews #golflife

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Fifteenth in the cue, I very seriously considered heading back to the parking lot to sleep a few hours in the car before sorting out a tee time on one of the other courses at St. Andrews.

But Obviously, I said fuck it and decided instead to press my luck and brave the chilly pre-dawn Scottish summer air and join my fellow pilgrims. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that for many of us zealots, golf is less a game than a religion, and truly devout golfers normally make fast friends of one another. Our individual experiences within the game are so relatable they often feel like a shared memory, leading to easily formed, casual friendships. So it was in the line outside the Old Course Pavilion. The purpose of playing St. Andrews that day was a through-line.

When the doors finally opened, and I’d given my name, indicating my tee time preference (I’ll take anything you got), my handicap index (a mediocre 13), and that I wanted the help of a caddy, I then turned to the grill and ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. After three hours in line soaking up the chilly Scottish seaside air, I was hungry, and everyone in the pavilion could hear it. In fact, I suspect my hunger pains were even audible to players on the first tee across the water at Carnoustie.

The bacon, egg, and cheese at the Old Course is beyond amazing. If the grill man doesn’t have a Knighthood at this point, Her Royal Majesty might want to get on that (not that it’s my place to tell the Queen what to do, I’d just like her to consider it) The eggs were cooked to perfection, and the thick Scottish bacon was fried to a crisp only on one side, leaving the alternate chewy and substantial. Quite frankly I would go back to St. Andrews just for this sandwich.

After about three bites and a couple of swigs of black coffee, the keeper of the list informed me he had a spot teeing off in six minutes as there was a total no show for the third four-ball of the day. “Sure, I just have to get my clubs from the car.”

“Better run,” he said.

So, I did. Even managed not to spill my coffee as I ran all the way, back down the length of the first fairway to the parking lot. Fortunately, a particularly rad caddy helped me back to the starter with time to spare, thanks to a lift in a cart. (In retrospect, I should have tipped this man, but at that moment I lacked the presence of mind. Sorry, mate. I’ll get’cha next time.)

Extraordinarily lucky to this point, back at the starter’s box, my good fortune ran out. I set my beautiful sandwich and coffee down to pay for my green fee. But before I could turn back around a filthy seagull had gobbled up my bacon, egg, and cheese. My heart broke (as my body 10 years from now celebrated the cholesterol it didn’t have to absorb), I don’t think that shitty seagull even understood how much he had just hurt me. I pine for those unfinished bites still. Mercifully for me he hadn’t spilled my coffee and thankfully for him I didn’t have a sand wedge in my hand. (Not that I would have hurt the fuckwit bird, but I’d have put a tingle of fear up his feathered ass.)

The tee shot at the first on the Old Course is a weighty one. It has a similar feel to the first at Bethpage’s Black Course. Like Bethpage, you’ve likely been standing around waiting for a bit, and while there is not a sign declaring the course’s difficulty, the R&A clubhouse is only a few feet away and you can feel centuries worth of history and 29 Open Championships radiate out the single pane windows onto the tee box. Thankfully the fairway is almost absurdly wide and hard to miss — and I didn’t. After hitting my second to 25 feet, I two-putted for a ho-hum par.

Made it home! #StAndrews #OldCourse

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Of course the 11th is another story. Before coming to St. Andrews, I had probably played the Old Course on a simulator or Tiger Woods’ video game scores of times. And nearly every time, the 11th has taken a bite out of my ’round.’ In real life, the story is no different.

I had a decent front nine with a slew of pars early on and only a few mistakes, including a silly four putt double bogey on seven, which shares a double green with 11.

For the uninitiated, the 11th, known as High (In), is about the farthest point one can get from the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. The hole is a short-ish par-3 guarded by a few bunkers. On the day I muffed it, it was playing about 175 yards, though there was a one and a half to two club wind coming into the shot and pushing to the right, and that, right there, is the biggest hazard in golf. Not the wind — the wind can help defend a golf course, but it’s not a hazard. The most vicious hazard in golf is doubt. Is that wind in your face a one and a half club wind or is it a two? You can’t really know, but you have to decide and commit.

I chose a four iron, but never settled on it. Instead I made a wishy-washy swing and fanned it well to the right, back toward the pin at seven (had I hit my approach to seven to this spot, I’d have had good shot at a birdie.)

Then there was more doubt. My caddy suggested I play it along the ground back up the slope to the hole with an 8 iron. Not a shot I use often at home, but I tried to take his advice. Instead, I duffed it disastrously fat and had to try it again. The result was less than great. The ball only made it less than half way up the hill.

Now I’ve floored myself well past doubt into full-blown frustration. “Please return your tray tables to their upright positions and buckle your safety belts. Shit is gonna get bumpy.”

Generally, I’m not a person who anguishes on the golf course over poor shots. If I make a mistake, I issue myself a sometimes-profanity-laced admonishment and I walk off determined to make a better go of it when I catch up to my ball. But on little sleep and a merger breakfast, today is different.

The first putt, I bash at least a dozen feet past the hole. I’m pretty sure I must have visually wilted as a couple of my playing partners, already in their pockets, are trying to help me out with encouragement. Not that their words were going to help, but I appreciated it… later.

As I set myself over the ball for the second putt, which I now know I’m also going to miss, it feels like I’ve been on this hole for an eternity, my own private preview of purgatory. This one rolls six feet by.

My gaze fixed out over the Eden moments after draining a purely rolled six-foot putt and marking a triple-bogey six, I’m trying to use this stunning view to calm the inner chaos that has built up in my brain over the last 10 minutes. Of course, I’ve made triples and worse before and they weren’t fun, but this one really hurt. Partially because I could feel my videogame demons haunting my IRL tee shot, and also because I hoped so hard to play well here. Sunken in grief, every fiber of my being desperately wants to hurl the putter in my hand 40 yards out into Eden. Surely Bobby Jones would have my back on that one. But I refrain.

Too windy to play in my usual headgear, but my caddie thought it suited him just fine. #StAndrews #OldCourse #Scotland

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I managed a bounce-back par on 12 and then what felt like an interminable number of doubles on the way in. As my game fell apart, my caddie tried to keep my spirits together. But somewhere in his raspy, two-pack-a-day voice, as he said, “Remember, you’re just here to have fun,” I could sense he was actually more disappointed than I was and needed to convince himself the shitty score card I turned in didn’t matter to him. There’s tremendous virtue in taking pride in your job. I know I do, but sometimes it’s best to write off the workplace bummers as just a day at the office and punctuate it with a big old glass of whisky or two.

But I’m not a professional golfer. It’s just something I love. For me the game is largely about taking the highs and lows in as much stride as I can muster, all while searching for better. Riding that emotional wave is part and parcel of the joy I get from playing. It’s what keeps me making tee times at places like this. I know I’m only one good swing from redemption.

Hit my best drive of the day on the Road Hole. Something to be said for finishing strong. #golflife

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At the dreaded Road Hole, I manage to summon my shot of the day and smash a perfect drive over the hotel sheds and on to the fairway for a modicum of redemption. I even manage to avoid the disastrous little pit next to the green, though not all in my group were so lucky.

On the 18th tee I have a relapse and lamely hook my drive way off line. Our group of sojourners poses for pictures on the Swilken Bridge, giving me a moment to enjoy both the moment and morning better spent than most. With a rally, the round ends with an adventurous par from the far left reaches of the first fairway.

After handshakes and farewells, all I want to do is get back in that line and have another crack at the 11th. Sadly, that won’t happen today, but perhaps it’s for the best. It’s axiomatic that revenge is a dish best served cold. And it’s always cold in Scotland.

Welcome to Hell… Bunker @thehomeofgolf St Andrews #golflife #livingthegreen #golf #lategram

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