As MyGolfSpy Experiences shared with you last week, the best bucket-list golf trip is always the next one.
And as you settle in wherever you are to watch the Open Championship, we’d like to share with you our most recent trip to St Andrews this past May. And if there’s one thing you can say about St Andrews, it’s this:
The “Auld Gray Toon” never disappoints.
There’s something about St Andrews that invites you in, offers you a comfy chair and says that, if you’re a golfer, you belong here. The game’s home is your home.
So, picking up where we left off last week in East Lothian, let’s jump on the bus and head two hours north for a Cook’s tour of the most famous city in golf.
MyGolfSpy Experiences: Three Days in May
Let’s start off with the obvious: three-plus days in St Andrews aren’t nearly enough. That said, we crammed as much into those three days as humanly possible.
Unfortunately, our trek up the coast from East Lothian started off on the triple wrong foot. First, we learned the Old Course would be closed for two of our three days there: one day for Open preparation, another for a New Club tournament. That meant our only chance would be Friday.
Next, we struck out on the Old Course ballot for Friday.
And lastly, we learned a side trip to the new and highly touted Dumbarnie would be canceled. The course lost its greens and decided to shut down for two months.
Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes they don’t.
Seeing St Andrews For the First Time
This was my third visit to St Andrews but six of our group were first-timers. After a late dinner at Ziggy’s (if you love large portions and rock ‘n’ roll, put it on your list), we strolled down North Street, banged a right onto Golf Place and laid eyes on golf’s most hallowed ground.
It’s probably trite to call it magical, so I won’t. But if you have a golfer’s soul, walking the first and 18th fairways in the dark will stir something just north of your solar plexus. You can’t see but you can definitely feel the flatness of the first fairway end and the gentle contours of the 18th begin. When our first-timers crossed the Swilcan Bridge, the smiles were wider than a five-year-old’s on Christmas morning.
Pro Tip No. 1: If you approach the 17th green in the dark, please watch out for the Road Hole bunker. It sneaks up on you and it’s a long way to the bottom.
If you score cities for walkability on a scale of one to 10, St Andrews would get a 15, maybe a 16. Our hotel was a mile from the courses but the pleasant walk downtown passed through neighborhoods of single-family homes and apartments. The West Port Gate on South Street dates to 1587 and leads you into the heart of St Andrews. For sights to see, you’ll find Blackfriars Chapel, the remnants of a medieval monastery. And for thirsty golfers, you’ll find Brewdog St Andrews as well as the St Andrews Brewing Company, both worthy of a bend of the elbow or two.
The Castle Course
The St Andrews complex features six courses right downtown (Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Balgove and Strathtyrum). The David McClay-Kidd designed Castle Course is on the town’s outskirts. Castle opened in 2008 and the closest comp I can think of is Whistling Straits. It features dramatic elevation changes and some incredible vistas of the Firth of Forth and the town.
Wind is always a part of links golf but on this day it was punishing. On one hand, the wind (and elevation) helped one of our 60-year-old golfers drive the green on the 381-yard ninth hole. On the other hand, the wind held a well-struck 3-hybrid short on a 150-yard approach on the 555-yard par-5 15th.
Castle does have its detractors. By any reasonable standard, the greens can be described as anything from challenging to ridiculous. But no one can say it’s boring. The finishing holes, particularly 17, will definitely test your stamina. The 17th is a 174-yard par-3 over a gorge to what looks like a wide but shallow green. In reality, it’s deeper than it appears but try telling yourself that on the tee box.
The best play, according to our caddie, is to take aim at the trap on the left of the green and let the ball roll onto the green. Or you could, as I did, push it right to about a foot from a cliff that drops into the Firth of Forth. From there, it’s a simple 40-foot chip through nooks and crannies to about six inches. Easy pick-it-up par. Yeah, right.
Pro Tip No. 2: If it’s windy, adjust your scoring expectations. Unless you’re low single-digit or scratch, plan on big numbers and enjoy the setting. It really is exquisite.
How Much Golf Is Too Much Golf?
On one hand, you could say there’s no such thing as too much golf. But cramming as much golf as possible into a seven-day visit has its downside. First, there’s a beautiful and enchanting country to see. Second, once your game starts going south, there’s little opportunity to fix it. Our windy day at the Castle turned my game to, as the locals might say, shite.
Normally you can dig it out of the dirt at the range. However, the main practice area adjacent to the Old Course was now filled with grandstands for The Open. So my game just slipped away.
The appetite, however, didn’t.
The newest attraction in St Andrews is 18, a slick, fashionable restaurant on the top floor of the Rusacks Hotel. You simply could not ask for a better view of the first and 18th fairways and the meal was outstanding. And I did enjoy maybe the best non-alcoholic beer I’ve ever tasted, the outstanding Brewdog Punk AF.
Pro Tip No. 3: The food and the view make 18 a must-visit. But make your reservations in advance as it is in demand. There’s a worthy and more casual option six floors down, as you will see.
Service at 18 is relaxed and they were in no rush to turn over the table. We finally finished around 11:30 p.m. As we were leaving, we noticed there was no one waiting at the Old Course Starter’s shack. Since Friday was the only opportunity we would have for the Old Course, two of our group decided to claim their place at the front of the line. Three others went back around 1 a.m. As a group, they were the first five in line to claim open tee times.
A Hard Day’s Night
Sure, getting a guaranteed Old Course tee time is the easy way to go. But camping out all night is a badge of honor. If you’re by yourself, your biggest worry might just be bladder control. And you’ll meet all kinds of characters. On this trip, we met a group of rowdy Norwegians in sleeping bags and a father and son from New Jersey taking a trip neither of them will ever forget.
But the nagging concern, no matter where you are in line, is whether it’s worthwhile. Snagging one of the open tee times is a dream come true. I was 15th in line but there were only seven available slots that day. It felt like John Candy at Wally World telling me, “Sorry, kid, park’s closed.”
Having played the Old Course twice before, the disappointment was survivable. The payoff, however, was watching some of my closest friends tee off in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. Remember the smiles when they first stood on the Swilcan Bridge? Multiply that by about a billion and you get the idea.
Pro Tip No. 4: Guaranteed Old Course tee times are the way to go but the overnight campout is an experience you’ll talk about for years. Dress warmly.
As a spectator, I did get to see another one of the shots of the trip. Todd, notoriously horrible in the sand, shanked a putt—a putt!—into the Road Hole bunker on 17. After a couple of “nice putt” jabs from his pals, he splashed a stunningly gorgeous shot to about 15 feet. That memory will stay with him for the rest of his life.
The New and Jubilee
In its normal non-Open setup, the Old Course is tough but playable. Every hole, save for the ninth and 10th, has all the room in the world on the left. The right, not so much. That’s where the trouble is, usually in the form of gorse. Or a hotel.
The common wisdom, however, is both the New and Jubilee present sterner tests for the everyday golfer. And after several rounds at both, I would agree. The New Course is new in name only. It was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1895 and was, at the time, St Andrews’ new course. The front nine runs side-by-side with the Old Course’s front nine, and where the Old Course turns left, the New takes a right. The New challenges you with long par-3s (two playing more than 220 yards) as well as Old Tom’s signature long par-4s. If the wind is against you, forget it.
Built in 1897, Jubilee was named to honor Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee as monarch. Of the St Andrews’ courses in town, it’s definitely the toughest. Jubilee sits on a narrow strip of land between the New Course and the sea and was originally designed for women and beginners. In 1988, however, architect Donald Steel gave Jubilee some teeth and an attitude, remaking it into an endurance test.
Of all the downtown St Andrews’ courses, Jubilee sits closest to the sea and seemingly gets more wind than either the Old or New. Combine that with narrow fairways and small greens and Jubilee turns stern and unforgiving quickly.
Pro Tip No. 5: Don’t think of New and Jubilee as consolation prizes. If there was no Old Course, both would be worthy destinations. And tee times are easy to get.
Walking the Town
As mentioned, the town of St Andrews is eminently walkable. That’s a good thing because there’s plenty to see. Market Street is a cobble-stoned stroll through history. Along with the requisite souvenir shops and eateries, you’ll find gems like the Keys Bar, where the Royal and Ancient would hold its spring and autumn balls until the new clubhouse was built.
Further down Market Street, if you take a right on Church Street, you’ll find the slice of confectionary heaven called Fisher and Donaldson. It’s loaded with baked goodies freshly made with local ingredients. The Fudge Donut—a custard-filled, fudge chocolate-covered hunk of decadence—will truly change your life.
We did walk to the ruins of the St Andrews Cathedral, hoping to bend a knee at the gravesites of both Old and Young Tom Morris. But sadly, the area was closed for renovations in advance of The Open.
The more you stroll through town, the more you’ll find oddly named streets. Well, oddly named to American eyes, anyway.
And you’ll also realize there’s also a world-class university in St Andrews (whose students get playing privileges, the rats). Apparently, the students have some sort of strange, post-exam ritual on the beach the locals frown upon. I don’t know exactly what this sign means and I didn’t have the nerve to ask.
As a group, we had our fill of fine dining. On Friday evening we stumbled into the One Under Bar in the basement of the Rusacks. There we found the best fish ‘n’ chips of the trip and your faithful vegetarian scored maybe the greatest grilled cheese sandwich served on this planet.
On our final night, we enjoyed the finest meal of the trip at an out-of-way gem called Little Italy. Hidden away on Loges Lane (walk down South Street and hang a left at the statue of Hamish McHamish. Seriously.), it’s a raucous, old-time Italian eatery that would be right at home in Boston’s North End or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Or Naples, for that matter.
It’s loud, kitschy and a thoroughly good time. We ate like Roman conquerors that night with wonderful garlic bread, fresh and elegantly prepared mussels, custom-made pizza and a ravioli dish I can only describe as equal to my grandmother’s. Forgive me, Nona.
Pro Tip No. 6: Scottish restaurants are never in a hurry to turn over tables so make sure you’re OK with relaxed service. It gives you plenty of time to talk golf.
A Final Night at The Old Course Hotel
If you’re watching the Open, you may be wondering what the inside of the Old Course Hotel and Spa is like. Let me tell you, it’s cool.
The Old Course Hotel is a Kohler property (the same people who own Whistling Straits) and is up there with any five-star luxury resort you can imagine. The difference, of course, is where it sits. If you want to dine with a view, there’s the Swilcan Loft, with floor-to-ceiling glass and a breathtaking view of the Road Hole.
Also on the fourth floor is the Road Hole Restaurant and Bar. It’s a more formal dining experience but the views are just as incredible.
My room was on the far right end of the hotel with a dandy view of the 16th green and the 17th tee and fairway as well as the New Course clubhouse and, in the distance, the Firth of Forth and the North Sea.
On Sundays, the Old Course famously turns into a public park for townspeople (the New and Jubilee are still open for golf). It was a joy to see folks walking their dogs up and down the fairways and the dogs loving the stroll as much, if not more, than any golfer could. The highlight was seeing this good boy read the break on 16 perfectly and getting the tennis ball back to his human. The short-hop scoop was an added bonus.
Rooms aren’t cheap, starting at more than $600 per night in season ($370 off-season) but it is the best view you can get of the Old Course without actually being on it.
MyGolfSpy Experiences: Final Thoughts
We’re hopeful this two-part travelogue has made you smile a little and maybe given you some ideas for your own bucket-list trip. For our group, accommodations, ground transportation and golf ran $3,000 per person based on double occupancy. There are less expensive options, especially if you do all the planning yourself and you can always spend more if you want to go full upscale. We chose to go with Halcyon Golf Travel for our arrangements because Jack did us right on our previous trip. And, despite the pent-up travel demand, he was able to pull a few rabbits out of his hat.
Last week, we referenced the 1966 surfing documentary The Endless Summer and the hunt for the perfect wave. It’s an apt analogy for any bucket-list golf trip. Leave your expectations and demands at home and enjoy the journey because perfection will pop up when and where you least expect it. Sure, the Old Course is the ultimate prize but gems, hidden or otherwise, are there to be found, each with its own unique history and charm. The Kilspindies and Dunbars of the world won’t find you. It’s up to you to find them.
And when it comes to the search for the perfect wave, we found ours in Dunbar. But that doesn’t mean there’s not another one out there.
And that makes the search truly endless.
If you’re interested in exploring the history of St Andrews (and if you enjoy history, you should), we recommend checking out the Society of Golf Historians’ two-part podcast: “A Golf Historian’s Guide to St Andrews.”
We hope you enjoyed this edition of MyGolfSpy Experiences. Where would you like us to visit next? Share your ideas in the Comments section and we’ll see if we can make it happen.
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