Tee time in Scotland
St Andrews is a must for golfers, but it’s also an atmospheric town worth visiting
Madeleine Lyons on the 18th green of the Old Course at St Andrews. The Royal and Ancient headquarters is in the background
‘I’m very pleased to meet you, but can’t say the same for this interloper,” says our upright host. The interloper thrusts his hand forward to introduce himself, but our host is having none of it. “This man has just bullied his way in here, normally we’re closed at this time. You, of course, are more than welcome, but he’s insisting on playing.” I say he’s more than welcome to join us on our specially arranged introduction to hickory golf – the way it was played at the very foundation of the game. In fact, why not round up my worst enemies to experience this, surely the most futile of endeavours, early on a bitterly cold Scottish morning. Tomorrow we play at the Mecca of the game, St Andrews. Today we face this.
Our guide delivers a 10-minute whistle-stop run-through of the history of the game and Kingarrock’s association with it – brilliantly delivered, we can hardly keep up. Then we pick up our pencil bags, throw in a selection of ancient wooden clubs, down a neat Glenmorangie and out the door with us. It transpires our unannounced friend, Lawrie, is a “bagger” of golf courses, on a personal quest to play every one of Scotland’s 570 courses named in the official Visit Scotland guide. This will be his 472nd course, and in the afternoon he will play the Jubilee course at St Andrews – and, like us, he’s a tad more excited about that. But the nine-hole round with Lawrie (captain of Newtown Moore golf course up north) is a weekend highlight. A true character clad in plus-fours and argyle socks, his best story – and there are many – is about a course he played that was running a hole-in-one competition (with a £10,000 prize) which he declined to pay the £1 entrance fee to join. He duly gets a hole in one, and is roundly abused by the organisers for not paying the entrance fee. The Sun runs the story under the headline “Hole in None”.
The hickory experience is excellent. Using clubs with names like mashie, niblick and jigger, they’re a far cry from the streamlined ergonomic feats we use today. The wooden shafts demand a slow even swing, and respond poorly to today’s coiled up power swings. It’s a humbling learning exercise, and highly enjoyable.
In the afternoon we enter the environs of St Andrews, and play the Dukes course, a heathland course owned by The Old Course Hotel. The hotel is situated practically on the famous Old Course in the town, where the game has been played since the 15th century, but because it and six other links courses located around St Andrews are owned by the local authorities, Dukes allows guests of the five-star hotel book and play at the times they want. The others are operated by St Andrews Links Trust, a charitable organisation, which means the centralised tee time booking is exceptionally fair and reasonable value too.
The highly rated Dukes course is big, expansive and challenging, offering great views down to the town of St Andrews and the bay below. It’s very different to the nearby links offerings but shouldn’t be overlooked for this; it’s a carefully thought out course with strategic bunkering and a tough test on every hole. The facilities are five-star quality too.It’s evening when we enter the Auld Grey Toon of St Andrews, so named because it is well … old and grey. Sitting under what seems like a permanent threat of rain, it’s a historic town dating back to the 12th century. Along with golf, it is best known for its 600-year-old university, making the town a mix of 40 per cent students (particularly of the well-heeled variety; it’s where Kate and Wills met) and a flow of starry-eyed golf nuts.
There’s a ski resort feel to the place as every morning small clumps of tourists – mainly men – are deposited to the starter boxes at the various courses. Most people play the historic Old Course at St Andrews by entering their names in a ballot system 48 hours in advance and pure luck dictates whether they get a tee time (see panel).
The course (redesigned in part by old Tom Morris, and beloved of Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus) has dictated how the modern game is played, that is, over 18 holes, and it has hosted The Open more than 28 times since 1873. It’s a classic links with the front and back nines leading out and back from the sea, though it has the unusual feature of seven double greens which serve two holes apiece.Unsuccessful in the ballot for the Old Course, and scheduled to play the Eden course, on the day we switch to the New Course (over 100 years old, it is in its own right an exceptional course).
A word to the wise – listen to local knowledge when it’s offered. The hotel stewards and the course starter warned in advance that the weather was scheduled to turn nasty around midday. The Eden, they said, might be a better option being closer to the clubhouse should we need to abandon due to “torrential” and “horrendous” weather. Pah! We thought, no chance, how bad could it be? At 11.50am the wind rose as we neared the furthest point from the clubhouse. Within 25 minutes we had never had a worse drenching, anywhere, ever. And so we joined a surreal zombie march back to the clubhouses as golfers from all over the world were forced to abandon. “At least we can say we played St Andrews” was the optimistic refrain of the day.
This left more time to explore the town which has lots of quaint specialist shops, a good supply of high street retailers, and more logoed cashmere than you can imagine. On South Street we popped into the Criterion Bar, a lovely warm spot that has been serving up a decent selection of beers and hearty food for 150 years.
Later, we head to Forgan’s on Market Street, most fittingly it’s a former golf club factory that produced “cleeks” in the 1860s. Forgan’s manages to mix a rustic farmers’ market feel with a cool cocktail bar. Our meal was excellent, not least for fantastic service and a duck shepherd’s pie. As we finished our meal, tables and chairs were scraped back to clear the area for the night’s entertainment, a ceilidh. Suddenly this modern Scottish restaurant morphed into a whirling fusion of students and golfers, flying Scotsmen and reeling ladies.
The Old Course hotel must rank among the world’s best for breakfasts its bountiful spread and views over the 17th and 18th holes. On Sundays, the public are welcome to walk the course and it’s a lovely experience. Naff pictures at the iconic 600-year-old Swilcan bridge on the 18th are obligatory. Behind the 18th is the magnificent building that’s home to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the governing body for golf everywhere apart from the US and Mexico. Behind that again is the golf museum. Located just an hour and a half from Edinburgh, anyone lucky enough to be taking in the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles this year should try to schedule a trip to the Auld Grey Toon. It’s the home of golf after all.
Madeleine Lyons travelled as a guest of VisitScotland (visitscotland.com)
PLAYING THE OLD COURSE AT ST ANDREWS
It’s not as difficult to obtain a tee time on the Old Course as you might think. You just need a handicap and then you can apply in the following ways:
1. Apply through the advanced reservations process at the start of September for play the following year.
2. The most common way is to enter the ballot which is drawn 48 hours in advance.
3. Single golfers can approach the starter on the day they wish to play and he will try to slot them in with groups going out that day.
4. Guaranteed premium tee times can be purchased from the Old Course Experience. Costs vary from £77 low season (Jan-Mar) to £160 a round in peak season (April-Oct).
Aer Lingus and Ryanair offer regular flights daily to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow. From there car hire for two days starts at about £50.
The ferry from Belfast to Cairnryan (Stena Line) or Larne to Troon (P&O) is another cost-effective option as it facilitates golf clubs. From about €300 for two people in one car.
The Old Course Hotel couldn’t be better located in St Andrews. Five-star luxury with leisure facilities and great views over the Old Course. From about £280 per weekend night based on two sharing. oldcoursehotel.co.uk
One under bar: Gastro pub at the base of the handsome Hamilton Grand building overlooking the 18th fairway of the Old
Forgans: Lively restaurant, great food, excellent service, guaranteed entertainment. forgansstandrews.co.uk
Mitchell: Next door to Forgans. Cool daytime cafe, relaxed casual dining, nice surrounds. mitchellsdeli.co.uk
St Andrews, standrews.org.uk. Kingarrock Hickory Golf Course: £25 for nine holes. kingarrock.com, or see visitscotland.com