At around 4:30pm each day, golfers visiting St Andrews pull out their phones, bow their heads as if in prayer and carefully scroll through the online ballot results for the Old Course.
Most afternoons, if you wander into The Dunvegan – the course’s unofficial clubhouse a chip and a putt up the street from the 18th hole – you’ll probably spot players anxiously waiting to hear their fate; knees bouncing, eyes darting back and forth from the clock, pints quietly nursed. It’s understandable – should you find your name among the lucky few to have been allocated a tee time, a round at the world’s most famous golf course beckons in just 48 hours.
For many, this is how a spiritual pilgrimage to the Home of Golf begins: with a roll of the dice. There are multiple ways for visitors to play the Old Course – you could pay thousands for a golf package that includes a guaranteed tee time, bag one of the precious few advanced bookings more than a year hence, or join the single-golfer queue at 5am on the morning of play in the hope of filling a vacant spot in a four ball – but it’s the centuries-old tradition of the ballot that is integral to the cult of St Andrews, and the route most take on their way to playing.
When the Links Act was first passed by Parliament in 1894, it decreed that the courses of St Andrews should remain open to all members of the public. More than a century later that’s still the case, in spite of the elitism that permeates the sport elsewhere in the world, with roughly half the available Old Course tee times each year allocated to the average joe through the ballot.
The nerve-wracking first tee shot in the shadow of the R&A building, the iconic ‘Road Hole’, and the compulsory photo-opp on the Swilcan Bridge: bagging a spot is your golden ticket to one of the most memorable walks in golf.
To walk these fairways is to walk in the footsteps of champions both past and present
Amateurs and professionals rarely share the same field of play in sport, but the Old Course presents a unique opportunity for anyone to take to the links in the run up and immediate aftermath to a prestigious golf tournament. It’s a point that resonates especially strongly in 2022 as The Open returns to the Old Course between 10-17 July, for the 150th running of golf’s oldest major. As preparation ramps up for the competition, players fortunate enough to bag a tee time will play alongside viewing stands erected ahead of the 290,000 spectators slated to attend The Open later this year. At the best of times, to walk these fairways is to walk in the footsteps of champions both past and present, but to do so while the stands are in place for the biggest golf tournament this side of the Atlantic? For any self-respecting player, that’s a scintillating prospect.
One April afternoon, I was lucky enough to find my name among the 48-hour ballot winners and took to the fairways of the Old Course for my first loop around the icon. Forgive me, but allow me to skip straight to the punchline: it is unquestionably the most enjoyable round of golf I have ever played. (And I’ve played a lot.) I can’t even put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it’s the 600 years of history that resides within this fabled turf, or the immaculate routing through pristine natural linksland, or possibly just the amount of creativity each hole encourages you to possess, but this is one bucket-list destination that more than lives up to its promise.
I could go on about the far-reaching influence of the Old Course’s design – how golden-age architects like Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Harry Colt and A.W. Tillinghast were all in some way inspired by this singular and unique masterpiece – and it’s true, St Andrews was the seed from which the modern golf game blossomed. But that’s a very serious, lofty thought for a place that’s so damn fun to play, so let me put it another way.
Photo by David Cannon / R&A via Getty Images
If the Old Course were a band it would be Queen. To truly experience it at its very best? You’ve got to see it live, man. It’s Freddie Mercury wailing in the chorus and Brian May peeling into a face-melting solo, this is golf’s answer to rock ’n’ roll. Every lump and bump, every sinew of fairway carrying your ball towards or away from trouble on the flip of the coin, the vastness of the putting greens, the gaping depth of the (count them) 112 bunkers – it’s loud, with a taste for the dramatic. It’s the kind of transcendental experience that only really makes sense once you’re out there, club in hand, with the simple task of trying to navigate the ball into the hole.
It starts from the first tee shot. Before you, the fairway stretches 129-yards wide; a driving range’s worth of room, with no rough to snatch your ball. It is perhaps the easiest opening tee shot in all of golf – and yet I would wager there is no course on Earth that stimulates quite the same wet-your-pants level of nerves as that opening drive. If, like me, you find yourself with an early afternoon tee time, you have the added bonus of a gallery of passers-by all taking in the action in front of them. Trouble is, you are the entertainment. Let me tell you, the relief of knocking a drive somewhere straight-ish down the fairway is near euphoric.
As you march through the opening gambit, navigating past the tricky 2nd and 4th holes, strategically advancing up the brilliant par-five 5th, and staying the hell away from the famous Coffin bunkers on the 6th fairway (no need to explain where they got their name from), you soon find yourself at the first gear change on the course.
Located at the far end of the course, “The Loop”, as the 7th through 11th holes are known, takes you on a short detour through four eminently birdieable opportunities before landing you at one of the best spots on the golf course, the 11th. The 174-yard hole is colloquially known as the “shortest par five in golf” owing to its difficulty, and it’s easy to see why: two of the Old Course’s archetypal bunkers guard the putting surface left and right, while the steep slope at the front of the green is eager to punish any shots that come up short. But find the dancefloor and you are rewarded with sweeping views of the River Eden flowing out into the North Sea. It’s a fitting end to one of the more under-appreciated sequences on the property.
Every sinew of fairway carries your ball towards or away from trouble on the flip of the coin
Turning for home, the toughest obstacles lay in front of you, especially if the wind is blowing towards you. Dance around the bunkers peppered across the 12th and 13th fairways, avoid the out of bounds wall on the right of the definitive par-five 14th, and check your yardage before firing at the 15th green (shared with the 3rd), it’s the largest and arguably hardest on the entire course.
You’re in the endgame now and, as the town of St Andrews looms ever larger, the iconic triptych of the 16th, 17th and 18th await. The former is one of the scariest tee shots on the golf course, with out of bounds on your right and the Principal’s Nose cluster of bunkers eager to engulf any shots that have been steered too far left. Such is the tariff of difficulty in finding this fairway, Jack Nicklaus once described the task as ‘strictly for amateurs’ as professionals wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to take it on.
The 17th is perhaps the greatest par four on the planet. ‘The Road Hole’ requires a fading drive around the corner of the Old Course Hotel leaving you with a challenging approach to a slim kidney bean of a green that features the eponymous road just behind its surface and the magnetic pull of a deep pot bunker nestled in the front left portion. Its strategic ingenuity beguiles and haunts in equal measure.
The finale, named after its creator Old Tom Morris, requires almost no introduction. Framed by the Swilcan Bridge, the R&A clubhouse and gleaming red sandstone of the Hamilton Grand beyond, it’s an awe-inspiring sight in the flesh. As a kid who grew up playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour on the Playstation, it’s a ‘pinch me’ moment to step up to the tee box and rip driver down the iconic rippling fairway. The wild contours of the Valley of Sin protect a heavily right-to-left sloped green (something that just doesn’t translate on television) – ensuring your focus is firmly held until the last putt. If, like my fiancée, you knock your approach to a couple of feet, expect onlookers from the neighbouring Links Road to bestow you with applause: this is a town that has golf running through its veins, after all.
The great champion Bobby Jones once said of St Andrews: “If I had to select one course upon which to play the match of my life, I should have selected the Old Course.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, Bobby.
Rusacks St Andrews
There’s no doubt that St Andrews simply wouldn’t be the same town without its golfing appeal. A Scottish friend of mine once gruffly described St Andrews as being like Disneyland, “A caricature of Scottishness designed to please Americans.” I’m not sure that’s quite right. There’s definitely something in the air in these parts, a certain care-free giddiness that resembles a trip to the theme park. And then there’s the swathe of shops dedicated to golf, pubs brimming with memorabilia and signed autographs, and countless people walking around in their sports gear, sometimes with clubs in tow. I suppose it can feel a bit much to the uninitiated.
But, regardless of whether you play golf or not, St Andrews is a town that punches far above its weight across the board. It’s home to a host of excellent restaurants and bars, boasts the beautiful West Sands beach (location of the famous slow-mo scene from Chariots of Fire), and has one of Scotland’s very best hotels in its midst.
There is no course on Earth that can stimulate the same wet-your-pants level of nerves
Speaking of which, Rusacks St Andrews really is a must if you’re going to make the most of your time in these parts. Situated on the 18th fairway of the Old Course, with breathtaking views of the beach and the North Sea beyond, its location is ideal.
Dating back to 1887, the hotel was acquired by American outfit AJ Capital Partners in 2019 and brought under its umbrella of Marine & Lawn properties. Having undergone a sizable facelift, including the construction of a new 40-bedroom annex and rooftop restaurant Eighteen, Rusacks has never looked better.
We checked into a Swilcan King room during our stay. Decor is that of a classic golf club with a modern twist: a myriad of brown, green, gold and heather-like mauve. There are ferns, thistles, and barley in the custom-designed wallpaper in the bedroom, a dramatic scene of a dog hunting down a pheasant on the bathroom wall, and boar heads engraved into all four corners of the wooden tramp art mirror as a nod to the St Andrews crest. It’s about as on-brand as you’d expect from a stylish golfing hotel.
The huge comfortable bed, vast rainfall shower, and little bottles of complimentary Eden Mill gin and tonic are the kind of touches you’d expect from a hotel of this renown, but the best room feature of all is the balcony. Facing out onto the Old Course itself with the West Sands peaking over the dunes in the distance, it’s the kind of view that has you reaching for your phone for an obligatory smug post on Instagram.
Rusacks has three dining options to choose from including an old-school tavern called One Under and a delightful spot for afternoon tea in The Bridge, but the real star attraction is Eighteen. Presided over by 2008 Masterchef: The Professionals winner Derek Johnstone, this bougie steakhouse is a smash hit.
Start with Cumbrae rock oysters or hand-dived Orkney scallops with roe butter, and then choose from a selection of Fife Farm steaks served alongside fried wedges of potato terrine and a luxurious aerated béarnaise sauce. Pro tip: make sure you arrive early for a Young Tom Morris cocktail (Highland Park 12yr, strawberry, lemon, and champagne) on the roof terrace, which includes its very own single-hole putting green. There isn’t a better spot in town to watch the sunset.
A five-minute walk from Rusacks you’ll find The Keys pub on Market Street. Family run for more than 30 years, this hole-in-the-wall establishment improbably features the single largest selection of gins and whiskies in St Andrews. Little ribbons on each bottle behind the bar denote prices ranging from £4 to £47 per schooner. The selection is pretty intimidating but the very helpful staff have been here before: they’ll happily offer recommendations based on your preferences or prepare you a whisky flight if you’re looking to educate yourself on Scotland’s finest. I plumped for a £6.50 dram of Glendronoch 15yr before raising the stakes with a £38 glass of the stunning Glenrothes 25yr. Got the munchies? Tailend just across the road might just be the best chippy in town.
If there’s one item that simply must be on your visiting agenda, it’s The Himalayas. Home to the St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club, an establishment that has existed since 1867, this one-of-a-kind putting course was laid out by none other than Old Tom Morris himself, architect and greenskeeper of the Old Course. Described by the legendary golf architect Alister MacKenzie as “The most interesting putting course I have ever seen,” this wildly contoured patch of land is an absolute hoot to play – whether you’re a seasoned golfer or you’ve never picked up a club in your life.
Think of it as a formative crazy golf course, with the added bonus that it’s situated no more than 100 yards from the Old Course itself. If you have no interest in entering the ballot and playing the Grand Old Lady, this is the best way to get a sense of what St Andrews is all about. And at only £4 per player, it’s also an absolute steal.
On the eve of the 150th Open in July, much of the talk will be about who of the sport’s biggest names will contend for the Claret Jug. Can Tiger Woods do the impossible again? Will Rory McIlroy lift his fifth major? Who of the new kids on the block, like Scottie Scheffler, can rise to the task and snatch victory for themselves?
Among the chatter, whether you’re watching from the comfort of the sofa or perhaps staying at Rusacks before heading to the tournament itself, just remember that it could be you walking these fairways one day soon. All you have to do is enter the ballot, and cross your fingers.
Marking the 150 years of The Open, Rusacks St Andrews has launched 'The 150 Package', available before and after The Open. Starting from £405 per room per night, it includes: an overnight stay in a room with exquisite views of The Old Course; entry to the R&A World Golf Museum for two; £150 food and beverage credit, to be spent at any of Rusacks' restaurant venues; in-room golf gifts including Marine & Lawn branded golf tees, a ball marker, Titleist prov1 golf balls; and breakfast at The Bridge.
Rooms at Rusacks St Andrews start at £219. For more information, marineandlawn.com