ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND – “Don’t look back,” my playing partner told me. “Hit your tee shot. Then you can look back.”
I suspect that David Horne has given that piece of advice to many golfers as they nervously awaited their opening tee shots on The Old Course. As if the world’s most famous, and famously quirky, links needed a home-court advantage, looming behind the first tee is the imposing R&A Clubhouse.
But I was in good hands with Horne, who spent 10 years caddying on The Old Course. In that capacity, he saw more hapless tourists bounce tee shots off the Old Course Hotel and shovel sand out of Hell Bunker than any caddie should ever be forced to witness. Last year he launched No Traps Golfing Tours, which affords him the privilege of watching tourists shank their way across the United Kingdom. In the golf business, this qualifies as career advancement.
A seasoned Old Course veteran, Horne successfully had navigated the mystifying ballot system to secure a prime 8:10 tee time for us on a particularly busy morning. For first-timers, the experience feels less like a game of golf than a sightseeing expedition, with the obligatory picture-taking at the first tee, the Swilcan Bridge and elsewhere.
The Old Course, which will host the British Open for the 28th time July 15-18, rightly dominates discussions of golf in St. Andrews. But that fact obscures two points: Even visitors who have no interest in golf can have a wonderful experience in this quaint university town. And for golfers, it’s arguably the most target-rich environment in the United Kingdom.
Golf tourists almost invariably are big-game hunters; they want to knock off the Open rota and Top 100 courses. And in St. Andrews, they certainly can make a lot of headway.
Carnoustie is only a 40-minute drive north of The Old Course, across the Firth of Tay, and Kingsbarns is seven winding miles to the southeast. Any of those three courses could serve as the clean-up hitter in a formidable lineup of wonderful links convenient to St. Andrews.
“There are 12 really good championship courses there,” says Sam Baker, CEO of Haversham & Baker, a Cincinnati-based tour operator that sends hundreds of golfers to Scotland each year. “In a week, you can really soak in the culture, play a lot of great golf courses, and you don’t have to drive that much.”
Baker’s Distinguished Dozen included the two courses at the Fairmont St. Andrews, about two miles south of town, and the Castle Course, where the tee at the soon-to-be-iconic par-3 17th is little more than a long par 5 down the coast from the seaside 17th on Fairmont’s Kittocks Course.
By all accounts, both of the Fairmont courses benefited mightily from some sprucing up performed two years ago by Dallas-based architect Gary Stephenson. Ironically, it was the young American architect who gave the courses more of an old-world feel, in part through the installation of more traditional and penal Scottish bunkering and the reshaping of the burns, which can be particularly devious on the Torrance’s par 5s.
The work was part of a £17 million ($25.2 million) upgrade to the 520-acre seaside property that made the resort a welcome spot for both the mighty – it hosted the G20 Summit last November – and the masses of hackers who flow into St. Andrews via Edinburg airport. In particular, the renovations made the Torrance Course a worthy host for Local Final Qualifying for this year’s Open. It is at its most appealing on the oh-so-enticing seventh, a short par 4 that most players will be tempted to drive, and culminates with a wonderful stretch of holes that plays down to and along St. Andrews Bay. The difficult, uphill par-3 17th will attract the most plaudits, but for sheer eye candy, it’s hard to beat the downhill tee shot on No. 16, with the bay just beyond the green.
The two Fairmont courses likely will prompt a fair amount of spirited debate about which is preferable.
For what it’s worth, I’ll side with Golfweek’s course raters, who ranked the Torrance Course No. 20 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses of Great Britain and Ireland, compared with the Kittocks at No. 40. But the latter certainly has its advocates.
The Kittocks, previously known as the Devlin Course, certainly has a saucier name; it refers to the cove cutting through the fourth and 12th holes where loose women used to rendezvous with fishermen. It also arguably has slightly better land than the Torrance, with more elevation changes and greater exposure to the bay.
As pleasing as the Fairmont courses were, I and some of my playing partners arrived at the Castle Course with trepidation. That proved to be unfounded, thanks to changes that have dialed back some of the 2-year-old course’s excesses and made it exceedingly playable for all levels. Gone for the most part are the rough-laden fairway mounds that my colleague, Alistair Tait, famously dubbed the “Don Kings.” Some green complexes also have been softened, though the small Biarritz practice green behind the first tee won’t exactly ease your concerns upon arrival. The dramatic movement in some of the greens no doubt will cause some head-scratching, but the green speeds make them quite playable. Say what you will about architect David McLay Kidd, but the man clearly does not want his work to be viewed indifferently.
The Castle Course truly takes flight on No. 7 and doesn’t relent the rest of the way, with the nines ending memorably on a double green set on a point. Bring your camera; the setting offers some of the best postcard views of St. Andrews.
Town residents arguably have access to the best deal in golf. For £170 (approximately $254), they can buy an annual pass to play all of the town courses, including the Old and the Castle. Charles Head, general manager of the Fairmont, happily shows guests his St. Andrews Links Trust card, his mug shot beaming.
Over dinner at the Fairmont, Head, who clearly relishes his current post at the Home of Golf, counseled me on a final-day doubleheader, The Old Course and Kingsbarns.
“The Old Course is a spiritual experience,” Head said. “Kingsbarns is a great golf experience.”
As Head’s comment suggests, Kingsbarns has achieved a level of reverence in Scotland normally reserved for courses that have been in operation for at least a century – fitting, given that Kingsbarns somehow manages to look the part of an ancient links despite having opened just 11 years ago. Even the upstairs locker room has the modest dimensions and time-worn creakiness of a building that has been nursed along for decades.
My first thought upon arriving at Kingsbarns was: Those who think we’ve used up all of the great linksland might change their minds upon seeing this young design. My second thought: Where is my raingear and ski hat?
After a lovely, sunny morning at The Old Course, our hearty group endured two full-blown hailstorms and 40 mph winds early on the back nine. It was – and this only can be said of such conditions in Scotland or Ireland – magnificent. That was especially so when the late-afternoon storm blew over and a rainbow emerged over the sea off the 15th green.
Those gales were far different from the benign conditions that morning at The Old Course. There, Horne warned me not to stray to the right, where most of the trouble can be found, and kept me loose with his easy humor. When we reached No. 13, where The Coffins must be navigated off the tee, he told me, “The easy part is done.”
Only after successfully following his directions off the tee on No. 17 did I dare ask the former caddie about his best Road Hole horror stories, which included the hapless fellow whose tee ball ricocheted off the Old Course Hotel and back over his head onto the practice range. Horne, who thought he had seen everything imaginable on the world’s oldest links, surprised himself with a first: a fortuitous kick off the hotel into the center of the fairway.
Standing in the 17th fairway, I recalled an interview several years ago with a pleasant, if mildly disturbed, fellow who said he intentionally had hit a ball into the Road Hole bunker just for the experience. Like paragliding and bungee jumping, that was an experience I could do without. On that historic hole, in that park-like setting with residents and tourists milling about, the 2-footer for par was more than enough challenge.
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St. Andrews: The courses
Fairmont St. Andrews
- fairmont.com/standrews; 866-840-8208
- Green fee: £95-£110 ($142-$165)
Kingsbarns Golf Links
- kingsbarns.com; +44-0-1334-460860
- Green fee: £165 ($247)
The Old Course/Castle Course
- standrews.org.uk; +44-0-1334-466666
- Green fee: Castle – £120 ($180); Old – £130 ($195)
Note: Exchange rates are approximate and as of June 24.