If you are a golfer and you have never been to St. Andrews, I cannot emphasise how much you are missing.
Acknowledged by even the most casual of followers, St. Andrews is the Home of the game and where it was born. The ‘old grey toon’ as it is known has a unique heritage for more than just golf. Its educational and religious leaders are as famous as its golfers.
In medieval times, pilgrims came to bathe in what they believed were Godly waters at the end of the known Earth. Any of them showing signs of heretical deviances from what St. Andrews citizens and their bishops believed could mean being drowned, burned at the stake, thrown off a cliff, having one’s head chopped off, or being hung drawn and quartered before the bits left over were hung out on display.
In spite of that gory catalogue, a trip to St. Andrews has been at the top of every committed golfer’s list of places to visit for over a 150-years. Golf was first played there in the early 16th century before the warring cousins, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1 were born. A charter initiated by Archbishop Hamilton in 1552, specifically mentions ‘the golff’ and set it down for the game to be played in perpetuity on common ground. Hamilton’s edict has lasted until to the present day – even to the extent that a codicil that golf ‘not be allowed’ on Sundays (except when The Open Championship is being staged) is still in operation. Locals in need of some fresh air on Sundays may have it by bringing their dog for a walk across the empty fairways but clubs and ball must be left behind. The Keeper of the Greens at St. Andrews for decades, Old Tom Morris (1821-1908), maintained the course needed its day of ‘rest’ and the golfers ought to be in Church!
The Old Course is obviously the most famous of the seven courses at St. Andrews. I don’t mind staking my reputation on proclaiming that it is not the best. The New Course, built in 1895 (not a misprint) is a better test and the Jubilee, which opened only two years later in 1897 is harder – a lot harder!
Anyone planning a trip to St. Andrews should study Roger McStravick’s book, St. Andrews – A Comfort Blanket for the Hapless Golfer (available on Amazon) before arriving there. It is hugely informative and riotously funny. His personal ‘blow-by-blow strategies’ for plotting one’s way around the famous Old Course; advice on where to stay, eat and drink; what to see and do (apart from playing golf); what not to miss etc. are priceless. Roger tells us about the all-important protocols on how to secure tee times on any of the courses within the town.
Roger is a Tour Guide par excellence and although I had experienced St. Andrews before reading his book, it revived moments that I had forgotten and whetted my appetite to go there again. Learning about so many obscure facts e.g. that there is no apostrophe in St. Andrews; that twenty-one 12th greens at Augusta could fit neatly into the 5th (double) green on the Old Course, it’s that big – but, uppermost on everyone’s mind is, of course, how to secure a tee time on The Old Course, the venue for The Open Championship, every 5-years approximately.
The modus operandi is as follows: put your name in the draw at the Links Trust Office (you can do it by phone) 72-hours prior to your preferred day. 48-hours before, you will be told if you were successful, which gives you enough time to make an alternative arrangement on one of the other (all excellent) courses. It was a surprise to learn that the members of the various local golf clubs (all on ground owned by the town) have to join the ballot for a tee time in exactly the same way as visitors do – unless there is a pre-arranged medal competition scheduled.
During the peak months May to September, the success rate is 70%. It is considerably higher (without ever reaching 100%) at off-peak times. So, your chances are better than you might have thought? Early spring or late autumn are the best time of the year to go to the home of golf. The chances of securing a tee time are maximised and the courses are in their best condition; getting around the course tends to be less frustrating too because of the absence of visitors from far-off places not as well-versed in golf etiquette as they might be. Making a ‘production’ out of playing a game at any of the St. Andrews courses is frowned by the ubiquitous rangers on duty and might be deemed worthy of burning at the stake (only joking) Pick the target Roger recommends, hit the ball, walk after it and hit it again. If in doubt, aim left! That is all there is to it.
St. Andrews is as famous for its University as it is for its golf courses. It is the third oldest in the United Kingdom and it is even older than the playing of the ‘Scottish game’. Amongst its famous graduates are: Benjamin Franklin, Rudyard Kipling, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and its most important golf graduate is surely Charles Blair Macdonald (known to historians as ‘the father of golf in America’ as the prime mover in the founding of the USGA in 1895)
My advice is don’t dream of leaving home without Roger’s ‘Blanket.’ You’ll find it as valuable and as useful as your sand wedge; getting you out of trouble and onto the green, time after time. “Blanket” is easily the best guidebook ever written for visitors to St Andrews. From beginning to end, McStravick’s ‘hometown knowledge’ is vital, funny and captivating, while being essential and informative too.
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