ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The next time I see a pro golfer on TV sink a long birdie putt on the Old Course at St. Andrews, anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot may hear how I once did the same thing myself.
I might mention that my birdie came on the 7th hole, when a bending, downhill 40-footer that seemed headed off the green opted instead to dive into the cup.
Chances are I won’t trouble my listeners with extraneous details, like the fact that my birdie was one of the half-dozen holes I played well as I struggled to a score of 102.
Nor will I mention that I was so captivated by the course’s famously deep bunkers that I visited three of them on one hole.
I didn’t just play the Old Course at St. Andrews. I explored it.
In whacking a little ball around this windswept stretch of land along the North Sea this past September, I was making a pilgrimage to the most hallowed grounds in golf, a place where the sport has been played for more than 600 years.
This expanse of sandy dunes, beach grasses and thorny brush — called “links” from a Scots word for an area of coastal dunes — was given to the citizens of St. Andrews by their king in the 1100s for public recreation.
By 1457, golf on such links was so popular the Scottish Parliament forbade it because it diverted people from archery, a more useful skill for struggles against England. The ban remained in place, though not necessarily observed, until 1502.
Some 508 years later, I arrived at St. Andrews on a cloudy, calm Sunday afternoon.
Immediately, I understood the reaction of travelers who’ve wondered “Where’s the golf course?” when, in fact, they are standing on it.
A minimalist course
Links courses, minimalist by nature, typically do without some features Americans are used to seeing: manicured landscaping, well-marked tees and cart paths alongside the holes.
Golf great Bobby Jones called St. Andrews Old Course a “cow pasture.” Tiger Woods has called it his favorite course in the world.
There’s no denying the course’s importance. It has hosted an unsurpassed 28 “Open Championships” — including this year’s — the event Americans commonly call the British Open.
My first glimpse of the course had nothing to do with Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods or any of the luminaries I’ve seen pictured on the course’s iconic Swilcan Bridge. What I saw instead was a young girl of 4 or 5, gleefully rolling down a grassy bank into a dip I recognized as the Valley of Sin: a smooth, steep bowl of lawn ready to capture shots that fall short and left of the 18th green.
No such shots were coming this day. The Old Course is closed Sundays, a nod to tradition, and is open to strolling, picnics and other recreation.
Getting a tee time
My hope was to play the following day, although I had come to St. Andrews without a tee time, and it can be difficult for a single golfer to get on the Old Course.
My best chance of playing it, I was advised, was to be at the starter’s hut before 7 a.m. to get on a waiting list, in the hopes of being sent out with a twosome or threesome as the day went on.
And so, shortly after 5 a.m. the day after I arrived, I swatted the alarm clock in our B&B, one long block south of the course.
I pulled on a wool sweater, tucked a rain jacket into my golf bag, and trudged into the darkness — past the stone obelisk honoring martyred Protestants, past the darkened entrance of the British Golf Museum and past the most-photographed edifice in golf, the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, dating to the 1850s.
Approaching the starter’s hut, I could see a quiet line of hopeful golfers spread out along a low wall, some wrapped in hotel blankets like Druid monks waiting to greet the dawn.
I soon learned I was Number 17 in line, and the first person had been there since 2 a.m.
At 7 a.m., the starter arrived and took our names but warned that openings for walk-ups would be few. Anyone with a number in the teens, he said, might as well go have breakfast.
I walked back to the B&B, downed a cup of coffee and faced the prospect that I likely would not get to play the Old Course.
Rather than not play at all, I decided to head to one of the other six courses here, which are also operated by the nonprofit St. Andrews Links Trust. Perhaps I’d try the New Course, (opened in 1895) which many regard as a better test of golf.
But I didn’t come here for a test; I came for a spiritual experience. I came to commune with the ghost of Old Tom Morris, the legendary groundskeeper here and four-time Open Championship winner in the 1800s.
Before giving up on the Old Course, I decided to make one more stop by the starter’s hut.
“How does it look?” I started to ask, but he interrupted: “Can you go to the tee right now?”
Apparently, there had been an unexpected cancellation and only three of us walk-ons were around, me and two other Americans.
After a quick flurry of Visa cards and a change of shoes, we headed to the first tee, not 10 paces away.
I was asked if I wanted a caddie and said yes. I’d never had a caddie before, but this was a special occasion. And it’s helpful to be with someone who knows this course because from the tees there is a lot you can’t see, including the location of many of the 112 bunkers.
Facing the bunkers
So there I was, a few minutes after 8 a.m., smacking an acceptable drive down the first fairway. A couple of shots later, I narrowly missed a 10-foot putt for par and tapped in for a bogey to start the round.
As an 18-handicapper, I knew that bogey golf could get me around this course with a score of 90, which I would regard as an unqualified success.
But alas, those bunkers, architectural marvels with vertical walls made from stacked layers of turf, humbled me. Golfers disappear into them up to their shoulders, or beyond.
I managed to skirt around those craters until the 5th hole, the first par 5, named Hole O’Cross. (Yes, all the holes have names.)
“Aim left,” caddie Kenny Brown had advised me on the tee. But my drive veered right, rolling into one of a cluster of fairway bunkers.
I blasted the ball out steeply, only to see it land in another bunker, 10 yards away. So I blasted out of that one, knocked a five-wood up the fairway, lobbed a nine-iron shot into a greenside bunker and … well, that’s what 10s are made of.
So OK, I wasn’t going to have a great score. But I was going to have a great experience.
In nearly 4-½ hours on the course, I made sure to soak it all in: The breeze off the North Sea, the drizzle that dotted my glasses for a few holes, the surprisingly firm fairways, the musical accent wrapped around caddie Kenny’s bits of advice.
I paid particular attention to some of the unusual — some would say quirky — aspects of this course, such as the fact that most of the greens, up to 100 yards wide, are shared by two holes, with one pin for a hole on the front nine and another for a back-nine hole. And the fact that two holes, the 7th and 11th, actually cross one another.
If you laid out a course like this back home, I wondered, would anyone take you seriously?
On the back nine, I avoided the cavernous “Hell Bunker” on 14. But on two successive holes, I sent drives flying out of bounds, slicing away my chance to break 100.
On the famous “Road Hole” — Number 17 — I avoided the well-deep Road Hole Bunker on the left only to scoot off to the right, scrambling for a triple-bogey.
By then my score was an afterthought. As I walked across the Swilcan Bridge toward the final green, my thoughts were on a much higher number:
How many souls, living or deceased, I wondered, had made this same walk?
The list would include the best golfers in history. And many more, I suspect, who would have been delighted to head home with a single birdie on their scorecards.
Some small part of each of them — and now a bit of me — will linger forever here at the Home of Golf.
What it costs
I paid $210 (130 pounds) to play the Old Course, plus $64 for the caddie fee plus a tip. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a round of golf, but it’s far from the world’s priciest. California’s Pebble Beach is now $495 for a round, with preferred tee times going to guests at the resort’s $600-plus-a-night hotels. Closer to home, a high-season round at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes is $275.
Getting a tee time
There are at least a half-dozen ways to book the Old Course, but demand is high. Online applications from groups of two or more are accepted in early September for much of the following year, and some canceled times are made available each January. Blocks of tee times go to tour agencies that combine them with hotel rooms and/or rounds at other courses. There’s also a “daily ballot,” a drawing held at St. Andrews for groups of two or more seeking to play the following day. Solo golfers take their chances by showing up at the starter’s hut to get on a waiting list.
Proof of an established handicap index (a maximum of 24 for men and 36 for women) is required to play the Old Course at St. Andrews, but not at the other six courses operated by the St. Andrews Links Trust.
Anyone who plays offseason golf in Seattle is well trained for Scotland. Wind is an integral part of links golf. Rain showers are common but often brief. St. Andrews is farther north than Ketchikan, Alaska, which means winter days are short, but in June, golfers play past 10 p.m.
Golf at St. Andrews: www.standrews.org.uk
Scottish Tourist Board: www.visitscotland.com