“This is the origin of the game, golf in its purest form, and it’s still played that way on a course seemingly untouched by time. Every time I play here, it reminds me that this is still a game.” – Arnold Palmer
It is not often that when you go into something with high expectations that those expectations not only get exceeded, but blown out of the water. When Sean and I found out we would be playing on the Old Course at St Andrews we could hardly contain our excitement, by the time we finished the round we were wanting to play again.
The whole experience of playing the Old Course is unique and the experience begins long before you tee off. The course is open to the public, but because tee times are so difficult to secure you must enter a 48 hour ballot and wait to hear your fate. We unsuccessfully entered the ballot on Saturday when we arrived in Edinburgh, and had resigned ourselves to the fact that getting a tee time would be very fortunate. The next day we entered again and as we arrived home from golfing on Sunday afternoon we eagerly checked the list of tee times. Sure enough there we were!!! S. Akeroyd and J. Wynn Tuesday 28 August 6:30 AM. The first names on the schedule.
It was 3:45 AM Tuesday morning when we departed Banchory for St. Andrews, it felt much more like going to an early morning hockey practice in Canada as we loaded the car with our big bags in the chilly morning air. Armed with every map we could find we made the 2.5 hour trek to St. Andrews arriving there just as the sun began to rise at 5:30 AM. As we pulled up to the course all the memories of watching past Open Championships and playing EA Sports golf games were going through our minds as we both became quite nervous, we were about to be the first two people to tee off on the Old Course that day.
After showing the starter our handicaps were below 24 and paying our money to play we headed to the putting green to warm up and to soak in the atmosphere. It truly does feel magical as you look around and see the Old Course Hotel in the distance and the sun rising above the water. After rolling a few putts on the perfectly manicured greens, and taking a few pictures it was time to tee off. We were joined by two single players. Bob, a 60 something year old man from Florida, and Ed, a 30 something year old from Hawaii. Both of these men had been standing in a queue outside the starters hut since 3:00 AM hoping to get on the course. The ballot always leaves room for a few singles to play and these two men were lucky enough to get to the front of the line. Both Bob and Ed hired caddies to help them through their round and by the end of the first hole both Sean and I were glad to have the caddies along with us.
Despite having playing partners Sean and I still got the honour of being the first two to tee off for the day. It was easily the most intimidating shot I have ever hit, thinking of all the greats that have stood on the same tee box while being watched by a number of other golfers all eagerly awaiting their chance to join us on the course. We both managed to put our drives in decent positions and were on our way, slightly more relaxed as we walked down the first fairway.
The round moved very quickly, as the caddies are required to keep the pace of play as fast as they can, and the experience seemed to fly by. It was a surreal feeling playing hole after hole, recognizing landmarks from watching Tiger Woods and other greats play at the home of golf. I narrowly missed going into Hell Bunker on the 5th hole but wasn’t so lucky later on as I found myself in a pot bunker on the 8th hole. After failing at my attempt to get it out I had to play backwards out of the bunker just to salvage a respectable score!
As we made the turn on to the back nine what really stuck out to both Sean and I was the deceptiveness of the Old Course. It contains 112 bunkers but from the tee box you can barely see any of them. A course guide is a must, and caddies are close to essential but if you don’t make adjustments to your game and style then the course will eat you alive as it did to the legendary golfer Bobby Jones who walked off the course after 11 holes in 1921 and initially despised the course. Jones later went on to say of the Old Course “the more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it; and the more I loved it, the more I studied it”.
The sun continued to shine as we approached the last few holes of the day and as Sean and I began to finally relax a bit and treat it like a regular round we got talking to Willie, one of our caddies. Born in Inverness, Willie had been at the Old Course for 27 years and knew it inside and out. When he found out that we were Canadian he began telling us stories of how he had caddied for Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and other hockey players. These stories made me more in awe as I had only thought about the golfers that had previously teed off there, I hadn’t even thought about the famous political figures, the celebrities and the other athletes! This was walking up the 16th fairway, making me even more nervous for where we were heading next.
The 17th hole at St. Andrews. The most famous hole in golf. The Road Hole. We knew what to expect, but it didn’t matter. Walking up to the tee box brought back all the nerves from the first tee and it didn’t help that you can’t see where your tee shot lands as you have to go around the Old Course Hotel, or in Sean’s case over it. All four of us managed to find the fairway and as we walked towards our approach shots we saw our first glimpse of the Road Hole bunker. Three of us managed to avoid the bunker, Ed hit his approach directly into it.
The walk up the 18th fairway was an experience in itself. After safely hitting our tee shots we walked (and stopped for pictures) on Swilkan Bridge, where Jack Nicklaus so famously waved goodbye to the world of golf, we then walked up the fairway towards the town of St. Andrews, feeling like celebrities as we were the first golfers of the day to finish and all the tourists wanted a picture of people playing the 18th hole. After the customary handshakes I had a tough time leaving the course. I spent about 5 minutes in awe, just looking back over the 18th fairway and thinking about the fantastic day we had already had, despite it only being 11:00 AM
After a quick bite to eat we took a tour around St Andrews and went for a walk along the West Sands beach, where the famous scene in Chariots of Fire was filmed. It was then back in the car and back to Banchory.
It truly was a magical day at the home of golf and its hard to believe that the Old Course was one of the first courses ever designed. I have yet to see anyone design a better course after all these years. The creativity needed and the all around test it gives every golfer is like nowhere else I’ve ever played. I hope one day that I get the opportunity to play the Old Course again, but I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.