The R&A Clubhouse in St. Andrews, Scotland, sits on a plot of land roughly the size of the 18th green to which it is adjacent. Considering that on a per-hole basis the average green size on The Old Course is roughly 13,000 square feet, one may picture a behemoth. In reality, the bastion that represents the birthplace of golf isn’t much bigger than your average home in suburban America. But the size of the building says nothing of the weight of its shadow.
In a city that shares a latitude with Moscow, long summer days can stretch the point of that shadow to the cart path cutting across the first and 18th fairways. From the 18th tee, the clock on the clubhouse is your aiming point—your caddie will likely tell you to hone in on it if you want to save the cars parked to the right along The Links Road. On the first tee, however, the R&A’s home is the last thing you want to see.
To think about what that building represents is to invite a shank. Sitting beneath its shadow, golf club in hand, you’re less golfer than you are rodeo clown—the bull just lets you think you’re in charge. If the sheer magnitude of where you stand doesn’t crush you, then the eyes of those seated in the Members Only benches could, all royalty in their own right. And if they don’t get to you, the gaggles of tourists will. Imagine dozens of fanny pack-clad oglers waiting to see a glimpse of a “real golfer” begin their journey down the widest fairway in golf (129 yards wide—impossible to miss!) and into the game’s most historic 18. You’re there to give them a show.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Arnold Palmer hit this shot. As has Tiger and Jack, as did Sam, Bobby, Harry, and Old Tom Morris himself. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by the ghosts of golfers past and present who can’t possibly relate to the idea that you just want to break 90 today.
The truth is simple: There’s no other tee box in the world where the pressure of history can trick you into hitting a dead top. If the first tee was the only shot you got to hit when playing the Old Course, it would still be worth the price of admission. It would still be a story you could tell your friends. To stand where the greats stood. To play their game, even just for one swing. There’s magic in that grass.
You don’t have to leave the first tee to discover that claiming the Old Course is overrated or underwhelming is the wrong fucking take.
It’s flat. It’s boring. It’s too scoreable on rare easy weather days. It’s not very tricked up. If you really want a challenge, drive up the road to the Castle Course—it even has better views. If you’re going to Scotland, you’d rather play Carnoustie or Turnberry. That’s more fun. That’s better golf.
People who make the pilgrimage to the birthplace of golf say the darnedest things. During my time as an American living in St. Andrews, I often attracted the attention of my fellow compatriots. They wanted to know why I was there (my wife was getting her master’s degree at the university) and how much golf I got to play (a lot). But they also all wanted a secret, like the locals were holding out on them.
I’d be standing on the putting green next to the Old Course first tee, idly chatting with a man from Boston who was preparing to play his fourth round in three days. He’d sidle up to me, like we were Cold War conspirators sharing intel, and ask, “What’s really the best course to play in Scotland?”
It’s really a silly question. “Best” is so arbitrary. Who’s to say? What experience are you looking for? What characteristics make a great golf course for you? There are so many variables it’s impossible to answer.
But I knew I was never steering them wrong when I would invariably point to the first tee. “Right there.”
That would often get a quizzical look and a laugh as if they didn’t believe me, as if I was also in on the secret the locals were desperate to keep. I’d shrug my shoulders and let them go—many were so deep in their half-cocked golf course architecture research that I couldn’t save them. I would contend, however, that the Old Course can give them anything. It works for anyone.
I’ve played with the happiest high handicappers you’ve ever seen—old men trying to shoot their age and their grandchildren who just learned to play.
I’ve walked a few holes with Bill Murray and then ran into him later at a pub where he was boasting about getting out of the Road Hole bunker in one swing. I’ve also seen a World Cup soccer champion get stuck in that very same bunker (hell, I’ve been stuck in that bunker).
I’ve played with a man whose dream of going pro had died long ago, but on that day, he turned back the clock and made 71 look easy. I’ve played with university students hoping to get around the Old Course 100 times before having to declare a major. I’ve played with a guy whose pushcart followed the Bluetooth remote in his pocket, which became an issue when his friend kept snagging the remote and tossing it into bunkers.
I watched a man spread his father’s ashes on the first fairway. I cheered for a woman who birdied 18 to break 80 for the first time. I’ve seen foursomes of old Scottish women tee off in hail—hitting the same low line drives they always do.
I met a man who said his granddad had always dreamed of playing the Old Course but died before he could. This man didn’t play much, but he had brought his grandad’s hickories to take them around. When I saw him later, he looked content. He said he had shot a 114 and hadn’t cried until the Swilcan Bridge.
I’ve seen caddies finish a loop, then drop their bib and go play.
And I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people who know nothing about golf get off a bus to come see what the fuss is all about.
If none of that sounds interesting, don’t go to the Old Course. If you want to experience exclusivity and luxury, don’t make the trip—it’s a public park on Sundays for crying out loud. If golf is a bachelor party excuse to have a boozy afternoon, don’t play the Old Course. It’s an ethereal place where chasing a little ball around a big field is, for those who are paying attention, a dream fulfilled.
Yes, the fairways are flat and wide. Yes, the greens are massive. But that doesn’t mean you’ll hit any of them. It’s the only course in the world where every criticism you hear is true and where all of them miss the point. You’re walking around a place where the game’s greatest ghosts reside, and they have a penchant for sending strong gusts of wind at people who say, “This course is too easy.”
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