There are two ways to get on the Old Course if you don’t have a confirmed tee time. First, there is the daily lottery that you can enter up to the day before you want to play. You are then notified by email the night before whether you succeeded. If you don’t get on with the lottery you can go to the house just off the first tee and submit your name for same day play. The staff are extremely accommodating, understand your eagerness to play, and very helpful. They will estimate your chances – singles or twosomes have better odds, so consider splitting your foursome – and let you know when you have time for a cup of coffee or to do some shopping. If you get there early, by 7:00 AM, it is rare that you won’t get on.
If it’s your first time playing, a caddie is a must. The Old Course is subtle, with specific lines that should be played, different shots needed depending on the playing conditions, and the caddies of St. Andrews know their craft. Whether you’re scratch or twenty, they will competently guide you – they are worth at least three shots a round. And most times they are colorful and memorable as well. Read An American Caddie in St. Andrews by Oliver Horovitz as a wonderful prep for your first round – an enchanting read with a wealth of information.
The general rule on The Old Course is that if you miss, miss left. The layout treks out and back in a counter-clockwise pattern, and many of the holes can be played from the adjacent fairway to the left. The greens are massive, with fourteen of the holes sharing putting surfaces; a putt of seventy feet is not uncommon. They roll up and down and to either side, formed from the rolling dunes. And they are exquisitely true – hit the right putt and the ball will find the hole.
The last two holes of the Old Course epitomize the strategic play required throughout the round. Drive blindly over the “Hotel” portion of the sign on the shed of The Old Course Hotel; the farther right on the fairway the better. The second shot must be one of precision, avoiding the famous Road Hole Bunker on the left, and on the right, the road, which is in play. If you’re a bit intimidated, play up short of the green and putt on from the fairway – but don’t go too far left as the Road Bunker attracts balls even from the green. Many have called the seventeenth the greatest par four and a half in the world.
The eighteenth tee presents a fairway more than one hundred yards wide. Your drive heads back into the cradle of the town, framed by quaint hotels and shops on the right, and the R&A clubhouse and the Hamilton Grand behind the first tee and eighteenth green. The play is up the left side for the best approach to the green. Pitch or bump and run your second shot through The Valley of Sin onto the green, but not too far; the fringe behind the green is up against the wall supporting the sidewalk above. Hit a good chip and sink your putt and the townspeople gathered above and behind the hole will applaud your good play.
Give your superb caddie a generous tip and head for the Dunvegan for well-deserved pint.