A lot of golf destinations are worthy of your bucket list, but only one is the sacred sod where the game was born: the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Often referred to as the Home of Golf, St. Andrews Links includes seven courses. The centerpiece is the Old Course, dating back more than 600 years. It’s arguably the most sought-after tee time in the world—certainly for a public course.
Knowing that, we booked our trip through Golfbreaks.com, Europe’s leading golf travel service. Though it was the pricier option, we dodged the lottery process and were guaranteed to get our names on the tee sheet. Golfbreaks.com also handled other details like ground transportation, meals and lodging.
Here’s how our unforgettable five-day trip to Scotland played out.
Flying direct from the East Coast, we arrived in Glasgow in the early morning. Ninety minutes later, we were at the St. Andrews Links Clubhouse for fish-and-chips and Guinness. After a quick change in the locker room, we walked 50 feet to the first tee on the Jubilee Course, the third oldest of the seven links.
Opened in 1897, the course was named in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was originally intended for ladies and beginners. Since then, it’s been upgraded to a championship standard.
It was a great starting track for the trip. It gave us a chance to get our Scotland legs and witness up close and personal the treachery of the bunkers, which are truly penal.
Each hole has a name. A favorite was Hole 15, called Steel’s Gem for one of the architects who renovated the course in 1988. The 356-yard par 4 requires a tee shot to a narrow throat of a fairway. Miss your shot left, and you’re in trouble. Miss right, and you’re blocked out by a 50-foot mound. What I learned from Day One is that golf in Scotland is often about where not to be.
A caddie is a must. I was paired with the perfect looper, St. Andrews native Kevin O’Donnell. He told me where the trouble was, and when I’d hit a nice shot, he built me up: “Ah, Jimmy, that’s a fair crack.” He was so good that I requested him for the rest of the St. Andrews courses. The caddies are also your conduit to great pubs, restaurants—and golf stories.
Davie Johnston, the doorman at the Fairmont St. Andrews, made sure we were packed and ready for the van. In his colorful kilt and with an accent thicker than the gorse that would later swallow some of our golf balls, the Scotsman became a highlight of our stay there.
Today, we were off to Kingsbarns Golf Links, seven miles up the coast from St. Andrews, past ancient ruins, old stone walls and fields of “rocket” (arugula). Not part of the St. Andrews Links Trust, Kingsbarns is one of the newest courses in the area— a mere teenager at 17 years old. But packing all the punch of its older neighbors, it’s already ranked a Top 100 course in the world.
Kingsbarns takes full advantage of its coastal setting, and the closely mown fairways and greens are typical of fast-rolling links layouts. Most memorable was Hole 15—212 yards of dangerous carry over the sea on this challenging par 3.
We had six holes of golfing bliss until the weather showed its might, which actually fulfilled our hope for the true Scottish experience. With some Scotch waiting for us at the turn, we braved a driving rain. Hole 18 was a great finisher, especially since the sun finally returned.
Fresh fish chowder nourished us at the clubhouse, and during dinner in the St. Andrews Bar & Grill back at the Fairmont, we discovered probably one of the best spots to take in the sunset over the St. Andrews Bay.
With two great courses under my belt, I was ready for one of the biggest thrills of my golfing life. Our foursome stepped out of the van parked near the hallowed hall of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, and we made our way to the starter. We dutifully showed our golf handicap cards—proof that you’re at least a 24 handicap—and we were in.
Most people don’t realize the first hole at the Old Course is the largest fairway in golf—more than 100 yards wide where it joins the 18th fairway. Another surprise is that a public walkway bisects the hole—people jog and pushing baby carriages while you’re waiting to tee off. In fact, the course is closed on Sundays, when it becomes a public park.
The starter raised his hands so the locals knew access was closed for a moment, then we were given the go to tee off. My trusty caddie told me to keep it left, and I obliged with the straightest tee shot I had hit all trip. “Ah, that’s a knocker,” O’Donnell nodded. A par at the first hole was as memorable to me as any hole-in-one.
The Old Course features seven double greens, with only Holes 1, 9, 17 and 18 having their own greens. The layout is festooned with 112 bunkers, each with a name and a story. I was warned to avoid the Seven Sisters on Hole 5 and even managed to keep it left of the 10-foot-deep, 300-square-foot Hell Bunker on Hole 14, which resulted in a quintuple bogey for Jack Nicklaus during the 2000 Open Championship. Sorry, Jack, but I managed to par this one, too. The infamous par-4 Road Hole on 17 did me in like many a golfer, though, with its blind tee shot over the faux railroad sheds.
The 18th hole is where the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge awaits. Spanning the Swilcan Burn between Hole 1 and Hole 18, the bridge is probably one of the most photographed spots in the sport, and professional players have bid farewell to the game from this iconic stone structure.
The day ended perfectly with a memorable stop at the Dunvegan Hotel, just a 9-iron from the 18th green. I’m sure the Claret Jug has made a few appearances here, as have 27 major golf champions. Toast the day with your favorite libation.
Opened in 2008, the Castle Course is the seventh and newest track at St. Andrews Links, and what it may lack in heritage it makes up for in location. Set atop a dramatic cliff overlooking the bay, with the town’s spires and steeples as its backdrop, the course hugs the shoreline for over a mile.
The par-3 Hole 17 is a standout, with a 184-yard carry over a magnificent sea chasm. Like a lot of golf shots on the course, you need to hit the green in the correct spot on the left side to feed down to the pin location on the right.
As expected, the Castle has a slightly more modern feel, with bunkers that aren’t quite as hellish as the other courses here. The challenge is on the greens, where tricky undulations cause a lot of good shots to not stay there.
Our tour operator made sure we had box lunches waiting for us after the round, and then we were whisked back down the coast to our afternoon tee time at the Kittocks Course, one of two spectacular tracks affiliated with the Fairmont St. Andrews. A perfect alternative to the St. Andrews Links, it’s only a one-minute shuttle ride. Book tee times through the hotel.
Open since 2002, the Kittocks would likely be a Top 50 in the United States, but it feels a bit out of place here. It might be a better course for the start of your trip rather than the end. Check out the GolfBoards—personal carts akin to surfboards.
The author with Davie Johnston, hotel
We had to leave the hotel at 4 a.m. to make our flight at Glasgow Airport. As we drove through the slumbering town of St. Andrews, I asked our driver to stop in front of the darkened Dunvegan Hotel. I placed my favorite pair of golf shoes, quite worn at this point, on the front porch of the pub entrance and crept away. I guess I wanted some small part of me to always remain there.
The great Bobby Jones, who was revered in Scotland and won an Open Championship on the Old Course, once said, “I could take out of my life everything but my experiences here in St. Andrews, and I would still have had a rich and full life.”
Direct application: Email the St. Andrews Links Trust at firstname.lastname@example.org during the two- to three-week window in August. Tee times are distributed lottery-style. Winners will be notified in October.
Daily ballot: About half of the tee times are awarded through a lottery system that draws winners 48 hours in advance.
Single-golfer walk-up: If you’re a single, your odds are pretty good, especially if you’re flexible and don’t mind playing in some bad weather. Just check in with the starter at the Old Pavilion as early as 5:30 a.m.
Book a trip: If you’re traveling with a group of two or more, Golfbreaks.com is your best bet. The golf travel company plans your entire trip, and its expertise in the United Kingdom is top notch. Pay the fee and you’ll get to tee.