St Andrews - hallowed golfing ground
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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(If you're not in the least interested in golf, it might be best to move to another entry.)
As an avid golfer living in Scotland for the past 8 months or so, a journey to the most venerable and ancient home of the game had been a long time coming. I could explain it away due to work commitments or the winter, but there's a sacred element to such events that leave the pilgrim with more than a touch of fear and awe. Fortunately Luke, a good friend from Sydney, found time to make his pilgrimage too, and the realisation of a dream to play some of the world's most revered courses in St Andrews was finally on.
The plan was a long weekend of intensive golfing - three rounds over three days on some of the most renowned courses in the land. Fine weather came to the party and Luke's mate Stu, an Aussie also from London, made up the three ball. Luckily the hire car keys eventually materialised as well that Friday morning, as our pilot almost lost them before we had even left Edinburgh!
First stop was the hallowed clubhouse and links of St Andrews. Even though we weren't going to play the Old Course itself (for 2 or more players it really has to be booked 6-12 months in advance), to wander along the edge of the 18th to the Swilcan Bridge and on to the imfamous 'road hole' bunker that defends the 17th green is one of those moments that not only results in a flood of memories of watching championships won and lost over the years, but also the realisation that madmen have been playing 'golff' here for over 500 years. This place IS 'Old'!
Only the road hole bunker didn't seem to impress - Luke was definitely of the opinion that it wasn't that deep and couldn't see why some pros over the years had taken up to five shots in championship events to get out of it. I was surprised he didn't grab a sand wedge and ball from the car and jump in there to test it out. (However on further research it seems that in 2004 the bunker was re-shaped and its depth reduced by around 60cm - without debate or consent of the local residents that caused much anger around town - which would explain the discrepancy.)
Anyway, jealous of the parade of lucky golf groups passing by on the Old Course, we headed a little north to another official St Andrews course - the Eden - that lies on the shores of a bay of the same name. There are actually nine courses around town, most of which are managed by the St Andrews Links Trust and all of which are publicly accessible. With the cheapest 18 holes playable for just £22 it is quite easy to get a game somewhere around town any day you choose.
With a late tee-off time of 3.36pm we caught a glorious afternoon of sunshine amongst the golden-flowering gorse, on this absolutely traditional but surprisingly affordable (£35) golfing links. My first drive was straight up the middle and the approach had me on in regulation, all resulting in a par. Unfortunately the rest of the weekend would not live up to that great start. Stu found the first of many pot bunkers that weekend early on (with which he looked suitable impressed, judging by the photo). More than a little hungover, Luke, the best golfer I know, was slow to find form but was obviously just warming up.
Based at the Inn on North Street placed us pretty central within town, so next morning we had just enough time to do a little shopping and sightseeing before heading out to battle again. St Andrews is an ancient university town (founded in the early 15th century) with a lot to see for such a small area - from quiant housing and signage to lovely architecture in the university buildings and some spectacularly large abbey ruins at the south end of town. Both of my associates were also raving most of the weekend about the friendliness of the locals and beauty of the females as well, which I wasn't about to disagree with ;-)
Much of our Saturday would be entertained with a round of the King's Course at Gleneagles in Perthshire. This resulted in a bit of a drive but the marvellous Scottish lowland scenery and the impeccable grooming of this world class resort was well worth the adventure to get there.
Without doubt, the sloping King's had some of the most unusual and challenging holes I have ever played. Once you're out there it seems like it's just you against the elements and the bizarre architecture of the course, plus a cairn or two and the hundreds of colourful pheasants that you see wobbling around in the rough. That's certainly not a bad thing though - the course was a pleasure to play and the fresh mountain air a delight to imbibe. Score-wise I had my best day of the weekend, easily breaking 100 and again bringing the stableford competition with Luke down to the wire, only to crap out on the very last hole. I'll beat you one day Lukey - I swear it!
To top it all off, Australia went on to win the World Cup Cricket final that night which resulted in free beers at the bar amongst droves of bright young things of St Andrews Uni. Ahhh, sporting heaven.
By Sunday we were showing definite signs of flagging - aching muscles, sunburn, blisters, overly-indulged stomachs and sleep deprivation in some cases due to all the snoring going on the shared room. Still, after a fortifying bacon and eggs breakfast we headed out into the grey morning, driving a few miles south of St Andrews, to one of the best kept secrets in world golf - Kingsbarns.
Kingsbarns stretches along a ragged North Sea coastline and straddles two minor estuaries, making it the truest of true links courses. It had been recommended to me highly by at least two golfing groups I'd hooked up with in past months whilst playing around Edinburgh and has ranked amongst the top 10 golf experiences in the world, so even though none of us had ever heard of it I ensured we give it a go.
Completely contrary to the resort 'feel' of Gleneagles, this place is for the golfing purist - just a small clubhouse (with no members) set amongst 18 of the most demanding holes ever conceived. The fairways are impeccable, the rough and gorse impenetrable and the massive, slick and undulating greens unlike anything we'd ever encountered before.
Luke rose to the challenge with a blistering round of 10 over, working hard but making it look pretty easy. Hats off to you my friend. Stu had his best day of the weekend with an equally impressive front 9 and a highly respectable total considering the difficulty of the greens and also that he was playing with new clubs. To be honest in my case however, the course had broken me by about the 13th hole - neither my drives, irons or putting was consistent enough to score any hole particularly well and in the end, well, the whole day was a bit frustrating.
Despite that I didn't really want the round to end. Kingsbarns is an amazing course of the likes that one rarely gets to play in their lifetime. It's the experience that golfers around these parts may well have had a couple of hundred years ago - unassuming but gruelling whilst being at one with the landscape and nature. It £130 a round it isn't something you do often, but judging by the comments from the guys it was well worth the investment.
It had been a long weekend full of golfing adventure that would make it into golfing legend, for our little group at least. There's already talk of a trip next year, to sample some of the other courses on offer and maybe do the place more justice with a longer stay. In the meantime, I think I might even try to get on to the fabled Old Course sometime later in 2007. Hopefully I'll play a little better than this visit, but, even if I don't, at least I've become a small part of the history in this timeless place.