By Jim Skonieczny
As a frequent visitor to Scotland and St. Andrews I’m often asked what is my favorite course or favorite town in Scotland. Picking just one course is as about as difficult as the closing five holes at Carnoustie into a three club wind (just ask Jean Van de Velde). But St. Andrews easily tops my list of Scottish golf towns. I enjoy the likes of Troon, Prestwick, North Berwick and Dornoch but there is only one St. Andrews. I often tell people, especially non-golfers, I don’t care if there was not a golf course within a hundred miles of St. Andrews, it would still be a great place to visit anytime you’re in the area.
St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife is home to about 14,000 permanent residents. It’s a fun town that offers a wide range of accommodations from B&B’s to mid price hotels to the luxurious 5 star Old Course Hotel. From many of the accommodations you can walk to shops and restaurants, as well as the first tee of the Old, Jubilee and New Courses. The New Course is a mere 115 years old but still called the New Course. There is something to be said about rolling out of bed, having a full Scottish breakfast and walking down a bustling street with your golf bag over your shoulder; which is a very common sight. It’s the equivalent of Ski In – Ski Out except for golfers. Speaking of cold weather sports, golf is played year around in Scotland which enjoys a temperate climate. The average high in the dead of winter is 43, the average low 31. In late December the sun does not rise until 8:45 am and is already setting at 3:50 pm. While there are certainly days when golf is not possible because of the cold or snow, the courses are closed surprising few days due to weather. In the heat of the summer the average high only reaches 66, the average low 50. During the longest days of summer the sun sets a little after 10:00 pm and is up at 4:20 am allowing locals to play an early round before heading to the office, or 54 hole marathons for the golf crazed Americans.
One of the things I enjoy most about St. Andrews is its compact nature. The heart of the town is basically two parallel, main streets each about 3-4 blocks long connected by little pedestrian, cobblestone walkways with walls no more that 4-5’ apart. These two streets, Market Street and South Street, are home to most of the town’s golf shops, restaurants and pubs. St. Andrews offers a diverse selection of eating establishments ranging from fine dining at the Old Course Hotel, to Ziggys a popular sixties theme restaurant, Indian restaurants, American classics such as Subway, and the traditional pub grub. The local tourist office is also here; in the window each day at 2:00 pm they post the ballot results listing the winners of the drawing for Old Course tee times for play the next day.
Many don’t realize that St. Andrews, aside from being the golf world’s most famous town, is also a college town. Home to Scotland’s oldest university, St. Andrews University founded in 1411 has about 7,000 students and is where Prince William earned his degree. You hear American accents among the students walking the streets going to class, library or the pub. I’m not sure the legal drinking age of 18 influences one’s decision on which college to attend, but I am sure the easy access to so many great links courses within an easy drive of town does attract some students. Local residents and students can take advantage of deeply discounted green fees and special annual passes at prices many visitors could only dream of.
From a practical standpoint St. Andrews is the ideal base and is only 75 minutes drive from Edinburgh Airport and two hours from Glasgow Airport. The St. Andrews area offers two of the nine current Open venues, the Old Course and Carnoustie less than an hours drive north. There are another dozen very good links courses all within a 20-30 minute drive. Can you name the nine courses currently in the Open rota? Hint: five are in Scotland and four in England, answer at the bottom.
Another favorite area of St. Andrews is the large beach that becomes massive when the tide is out. The running scenes from the movie Chariots of Fire where filmed on the beach which is between the town center and the new Links Clubhouse built for the 1995 Open. Before the new clubhouse opened visiting golfers playing the Old Course would have to change into their golf shoes at the back of their car. Today when visiting any golf club in Scotland and changing your shoes in the parking lot, and not in the locker room, you might get a polite reminder from a club member or staff to use the changing facilities. Not removing your hat as you enter the clubhouse (or any building in Scotland) may also earn you a quick reminder of the local etiquette.
The Links Clubhouse serves the Old, New and Jubilee Courses, has a casual restaurant that over looks the Old Course, a well stock gift shop and is open to the public. Like any famous town, merchandise with “St. Andrews” is readily available but the official Links Trust merchandise is the best and a portion of each purchase goes toward supporting the Links Trust Management that operates the courses and does so much to watch over this historic track of links land.
The Old Course itself really has withstood the test of time. Very few changes have been made to the course since the Open Championship was last here in 2005. The biggest change is the new tee box on 17, the famous Road Hole. A new tee has been added across the road (more like a paved pathway) adding 35 yards to the treturious tee shot over the corner of the Old Course Hotel property. The greenside bunker beside the 17th green has also been rebuilt. With over 100 bunkers strategically placed around the course I still find it amazing that during his 2000 Open Championship win Tiger Woods did not hit one bunker. On more than one occasion, because of the double greens, I’ve hit the same bunker twice in one round!
The closing hole at St. Andrews is unique in that a small public road boarders the right side of the fairway. On one side of the small white fence is the edge of the 18th fairway. Inches away on the other side of the fence are normally parked cars which routinely help those errant shots to stay in play. The walkway behind the 18th green is often filled with tourist and locals who warmly reward good shots or putts with a respectful golf clap.
It has never been easier to get to Scotland from North America. Besides easy connections from London to Scotland, Continental has nonstop service from Newark to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and U S Airways offers nonstop service from Philadelphia to Glasgow.
Come to St. Andrews to explore and enjoy one of the world’s most unique towns; and don’t forget your sticks.
The 150th Open Championship will be played over the Old Course at St. Andrews July 15-18.
Answer: Open venues in Scotland are St. Andrews Old, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Turnberry’s Ailsa Course, and Muirfield, in England Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Liverpool and Royal St. Georges.
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