ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – This city is Camelot with caddies.
Golf began here more than 600 years ago and today the area continues as the aluring mecca for the golfing world. Within the city limits is the largest golfing complex in Europe. The Old Course. The New Course. Jubilee Course. Castle Course. Strathtyrum Course. Eden Course.
If this isn’t the ultimate golfing nirvana, you’re no more than a wedge away.
As part of our Scotland golf trip, my son Bobby and I wanted to spend as much time as we could in St. Andrews during our week in the country. We managed to secure four nights here, using it as our base of operations during the day and Guinness tasting tour at night.
From here, we went to play Carnoustie north, to Gleneagles west and to Crail (and Kingsbarn) south. Those courses all served as a buildup to our final day when we played St. Andrews Old Course.
We started our journey north from Edinburgh, which is on Scotland’s east coast of along Firth of Forth waterway, which dumps into the North Sea. About 10 miles west of the city, you take the Firth of Forth bridge to the Highlands, then drive another 30 miles to St. Andrews. There are few traffic lights along the way but about three dozen roundabouts. The Scots love those circular slowdowns in this country. Also, keep reminding yourself, drive on the left, drive on the left.
We stayed at the Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews for about $150 night. We were there the last week of March so we had winter rates. Quite certain that rate will rise with the advance of the prime season but it’s worth the expense.
If this is the center of the golf world, the Rusacks is in the middle of that. It couldn’t be more convenient. It overlooks the first hole and the 18th hole on the Old Course. Old Tom Morris golf shop is just below. The 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge is 100 yards away. The 18th hole is one of the most photographed holes in the game and many times you’ll see the Rusacks in the background.
The first thing we saw on our arrival as we drove into the hotel parking lot was the grey, stately, 156-year old Royal & Ancient Golf Club clubhouse sitting behind the first tee, bathed in a mystic light. At least that’s the way it seemed in my writer’s eye. The R&A club was founded in 1754 and it has ruling authority over the game worldwide.
St. Andrews, with a non-student population of about 17,000, is at a fairly high latitude on the globe, the same as Moscow. Yet the winters here are relatively mild, primarily because of the marine influence. Snow is rare but the wind can be fierce at times. That’s the one element that makes all these courses so difficult, the whipping winds off the sea that can blow through hard at any time of year.
For our week, March 21-29, we couldn’t have been more fortunate. Temperatures ranged from mid-50s to the low-70s. It was the hottest March temperatures ever recorded in the region. We had not one drop of rain all week and the winds were placid.
It’s true, it’s true, the crown has made it clear
The climate must be perfect all the year
The first inhabitants of St. Andrews, named after one of the 12 disciples, likely were here between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Researchers have found no mention of greens fees, pin placements or stimpmeters.
The two most important structures in its early history were the St. Andrews Cathedral, built in 1158 and once the largest building in Scotland that is now lies in ruins, and the University of St. Andrews. It is the oldest university in Scotland, established in 1410, and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. It’s considered to be one of the best in the United Kingdom.
In order to become a student at the U, you must recite a lengthy oath in Latin.
Beware of the cobblestone initials ‘PH’ below the bell tower of the Chapel of St. Salvador on campus. It stands for Patrick Hamilton, one of the Protestant martyrs in the Middle Ages who was burned at the stake. Stepping on this is said to bring a curse. The only way to rid yourself of it is during the May Dip. If a student steps on the stones, he or she can be forgiven by running into the North Sea at dawn on the First of May.
A 169-year-old obelisk at the Martyrs Memorial, which honors Hamilton and other Reformation martyrs, is just behind the R&A clubhouse and many times can be seen during the Open broadcasts.
Among the more prominent University graduates are three signees of the Declaration of Independence, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Carnegie, John Clease and the future King of England, Prince William and new bride Kate Middleton. Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson all have received honorary degrees here.
The university, with about 6,000 undergraduates, is just east of the Old Course, less than a quarter mile from the 18th green, off North St. There are three main corridors through the city, North, Market and South Streets. At three streets end up at the edge of the North Sea to the east. That’s where you can tour the St. Andrews Cathedral ruins, St. Rule’s Tower and the St. Andrews Castle.
Old Tom Morris (1821-1908), a legendary figure in the golf world, was born and died (at age 87) in St. Andrews. He’s buried at the cathedral’s cemetery. He won the Open championship four times but was more famous for his groundskeeping, equipment making and course design. The Old Tom Morris golf shop is an obligatory stop, just a few feet from the 18th green.
The British Golf Museum is across the street from the Old Course first tee. The museum chronicles the 600-year-old history of the game, displaying ancient clubs and equipment.
Looking north from the Old Course first tee, you see a wide white-sand expanse called West Sands. The locals love walking this beach (it’s a bit too cold most of the year for swimming or sunbathing). The 1981 movie Chariots of Fire was filmed here.
It’s a level, pleasant walk around the city. Most of the shopping and dining are on Market and South Streets. We had a tasty light-batter fish-n-chips meal at the Tail End on Market and just about every morning brunched at Bibi’s Cafe on North St. That’s worth the effort before your round.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear
The first three days we left the city early to play other courses but returned generally just before dusk. The streets were still lively long into the evening. We spent some time at the white-washed Jigger Inn, originally used as the train station masters’ quarters in the 1850s. The pub, in front of the Old Course Hotel, is alongside to the 17th ‘Road Hole’ fairway.
We would sit on the patio with a pint and watch the final Old Course groups play through. Their drives, which had to be carefully steered around the Old Course Hotel and railway shed, generally settled within our sight. Then we’d follow their progress down the fairway while trading barbs with the exceptionally friendly Scots.
Late each night we’d end up at the Dunvegan Hotel pub, on North St., billing itself as “only a 9-iron from the Old Course.” It is. It’s probably just 100 yards from the 18th. It’s owned by a Texas oil man, Jack Willoughby, and his Scottish wife Sheena. It’s all golf, all the time.
There are pictures of virtually every pro golfer in the world on the Dunvegan walls and even the ceiling. The TVs constantly show golf and the timing is perfect. By the time we’ve finished our rounds, cleaned up and were ready to imbibe, the broadcast for a PGA Tour event in the U.S. generally was just starting.
Our final day in St. Andrews included our 11:50 a.m. Old Course booking. We hit Bibi’s for a quick egg sandwich and coffee. We checked out of the Rusacks, which offers guests the option to shower and dress in a lockerroom after the round.
When the time came, we grabbed our bags and walked down a short flight of steps to the Old Course on a glorious shirtsleeve day. We would then play the most memorable round of golf in our lives, not because we were so skillful but because it was a father and a son playing a legendary tract in a city and country that bordered on mystical.
In short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot.