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A pilgrimage along fairways: playing St. Andrews is almost a spiritual experience for golfers

By Paul Knowles (first published in Forever Young)

Our tee time in the New Course was booked for 9:30 a.m. the following day, but naturally, we could not wait that long to plant our feet on the grass of St. Andrews Links. Minutes after we drove into town, we dumped our bags in our rooms at the Russell Hotel, and walked the single block to the first tee of the Old Course, and thence to pose for photos on the iconic Swilcan Bridge. We were not alone. The streets of this fabled Scottish city were full of men (and a few women) with visions of golfing majesty shining in their eyes. It was like being at the end of a religious pilgrimage – but with more single malt Scotch, and odder clothing. (Photo - the author and golf buddy John Hanson on the Swilcan Bridge)


St. Andrews is the shrine of golf, there is no other way to look at it. Ironically, St. Andrews was indeed a place of religious pilgrimage, and the ruins of a cathedral and a Bishop's Palace or castle are still points of great interest. But while religious pilgrims stopped coming centuries ago, golf fans have been arriving to play the ancient and venerable game since the 1400s.

It was here that golf was invented. It was here that it was codified into a set of highly detailed rules. It is to here that the best in the world come – including the top women golfers in 2013, to play the Women's British Open. And it was here that we were going to play golf, over the next few days.

There is no lack of opportunity to play golf in St. Andrews – although you had best come with a variety of clothing, ready for anything, because anything is very likely to happen. St. Andrews Links now comprises seven individual golf courses, including the original – the Old Course – as well as the New Course (opened in 1895), and five others. There are several other fine courses in the immediate area, including the spectacular Kingsbarns Golf Links, a short drive up the coast. Ever golfer wants to play the Old Course, although that is not as easy as it seems. There is an advanced lottery for tee times – our twosome failed to get a time. There are tee times available some days, to walk-ons. There are very expensive golf packages that guarantee a time. And there are also individual hotel packages, such as the one we purchased at the Russell Hotel, which guarantee a tee time on the Old Course, and another on the New Course – if you stay for five days, including four meals.

In truth, it's worth it – the Russell is a warm and friendly little hotel, the meals were good, the bar is cozy, and the course is a brief walk away. One other glitch – to play the Old Course, a golfer also needs to have an acceptable handicap, and hard, written evidence of. Current cut-off is 24 for men, 36 for women. No such handicap is needed for the other six St. Andrews Links courses or other nearby courses. One quick observation: if you cannot get a tee time on the Old Course because of scheduling or a high handicap, come anyway, and play a week of golf on all the other courses. They are terrific links courses. Besides, a bad shot on the New Course puts you right on a fairway on the Old Course, anyway! Not that this is recommended.

The New Course was our first experience with "links" golf. I'm sure there are detailed definitions of "links" style, but suffice it to say – it's challenging and sometimes darned near impossible. The word "links" refers to land along the sea; and that's true of all the St. Andrews area courses. The rough is tall and wild; the bunkers are deep, some sodded to a height taller than the golfer; the rough will include gorse and heather; the greens are huge and fast, fast, fast, and sometimes shared between two fairways – with differently coloured flags at either end of the green. If all that is not challenge enough, we played in 40 mph winds – the same velocity that caused the postponement by one day of the Women's British Open tournament later in the summer. But when you have a tee time at St. Andrews, you play.

We were actually a bit lucky – we faced wind, and cool temperatures, but a minimum of rain. Others, with different tee times, played in downpours during the week. But they, too, played. I finished my first game of golf in Scotland with an embarrassing score, not a par in sight, and a huge grin on my face. It's not about the score – it's the experience. In this case, that cliché is actually true.

The Old Course welcomed us the following afternoon. And it is a welcome – the starter checks your handicap papers, and then presents you with a small cloth bag with sundry goodies bearing the Old Course logo. You probably already have several, by the time, after browsing in the shops – hat, ball marker, sweater, etc. But the little bag is pretty neat, too. It is suggested that you hire a caddie for the Old Course, and we did. We were paired with a lovely couple from near London, England; the wife, Lynne, was the best golfer in our foursome.

And then comes the moment, as you stand on the tee, in front of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, with caddies, fellow players, and passers-by, all watching you hit your first drive. To our amazement, each of the four of us hit a creditable drive down the first fairway – and we know for a fact that not every nervous golfer manages that feat! No reason to get cocky, though – my second shot found the Swilcan Burn – the deep creek that crosses the fairway. So did my fourth. Sigh. The Old Course is challenging, demanding, beautiful, intimidating, unforgiving, rewarding and unforgettable.

The scores – well, we do not speak of this. What each member of the foursome does speak of, however, is getting a birdie on the Old Course. Now, there is a golfing memory to treasure. I birdied the 11th hole, a par three. My playing partner, John, birdied 17, which is reputed to be the toughest hole on the course. Those moments will be with us, and we will be insufferable about them for a very long time to come.

For our third course, we had chosen Kingsbarns, which some veterans of the Scottish pilgrimage had recommended. They were right – Kingsbarns is a beautiful course laid out along the sea, with superior course conditions. We played the green tees – 6,174 yards. And on almost every tee, we paused for a moment to simply drink in the amazing panorama. You not only play along the sea – on the par 3, 15th hole, you play over it, with a rocky inlet between tee and green. I reached the green in one, by the way. I had barely finished the 18th hole, when I started to scheme about ways to return to St. Andrews and play all of those courses – and several others – again.

There is something highly addictive about the combination of golfing history, challenging play, unique environment and sheer natural beauty that literally touches your soul – there is something almost spiritual about St. Andrews. And yes, there is much more than golf, here – the oldest university in Scotland, historic sites like the Cathedral and the Castle, a unique aquarium with seals, penguins and – unexpectedly – meerkats. It's a fine walking city, with good restaurants and pubs. But mostly, it's populated with gob-smacked golfers, who simply can't believe they are going to live their dream, if only for a day or two.

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