Editor’s Note: In late September and early October 2016, Golf Tips editor Vic Williams joined respected tour company Connoisseurs Scotland and several other journalists for an extensive tour of the birthplace of golf. Following is the first installment of a multi-part series on his experience, which he began two days early, on his own with a visit to St. Andrews.
The little road that separates the Old Course and New Course in St. Andrews is about eight feet and three centuries wide. As I stood there, looking at the 400-year-old world-famous links to my left and its much younger (only 120 years) sibling to my right, a warm blast of emotion cut through the damp September air and straight through my heart. No tears, but damned close.
After a little over 24 hours on Scotland soil, it all hit me. I was finally here, strolling alongside the Auld Sod, all greened up and gorgeous in preparation for the Dunhill Cup, its hallowed hollows and humps trimmed just so as its ancient heart beat strongly and clearly from down through the decades. I thought of all those hours watching the Open Championship come through the TV in two-dimensional grandeur, beckoning me to where it all began, but the Old Course is many times more timeless in three dimensions, in person. The best elements of many golf worlds — traditional and modern, wild and austere, exclusive but open to all — are right there, strewn over its narrow, rumpled, shepherd’s crook-shaped expanse, palpable and visible. The gravity is almost too much to bear, but bear it I did.
I wouldn’t play the Old Course that Saturday afternoon, though I did wander further down the narrow road, following a guy in knickers, Payne Stewart style, as he negotiated the first few outward holes alone — probably the last standby from the day’s show-up-before-dawn list. I strolled back past the Himalayas Putting Green crowded with women and kids, then toward the R&A, cutting across the first and 18th fairways on the well-worn path so many thousands of visitors negotiate each year. I then turned right to loiter behind the Road Hole for a while, fighting the urge to sneak into the most famous bunker in the world, scoop up a handful of sand and put it in my pocket for the trip home nine days in the future. I took what seemed like a thousand photos instead, thinking of all the shots I’d seen struck there on the tube and in my imagination. I wandered over to the British Golf Museum, soaked in the exhibits and devoured the historical accounts until closing, which led me to the picket fence and little garden park behind the 18th green, which led back toward the Jigger Inn and the Old Course Hotel and finally into the village itself. St. Andrews University was back in session so the shops and pubs and restaurants along Market Street were bustling with students as well as wind-chapped golfers; after a quick pint at The Central I found my way into a fresh seafood house called Tailend for another two pints and plate of fish and chips, then circled down to North Street for a nightcap (make that two more pints) at Dunvegan Pub, where many pro and amateur players have toasted and tipped, elbow to elbow, just one block up from the Old Course.
From there I caught a cab back to my hotel a couple miles south, the Fairmont St. Andrews, home to two excellent clifftop courses of its own — the Kittocks and the Torrance. I’d played the latter first thing that morning with three young lads from Edinburgh, two of them very good players, all of them as friendly and open as every other Scot I’d meet over the week to come. Our first blind tee shots on the opening par 5, from a bluff above the modern, two-level clubhouse, played into a stiff southwest breeze carrying light rain that would play hide and seek with spates of sun through the round. I pull-hooked my drive into the tall fescue; at least I had the churning gray expanse of the North Sea to gaze at as I searched in vain for that new ball. I was playing golf in Scotland and I was happy to donate — and my generosity would continue a few more times this round, and in the five to come. Even as I straightened my tee shots and found a par here and there, score would take a backseat to the Experience.
Despite offering the requisite pot bunkers and huge greens, both the Kittocks and Torrance courses are more heathland than pure links, rolling over longer, broader hills than those found among classic dunes, with views of the Fife coastline on most holes and the familiar church spire-dominated skyline of St. Andrews itself a constant peripheral companion. Though Sam Torrance’s eponymous layout gets the most notice and hosts the greater number of name competitions including the Scottish Senior Open from 2009 to 2014, the Kittocks has its adherents. Designed by Bruce Devlin with some input from Gene Sarazen, it’s bisected by a meandering, tree-filled mini-glen (Yanks would call it a ravine) that comes into play on several holes including the long par 4 4th, with a deep valley in front of the green. The course heads back toward the sea on No. 6, a lovely mid-iron par 3 playing straight toward the water, followed by one of the course’s best two-shotters, a slightly downhill, well-bunkered beast that shares a massive green with the short par 4 10th (overshoot the surface on either hole and you’re either on the rocks or up against a low wall). The rest of the back nine’s first half moves inland, then U-turns down the hill for holes 15-17, a tough stretch culminating on a cliffhanging green guarded on the right by a deep chasm. The final hole stretches gently uphill alongside wetlands and one of several inland ponds, into the prevailing wind — a stout windup to a solid warmup round for any first-time Scotland golf pilgrim.
Both Fairmont courses were part of the original St. Andrews Bay resort opened by American entrepreneur Don Panoz in 2001; Fairmont took over management of the entire resort in 2006. The 209-room, U-shaped hotel — which is undergoing a stem-to-stern refurbishment slated for completion in May 2017 — is among the Fife region’s finest, especially if you want an all-in-one home base while you sample the dozens of golf options up and down the coast and inland, to places like Gleneagles, which resides in the Highlands, perhaps a 90-minute drive away. The rooms are excellent, the dining options solid (have lunch at the clubhouse pub at least once, or stick around for a steak-seafood dinner menu), with a full Scottish breakfast included in the hotel’s airy atrium for hotel guests. I tried my first-ever helping of haggis before taking on the Kittocks, and amazingly, I loved its spicy, earthy richness. The Fairmont also offers the largest meeting facility in the area, indoor pool, full-service spa and fitness facility, and cozy lobby bar for tallying up the score. And remember: The Auld Grey Toon, the Old Course and its half-dozen St. Andrews brethren are just a short drive up the narrow A917. In fact, the tough Castle Course is even closer — right next door — while another world-class links option, top-ranked Kingsbarns, is a scant mile to the south.
Of course, though this part of my trip wasn’t on my Connoisseurs Golf itinerary, they can handle all the arrangements, including guaranteed rounds at the Old Course. “Connections” is their middle name.
With so much golf yet to play and the Old Course pulling at my soul with more force than ever, can my first visit to St. Andrews possibly be my last? Not if the golf gods are listening.
St. Andrews Golf: www.st.andrews.com
Connoisseurs Scotland: www.luxuryscotland.co.uk
Scotland Part 2: Joining the Connoisseurs crew at lovely Loch Lomond
Scotland Part 3: Onward to Aberdeen
Scotland Part 4: The Highlands and Castle Stuart