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Saturday, April 20, 2024
Travel log: A golf trip to historic Scotland

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – If you play golf, chances are you know that St. Andrews is considered the historic home of the game.

And whether you’re a weekend hacker or serious student of golf, chances are you have seen events like the Open Championship played on the Old Course and maybe wondered about paying a visit.

Earlier this month, my wife, May Chang, and I spent a week at the Macdonald Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews, with a room overlooking the first and 18th holes of the 600-year-old Old Course. And we also played golf. Five times.

While the Old Course is famous as the home of golf and for all the spectacular tournaments that have been played there, it is but one of dozens of fine courses in this area of Scotland, about 80 kilometres north of Edinburgh.

Getting a tee time on the Old Course requires luck and a willingness to blithely spend a ridiculous amount of money. In the summer high season, April to October basically, it costs £190 per person (about $330 Canadian). You do not have to take a caddy, but it is a great experience. That costs another £55, plus tip (about £75 or more in total).

But it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Here’s a brief look at the courses we played. We had uncharacteristically great weather, though the wind did howl and the rain did sprinkle a few times. But it was mostly gorgeous, sunny and around 20C.

The Old Course: You can pay even more by booking through a specialty agency that has guaranteed tee times for the Old Course, or you can try to win the lottery.

Each fall, a draw allocates a portion of Old Course tee times for the following summer. A lot of folks, desperate to play, will line up as early as 1 a.m. Monday to Saturday. (There’s no golf on the course on Sundays; it’s a public park that day.) When workers arrive after 5 a.m. they fill in holes on the tee sheet.

Most sensible is the 48-hour ballot, another lottery, that lets you know two days hence what time you can play. We got the third tee time of the day on Monday, July 8 at 6:50 a.m.

With its mix of mammoth greens, rolling links fairways, dangerous pot bunkers and centuries of nostalgia, a day on the Old Course is one to cherish and remember.

The New Course: Old Tom Morris, the legendary greenkeeper and four-time Open champion who helped turn St. Andrews into a golf mecca in the 1800s, wasn’t big on fancy names apparently. The Old Course dates to the 1400s, so when Morris designed a new links in 1895, he simply called it the New Course.

Many locals told me they much prefer the New to the Old. They are located side by side and after playing them both once, I’m not sure I have a preference. Maybe I’ll have to play ’em again.

Getting onto the New Course is easy: Just show up. Actually, you can book times a couple of days in advance, but we were advised to simply stop by the starter’s hut and see what is available. Turns out, plenty. The starter told us that any day we wanted to play all we had to do was come around in the morning and see what was available. With all the focus on the Old Course, we had our pick of times the Saturday we played there.

It’s also far cheaper: £80 per person (about $135 Canadian).

Kingsbarns: A relatively new course, opened in 2000, this links layout runs along the North Sea coast about 10 kilometres from central St. Andrews. It is beautifully picturesque and much hillier than the Old or New. I recommend taking a caddy to help keep you out of trouble and advise you on where to hit your ball. At £288 per golfer, this course is crazy expensive. We booked it and Carnoustie through a golf travel agency, Toronto’s Golf Away Tours, operated by Matt Palermo and T.J. Rule, so by the time we arrived, it had long been paid for. Ouch. But the views are wonderful.

Carnoustie: The day before we were to play “Carnasty,” as it has been nicknamed, the course was drenched. It rained all day and the forecast was not promising. With a sore foot, I didn’t relish playing in wind and rain. And, of course, being Scotland, the weather changed. By the time we started, all my rain gear was packed away and we were in shirt sleeves on the warmest day of the year so far. Go figure. At a mere £210, Carnoustie, about a one-hour drive from St. Andrews, is pricey but as one of the other Open championship courses (last played there in 2018), it’s worth it. The course boasts more than 100 bunkers and I think our foursome found about 20 of them.

Eden: Back in St. Andrews, this 1914 vintage layout is a good one to get used to playing on links-style courses. It’s challenging yet not so tough that it beats you up. A lot of male golfers we encountered insisted on trying to play from 6,600 yards or more, when they generally play from 6,000 or less. Frankly, the courses are already tough enough, why bother trying to be like the pros? (Hint: You’re not a pro, that’s why you’re paying to play.)

TRAVEL NOTES: Air Canada has direct flights to Edinburgh from Toronto. Driving in the Scottish countryside can be an adventure: narrow, winding roads with vehicles coming at you at 60 mph (only petrol seems to be in metric). Made for some hair-raising experiences.

With about 18 hours of summer daylight, Old Course tee times run from 6:30 to 6:30 daily – except Sunday when the Old Course is a public park, packed with picnickers, dogs roaming off-leash, tourists posing on the Swilcan Bridge, or people just meandering the links.

Almost every player walks the Old Course. Unlike North America, you need special dispensation to use a power cart (called a buggy here) and must hire a caddie to drive the buggy. Most players take a caddie or carry their bag.

Arrive prepared for any weather. Layers are mandatory. We wore shorts once in five golf outings and got rained on. Down jackets are common sights in July in St. Andrews. As the locals say, “It’s Scotland.”

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