ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It's impossible to not feel optimistic about the future of golf when you visit its birthplace.
In no place is golf so interwoven into the community in such a simultaneously classy and relaxed fashion.
In the morning, older club members play their regular games mixed in with awestruck foursomes of visitors. In the evening twilight, students come home along the Old Course back nine and boom drives on the Road Hole confidently over the Old Course Hotel. Dog walkers and pedestrians cut across fairways like they own the place (they're not wrong).
Even after a long day walking 36 holes, strolling back towards the town past the links gets you excited to get up and play again. It's aura can't be duplicated anywhere else. Fortunately, while it may be a transatlantic flight away, it really is a destination that goes out of its way to accommodate the droves of golfers who make the pilgrimage.
After my most recent trip last month, I thought about what makes St. Andrews such a special place to visit. When you consider they set the standard for a successful golf destination centuries ago, you wonder why so many places have strayed so far over the years. But in my mind, these are some of the elements that makes St. Andrews - or other destinations around the world, for that matter, with common qualities - a cut above.
A lot of buddy trips will go to the same place every year. Nothing wrong with that. For trip captains, that consistency helps build relationships with properties and eliminate a lot of worry about learning the lay of the land.
But even if you keep returning to the same place, it's nice to add wrinkles. What I love about St. Andrews is the sheer number of courses in the town and throughout Fife. There is always a new course to play. You can put on some miles and venture to Carnoustie and Gleneagles, or not even get a car and walk to the first tee for every round.
An example in the U.S.: It reminds me a bit of Northern Michigan. There are many multi-course resorts like Boyne Highlands and Treetops, but if you're willing to make some scenic drives to Forest Dunes or Arcadia or the U.P., you open up limitless possibilities.
Name your price
I get asked a lot about the difference between Bandon Dunes and Scotland. The first thing I usually say is that while Bandon might have the best foursome of links anywhere, you can't really do it on the cheap. Main-season rates at the four 18-hole courses are $210-265.
But many golf groups would rather play mostly courses that are more affordable and then finish with a bang on a more expensive standout.
St. Andrews has a literal ladder of courses from the Himalayas putting course to modest 18s like Eden and Strathtyrum. There are also varying styles of links and inland courses around Fife. The Castle Course is bound to polarize your group and sets up lively 19th hole banter.
An example in the U.S.: Two new players in this space are Big Cedar Lodge and now, with the addition of the Cradle, Pinehurst. Eight-course Crystal Springs Resort also has layouts of all sizes.
The joy of unlimited golf
Most clubs in Scotland offer "day tickets" which allow for an afternoon replay for just a little more money. It's the U.K.'s version of "unlimited golf." The St. Andrews Links Trust offers 3- and 7-day Links Tickets (£220 and £440, respectively) that afford access to each of their courses but the Old. You can book morning tee times in advance and then get space-available replays in the afternoon.
We've all been on trips where someone is jonesing for some afternoon payback. Unlimited golf packages and day tickets make it easy.
An example in the U.S.: Unlimited golf packages have really grown in popularity, especially during off-peak months (bonus points if it's not humid). The best unlimited packages are at destinations with a lot of courses to offer, like Reynolds Lake Oconee, Boyne and Sunriver, among many others.
There's something always new
It's truly a great time to be a golf traveler. Not only are brand-new golf resorts seeking to emulate the success of Bandon Dunes, but historic resorts aren't resting on their laurels either. At St. Andrews, they've embraced technology in many ways. This spring, they installed TrackMan at the practice center (free to use for anyone who buys a bucket of balls) and recently busted up the virtual monopoly of guaranteed Old Course golf packages. They've made the Old Course ballot system transparent and user-friendly.
When you're a trip leader, updates are a clear sign that ownership is totally committed to a destination and that they know they need to continue to work for your business. Developers Mike Keiser and Johnny Morris both seem keen on the idea of rolling out new courses and amenities every year. It gets golfers excited to go back. Never stop, guys.
A good walk
I don't think every golf course needs to be walking-only (and I wouldn't recommend planning a walking trip in the South in the summer), but anytime my bag gets loaded onto a cart without even asking if I want to walk, it makes me think a smidgen less of the joint. For buddies trips, walking allows for a more natural camaraderie from green-to-tee and tee-to-fairway. The exercise also makes the pints taste better afterwards, and there is less guilt ordering a big dinner.
It helps of course when it's not hot and humid, and St. Andrews' links courses are generally flat with short distances to walk between holes.
The best walking destinations in the U.S. are those where the weather cooperates as much as the course designs. Monterey Peninsula's temperate weather and deep roster of quality layouts is certainly a leader here, along with the Pacific Northwest and historic courses in the Northeast.
A symbiotic relationship with the town
In St. Andrews, it's tough to identify where the Links Trust jurisdiction ends and private businesses begin. Finish up on the 18th green of the Old Course and it's easier to stroll into a town pub like the Dunvegan than to actually go back to the Links Clubhouse. Logo gear is in golf shops all over. There seems to be enough business to fill all the pubs and shops, in such a harmonious relationship that no one plays dirty.
It's a vibe best replicated stateside in the Village of Pinehurst, though Monterey Peninsula and Scottsdale are places where the game is so deeply-rooted it would seem the towns themselves would hardly exist without it. Meanwhile, in Canada, Cape Breton's Cabot Links is enjoying wonderful success as North America's great east-coast links destination and I can't help but feel some of that in-town links sensation there. The 18th green is lit up with a floodlight at night for those groups chasing the setting sun and there is no closer 19th hole to an 18th green in golf.
The resort facilities are sprinkled about and lead up into the town of Inverness, most specifically the cozy new Public House pub that feels like it's been there for generations. Caddies are mostly locals who are excited that an influx of new jobs has reinvigorated this little village.
Cabot has become a darling among new destinations, but what makes it special can certainly be traced to the world's oldest.