ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — As the definitive pilgrimage for anyone in the world who loves golf, you wouldn't expect St. Andrews and the prestige that comes with staging Open Championships and Royal Family courtships to be any sort of bargain to experience.
But look closely, and the oldest destination in the world is one of the most economically versatile, too.
The bucket list St. Andrews golf vacation goes something like this: a tour operator-planned itinerary in a guided coach featuring the Old Course, Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and Gleneagles among others - enlisting caddies for them all - not to mention a splurge on top-shelf Scotch, cashmere swag and lavish accommodations with flight upgrades each way. Spending $5,000 or more per person in St. Andrews is easy to do.
For most of us, that's once-in-a-lifetime stuff - if we're lucky.
But there are many who visit Scotland and specifically St. Andrews quite regularly and mind their budget (particularly Europeans). The greater Fife area is chock full of so much golf that you can tailor an itinerary to just about any price.
The best part is that it's also a destination conducive to unlimited golf and replays.
St. Andrews on a budget: How to do it
You'll want to base your St. Andrews value itinerary around the St. Andrews Links Trust 3- (£220) or 7-day (£440) ticket. This affords access to six of the seven courses (excluding the Old) and includes space-available replays in the afternoon. You can use your 3-day ticket over the course of seven days, which allows the chance to enter the Old Course ballot or venture beyond town to seek out nearby courses.
After the Old, the pecking order of the remaining six links are the New and Jubilee, both of which play in the town and present pure links tests. Both are more straightforward than the quirky Old. Locals consider the Jubilee the toughest of the town courses, while the New (opened in 1895) is considered one of Old Tom Morris' best layouts. Also included in the ticket is the modern, David McKlay Kidd-designed Castle Course. It's the most controversial of the links, but its molded, dunes-y holes along the cliffs and in view of the town skyline, plus a really neat clubhouse, make for one of the more aesthetically interesting rounds.
Rounding out the options in the town are the Eden Course, which plays beside the Old Course back nine. It's a great arrival-day option with a particularly strong front nine. The 6,000-yard Strathtyrum Course and nine-hole, beginner friendly Balgove Short Course are certainly less heralded but great fun on a reply or casual loop, and each epitomizes the "golf-for-all" mentality of the world's original golf town.
During the busier months of June-August, afternoon replays are a little more sparse, (especially in 2018 with The Open at nearby Carnoustie, followed by the Senior Open on the Old). But during our mid-April trip, the first week of the peak golf season, there was plenty of room on all the tee sheets (even empty spots on the Old Course). We managed to get on every course we desired (darkness sets in around 8:30). This is in spite of the fact 2017 was a record year for rounds play at the Links Trust courses, and 2018 is shaping up to be gangbusters as well.
More value options beyond St. Andrews
Fife is full of value courses that fly a little more under the radar due to St. Andrews' long shadow. About 30 minutes east on the exposed coast is the 36-hole Crail Golfing Society. The courses are on a totally different piece of terrain compared to the low-lying Links Trust courses and feature seaside holes and plenty of ocean views. It's an exposed place and the wind can whip. But there is a driving range here and Craighead Links, a modern, Gil Hanse-designed complement to the historic Balcomie Links. A relatively new clubhouse is a great spot for lunch or dinner between or after golf. A day ticket runs £95 weekday/£115 weekend, or as low as £85 in the April and October shoulder seasons.
It would be impossible to mention fun on a budget in St. Andrews without recommending an evening round on the Himalayas, the famous putting course owned by the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club. For a £1 each, it's brilliant fun, rich in history and no other experience soaks in the town's soul more.
When the students leave for summer, the University of St. Andrews converts some of their student housing into holiday accommodations between June 6th and September 1st. The David Russell self-catering apartments have five, double en-suite bedrooms and can be booked for £475 for three nights or £850 for seven nights.
If you're in town when the students are here, you can check out the Premier Inn or New Inn, both of which offer rates under $100. Lastly, if you want to get really cozy on your buddies trip, check out the St. Andrews Hostel's 5-, 6- and 8-bed dormers (rates as low as $34/night).
Also, it might sound surprising, but the Fairmont St. Andrews offers rates that are some of the most reasonable I've seen amongst the global luxury hotel brand's offerings anywhere in the world. You can get stay and plays there, which includes a room, breakfast and golf for two for as low as £190.
You can still experience the Old Course Hotel by stopping in for a pint or lunch at the Jigger Inn, or head up to the Road Hole Bar's 4th floor balcony and watch golfers tee off on the Road Hole.
Value and the Old Course
I've tried to tell people that playing the Old Course isn't absolutely necessary to enjoy St. Andrews. It's not gated off like Augusta National. You can wander around it at your leisure, especially on Sunday when it becomes a bustling public park — a spectacle for visitors to see in its own right.
As for actually playing it, entering the Old Course ballot provides value in a sense that it doesn't come with a golf packager up-charge, and compared to top premium courses in the U.S. like Pebble Beach and TPC Sawgrass, the price to play the Old (£180 peak season) is reasonable.
Tee times cost less in the shoulder or off-seasons, but keep in mind playing the Old during the off-season requires using mats in the fairways, and the east coast is prone to a snowfall or two each year. I certainly wouldn't book a transatlantic flight for an off-season golf trip. Our mid-April trip coincided with what the locals were calling the first sign of warmth after a miserable winter.
A few value tips
- Pass on caddies. They're going to run as much if not more than the golf. Green fees at the Links Trust courses include a handy yardage guide. Walking these courses are quite easy - generally flat with tees close to greens - and trolley hire is £5.
I've generally gone to Scotland in April-May when crowds are lighter and it's easier to walk on courses. Conditions at this time of year in 2018 were, according to the greens staff at St. Andrews, about two months behind schedule, so the turf quality wasn't as mint as usual but still acceptable.
- You might be surprised to know that many clubs in Fife now have online tee times and even offer some last-minute discounts. Check out GolfNow's Fife destination page, which at present features such local courses as Leven Links, Elie House, Anstruther, Glenrothes and many others. Not every course in Fife is a links but they’re just about all scenic and interesting.
- You can skip the cost of a car hire in St. Andrews. Getting to St. Andrews from Edinburgh (EDI) airport is a bit tedious: A bus to the town center, followed by a train to Leuchars, then a cab. It cost about £35 total. An Uber cost me £80. I found two shared ride providers in St. Andrews that advertise affordable transportation but neither worked out for me, and communication with them was lacking.
- Keep in mind that many accommodation options include breakfast, so make sure you aren't booking your tee times so early you have to skip a free chance to fuel up. The other great thing about St. Andrews is that given its heavy college presence, affordable takeaway restaurants, from Indian curries to pizza to fish shops, are abundant. The pub scene is also competitive so pint prices are pretty reasonable.
- For those U.S. golfers in search of a good exchange rate, the pound has bounced off its 2017 lows ($1.22/£1) but anything less than $1.50/£1 is pretty favorable looking at the past decade.
So let's add it all up
Here's a sample week-long itinerary that takes advantage of all-inclusive Links Trust ticket.
The 7-day links ticket: £440. Or you can get the 3-day ticket at £220 and add on off-property courses like Crail, Ladybank, Lundin Links, Leven Links or Elie House, all of which are £65-70 (Day Tickets £90-115). Some even more affordable parkland/heathland courses in Fife: Anstuther, Aberdour, Green Hotel's Bruce and Montgomery courses: £30-45
David Russell apartments split up to ten ways. £85/pp
Golf and room adds up to £75 per day (or just under $100 given today's exchange rate). Tack on about $30-50 per day in food & beverage and you're still in pretty good shape.
Now let's say you simply can't do without the Old Course. Then add £25 per day premium and you're about squarely at £100 for golf and room.
So compare St. Andrews to some unlimited golf packages in America we're promoting currently:
As for transportation between courses if you're venturing out, you can browse fare estimates for golfers at Golf City Taxis.
But what about the flight to Scotland?
Valid point, that's probably the costliest part of your trip and can vary depending on the season and your home airport. I would suggest hoarding credit card miles and even look into signing up for airline cards with great bonus programs. A few years back I pounced on an American Airlines credit card offer that awarded 75,000 miles, enough to get me to the U.K. easily. One tip: You can fly into Glasgow or Edinburgh, so be sure to price shop both.