The Old Course in St. Andrews, in spite of its global prestige, has always been a very democratic round of golf to book.
Accessible to all? Yes. Complicated, with various interests controlling inventory? Very much so. But a big announcement by the Links Trust was made this morning that has Scotland golf package companies optimistic.
Traditionally, the steps for golfers to secure a tee time on the Old Course have been the following:
• Contact the Links Trust in the fall requesting a date and tee time for your group.
• If you don't have your ducks in a row by then, or your request is not accepted due to busy dates, you then have a choice to make: enter the daily ballot, drawn two days prior to the day you request. Or buy a guaranteed-tee-time golf package.
This guaranteed package, for the last 10 years, has been controlled exclusively by the Old Course Experience, who can either sell direct to customers or to other golf package companies. This method has led to a huge markup in the Old Course tee time and often forces leisure groups to either skip the Old or take their chances in the daily ballot.
This last method has been a huge source of contention for Scotland golf packagers, as well as a sore spot for golf groups taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Golf Digest's Dean Knuth and Peter Finch chronicled the ordeal in great detail in 2009, and little has changed since, except it's more expensive these days.
But it appears the Links Trust is set to change the process beginning in 2018, when they will assume full operations of their tee times, and the Old Course Experience will no longer be the sole provider of guaranteed Old Course tee time golf packages.
From the St. Andrews Links Trust press release:
Euan Loudon, Chief Executive, St Andrews Links, said: "Following a lengthy period of consideration the Trust has decided that it is the appropriate time to take control over the presentation and sale of all Old Course commercial times as well as developing and managing a closer working relationship with multiple tour operators."This change in emphasis will bring to a close the existing contractual arrangement which we have enjoyed with our partner, OCE, for more than 20 years. We would like to thank the entire team in St Andrews, London and New York for all their hard work, support and assistance during this time."
With two years to go before the arrangement kicks in, there are still plenty of details to be ironed out. Package providers from around the world will be jostling for a stake in the inventory, and it's unclear exactly how much packagers will be able to sell these guaranteed tee times and packages for.
Sam Baker, founder and CEO of Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions, is optimistic the move by the Links Trust will be beneficial to leisure groups, not to mention the rest of the Scottish golf and travel industry. The current model, which can cause Old Course premiums to run as high as $2,000, has led to most OCE packages to be booked by corporate groups that stay 3-4 nights in St. Andrews exclusively. By spreading these tee times out to various packagers, leisure groups stand a better chance of securing better deals. Baker says his Scotland golf groups normally stay 6-8 nights and visit at least two regions of Scotland, whether it's nearby East Lothian or north around the Scottish Highlands.
"The bigger winner is Scotland," said Baker, of the Links Trust announcement. "The average length of stay associated with Old Course tee times will almost double, which is really good for Scottish tourism."
In the meantime, Baker recommends all his groups try and organize by the fall and write the Links Trust for a tee time during the open period. In 2015, applications were accepted between Aug. 26-Sept. 14 for 2016 times, which are now sold out. Summer green fees for the Old Course in 2016 are £175, and your best bet at this point is through the daily ballot.
You can also book tee times for the other six Links Trust courses at the Links Trust Web site, which also includes a really good package on the six courses besides the Old. The 3- and 7-day Unlimited Golf offers (£200 for three days, £400 for 7), include space available replays in the afternoon on any Links Trust course besides the Old, and you can also work your Old Course ballot entries around your tee times. The New, Jubilee and modern Castle Courses being the three top experiences of the six.
So, should you use a tour operator or self-plan for a Scotland trip? I address this conundrum many groups have in the following article.