Golf Channel's Will Gray details his experience trying to score a last-minute tee time to the Old Course in St. Andrews.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- In my first trip to the Home of Golf, I learned one important lesson: when it comes to getting on the Old Course, flexibility and determination can be two of your strongest assets.
My recent trip to Scotland called for three days of work meetings, with the hope of squeezing in some golf in between. It was all new to me as I had never been to the country, so I was soaking it in and willing to play wherever we could. But staying at the Macdonald Rusacks Hotel that overlooks the 18th fairway, the goal was clear: tee it up on the hallowed grounds where golf was born.
For those who are unaware – as I was up until my arrival in St. Andrews – there are three ways for visitors to play the Old Course (that is, outside of a local membership or a golf package that usually comes with a considerable markup). The first option is to book your tee time months, if not a year, in advance. The second and more popular option is to enter what is called the Open Ballot. If you have a group of two or more and are intent on playing together, this option is for you.
Players are allowed to sign up their groups online or via phone two days prior to their desired day of play, with the results posted online in the afternoon. So at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday the ballot results are released for Friday's play, and the entry process for Saturday tee times begins shortly thereafter and runs until 2 p.m. Thursday. The ballot is conducted six days per week, with the course closed to play every Sunday.
Our group struck out on the ballot, though I have been told that parties staying a few days (and with some tee time flexibility) often fare better. That left me with the third option of going it alone as a walk-up single.
When the ballot results are published, the entire tee sheet for the given day is made available both online and on a screen outside the starter shack near the first tee. Many people snag tee times as foursomes, but there are also plenty of two- and three-balls on the sheet, with the gaps easily and publicly identified. Those open spots are then filled the day of on a first-come, first-serve basis.
We arrived into town on a pleasant Monday afternoon, and around 4 p.m. I walked down to inquire about sneaking out for a late round, given that in midsummer the tee sheet extended to nearly 6 p.m. I was told I was out of luck – there were 16 people milling about the first tee in hopes of snagging one of five open spots left on the tee sheet. Becoming No. 17 in line likely wouldn't help my cause.
But I asked for more information to get a feel for the daily walk-up process. The employee in the pavilion told me that the first person in line had gotten there at 11:40 p.m. the previous night, with the shop opening at 6 a.m. – exactly 30 minutes prior to the day's first tee time. Basically an all-nighter. He also added that the earliest walk-up story he could recall was that once someone got in line for the next day as he was closing up the shop for that night, at 9:30 p.m.
So with that limited information in tow, I took a look at the next day's tee sheet. I had meetings to attend a few yards from the 18th green beginning at 11 a.m., but there were five slots open from 6:30-7:10 a.m., and the weather forecast called for rain all day. If I could snag an early slot – I especially had my eye on rounding out the threesome on the sheet at 6:30 – I figured I could have the best of both worlds.
Given that my body was already fighting jetlag and didn't know up from down, I decided to push my luck. I managed to get a couple hours of sleep, but a little before 1 a.m. I peeked out my hotel window and down to the pavilion area next to the first tee, which was lit but still vacant. Restless and running on adrenaline, I grabbed my clubs and set off down the Rusacks main stairs, walking a few hundred yards around the 18th green, R&A clubhouse and first tee. I set my bag down, took a seat on the nondescript bench outside the front door and at 1 a.m. I became the first person in line. Only five hours left until the shop would open.
It was cold and windy, especially for someone from Florida. But what ensued was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had on a golf course, as I stood and sat and paced a few yards from the tee box – at the Old Course – and there wasn't a soul around. Not one. The town had gone to sleep long ago, and I was left simply with my thoughts amid the buffeting winds and the sounds of waves crashing on the sea a short distance away.
For more than an hour, I had St. Andrews entirely to myself. And it was magical.
Eventually the novelty started to wear off and the chill began to sink in, but the Links Trust provides three small space heaters on sides of the pavilion that need to be activated only once every 30 minutes by pressing a button. Those offered some relief, and I was able to grab a quick nap while lying on the bench before the next person jumped out of his taxi at 2:15 a.m. He was from Beijing, and like me had made his first pilgrimage to St. Andrews. Player No. 3 rolled in around 3 a.m., and by 4 a.m. as the gloaming turned into early light and the rain arrived with vigor, we were eight deep in line.
Those first couple hours provided a great bonding experience, as each person showed up eager to earn their Old Course merit badge. Most were Americans, and somewhat to my surprise none of the seven people that followed me brought their own clubs, instead relying on the Callaway rental sets available in the shop for 35 pounds.
There was an airline pilot, and a guy who was in the midst of a 12-day cruise that had recently docked in Edinburgh. There was a retiree from California who shared stories of caddying in the 1977 PGA Championship at Pebble Beach. We swapped tales as the first tee time drew nearer and the excitement and possibilities grew.
The influx of people really kicked in around 4:30 a.m., and by the time they opened the pro shop at 6 a.m. there were at least 30 people in line. Almost all were Americans, save for player No. 2 from China and a couple of Aussies. I was a little nervous that sorting the line could be an issue given we were all huddled in random order under the small pavilion roof to escape the rain, but the honor system shined through. When it was time to line up as the doors were set to open, there was nary a quibble or question about who had arrived before whom.
Five hours after I first sat on the bench, I walked in and became the first name on the walk-up list for June 27. The employee asked to see a handicap verification (24 max for men and 36 for women; a quick glance at my Grint recap on my phone sufficed) and after discussing what time I had gotten in line, she asked what time I wanted to play. I told her, the sooner the better.
As expected, I snuck in the first tee time, which meant that after hours of milling about, the minutes once my tee time became official were frenzied. I tried to get a quick coffee and sandwich, then headed to the starter shack to gladly pay my 175 pounds (about $225) green fee and meet my group.
The shop attendant had explained that given the iffy weather she expected some tee time cancellations throughout the day, and sure enough the 6:30 a.m. threesome was a no-show. The Chinese player behind me wanted to play later in the morning, which meant that the day's first time consisted of Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5 on the morning waiting list. From our perspective, it was a nice little bonus given the fact that we had just spent the last few hours getting to know each other (while trying to stay warm) instead of each latching onto an existing group.
At last, playing the Old Course
At 6:25 a.m. I grabbed my bag, headed to the first tee and met my caddie. The caddie fee is another 50 pounds plus a suggested tip of at least 20 pounds and it's money well spent. In addition to lugging the bag and telling great stories, the caddies did the little things like told me which gorse bush to aim for (or avoid) and how to keep the hovering seagulls from eating my breakfast sandwich. What's more, the double greens and blind shots can often make sight lines difficult to identify if you're not a veteran of the course. Put it this way: three players in our foursome shelled out for caddies, and the other guy played to the wrong hole twice, including once onto the adjacent Eden Course.
The start of the round was a bit harried as I tried to loosen up my swing after walking to the tee without benefit of a practice shot. I also spent the first few holes constantly either putting on or taking off some combination of rain gear and weather gloves. But the course is generally forgiving, and when I managed to follow my caddie's advice I usually benefited. One of the day's highlights, driving the green on the par-4 10th with the wind at my back, was quickly erased when I three-putted for par.
Walking the course, you could simply feel the history seep into your shoes. I thought of the many memorable shots I'd seen on TV over the years as my caddie pointed out that every great player, save Ben Hogan, had walked the course we trod that morning. There was such simplicity to the ground, yet subtle complexity to the layout itself. And the bunkers – they were a work of art.
The weather was just what you might expect in Scotland: low 50s, windy and raining throughout the morning. We played in the opposite of the prevailing wind, meaning it was rainbows and lollipops for the first seven holes and absolutely brutal playing back into town over the last seven. But I managed to scrape together a few pars, including a memorable up-and-down from the thick rough about 30 yards short and right of the 17th green.
After taking my crack at the final tee shot and posing for the myriad photo opportunities around the Swilcan Bridge, I found the green with my final approach and lipped out a 30-footer for what would have been one of the more memorable birdies of my life. It added up to an 83 – a little higher than my 7 handicap would have preferred and including more than my fair share of putts, but still a respectable effort given the unconventional morning that had preceded my tee time.
Oh, and after playing in a shade under four hours, I made it to my meetings with a few minutes to spare.
Flexibility and determination. If you have both traits, it's more than likely you can wiggle your way into a tee time on the Old Course. And if you do happen to make the trek to one of the best sanctuaries in all of golf, know that the bench in front of the Old Course Pavilion can definitely host a nap if you're in a pinch.