A Day in the Scottish Life
It is a long day’s wait on the singles list to play the Old Course at St. Andrews
by Blaine Newnham
Worth the wait? Without question.
To be a foreigner and play the Old Course at St. Andrews you must either be rich, lucky, or possessed. I was the latter.
We had failed to win a spot in the daily lottery – or ballot, as the Scots call it – to play golf’s most celebrated course. And we hadn’t arranged for a guaranteed tee time, something which must be done nearly a year in advance.
Given the situation, the others in our foursome were okay with playing nearby Kingsbarns, or one of the other St. Andrews courses. Well into my 70s and running out of time, I was not.
I went to the bar in our hotel along the 18th hole and asked about a singles list. The guy who seemed to know said we’d better be at the starter’s shack the next morning at 5:30 a.m. We got there at 5:45 and I was 12th on the list.
Nine hours later I was standing on the first tee, a hard wind in my face, still numbed by jet lag, but about as happy as a gent could be, hitting what is either the easiest first shot in golf, or the most difficult, as the entire village of St. Andrews seems to be watching from nearby.
In chatting with the starter during the day, he pretty much assured us we’d get out with enough time to play 18 holes.
As the hours went by, he sent us out for breakfast, then to hit a few balls, and then lunch and a beer.
Once I got to the top of the list around one o’clock I assumed the wait soon would be over. But I had to wait another two hours because three Italians rejected me as their fourth. They have that option, and they exercised it.
“I don’t see much of that,” said the young starter. “I’d like to see the protocol changed.”
I asked the starter if it would be appropriate to give the Italians a digital – and universal – salute, and he said, “Yes, but no violence please.”
All around me it sounded like the United Nations. One of our group – we had split into singles by now for hope of having any chance to get on – played with two Danes. Another with three guys from Switzerland.
Finally, I was embraced by three players from France, who as I came to find out later were in the whisky business.
They asked me my favorite single malt, and I fortuitously, but honestly, picked theirs, The Glenlivet.
They were great. As we left the 18th hole, they presented me with a few, airline-sized bottles of their best.
It was more than 12 hours since I started the process. I walked down the hotel row opposite the 18th fairway into the gloaming knowing I had just played one of the world’s great courses.
It wasn’t my first visit to St. Andrews, for I had spent a week there during the 2000 British Open, won by Tiger Woods during four glorious summer days.
But as a spectator you have no idea how difficult the bunkering is, how mysterious it can be, unseen from the tee and serving as protectors of the course.
On the famed 11th hole, a wicked par-3, I hit a well-struck shot that started left but into a stiff wind caught a ridge that unthinkably dumped the ball into a bunker right of the green – the bunker, our caddie said, that caused the great Bobby Jones to walk off the course in embarrassing frustration, only to come back later to win the Open Championship at St. Andrews. I hit a good sand shot and nearly got up-and-down.
There is nothing snooty about St. Andrews. In fact, you’re struck by the public access to the course, even during play, folks sauntering across the first and 18th fairways en route to the beach.
We arrived the night before and walked out into the 18th fairway and then took pictures on the Swilcan Bridge. You don’t dare do that at Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane, or any other prestigious private course.
On Sundays the course is closed for golf and open for public picnicking. It is a place like no other. And worth the wait.
Blaine Newnham is a former sports columnist for The Seattle Times and Eugene Register-Guard. He loves links golf, and will stray only occasionally.