Golf Course Review of St. Andrews Links
St. Andrews Links
Reviewed by Ed Battye -
Quick Summary: A golfing mecca, the spiritual home of golf, where it all began, ground zero for our beloved game
Our 5 Star Rating: 5.0 (Old), 4.4 (Castle), 4.3 (New), 4.3 (Jubilee), 4.0 (Eden), 3.5 (Strathtyrum), 2.5 (Balgove)
There’s very little that hasn’t been written about the golfing mecca that is St. Andrews.
Golfers (and indeed non-golfers) flock to this corner of Fife from all over the World to savour the delights of the ‘Grey Auld Toun’ and for most it is mainly to play, or at least see and walk, The Old Course; the spiritual home of golf and where it all began for our beloved game.
However, from a golfing perspective there is much more to the town than the famous Old Course but, for the first time visitor especially, heading to St. Andrews can be a confusing proposition with so many courses.
What other courses you say? Well, this can be the perplexing matter and the purpose of this article is really to give a quick summary of all the courses in St. Andrews including the main attraction.
I headed to Fife in June 2015 a few weeks before The Open Championship was due to be played. The Old Course - host of The Open 29 times - had in fact just closed for play and this meant that the town was less busy than usual, the hotels weren’t as booked up and importantly the other courses were a little quieter. Although this scenario only comes around every five years or so it’s a great time to visit.
The shoulder season (early April and late October) is another fine time and later in the year I returned to St. Andrews to play The Old Course. My most recent visit came in the peak season of July 2017 when I did the daily walk up (see below for more information about this).
There are essentially seven courses at St. Andrews which are all public and managed by the St. Andrews Links Trust. They are the Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum, Balgove and Castle courses.
However, in addition to this you also have the Duke’s course, which is a semi-heathland layout owned by The Old Course Hotel, located three miles out of town plus 15 minutes or so away there are two courses at the Fairmont St. Andrews Resort; the Torrance and Kittocks (originally called Devlin).
For this review we focus on the courses managed by the Trust which are littered with good golf holes.
Whilst the Old Course tees-off virtually in the town itself both the New and Jubilee links can be found right outside the St. Andrews Links Clubhouse which is just a 10 minute walk from the first tee on the Old. These two courses don’t quite share the same Starters Hut but they are located within 50 paces of each other and both start and end in the shadow of the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, the Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove share a separate clubhouse which is about a 10 minute drive (or 20 minute walk across the linksland) from the New and Jubilee courses. There is adequate parking at both locations. You then also have the new Castle course which is located out of town and is approximately a 10 minute drive from the centre of St. Andrews.
You really want to base yourself in the town of St. Andrews and there are numerous options to do this. Outside of term time you can reserve a room in one of the University dorms for as little as £40 per night. These rooms aren’t usually en-suite (shared bathroom facilities) but I can vouch that the breakfast at the McIntosh Halls is particularly good.
You then have everything in-between right up to the iconic five-star Old Course Hotel which is adjacent to the 17th hole on the Old course. I chose to stay at The Macdonald Rusacks Hotel in June 2015 which overlooks the famous 18th green and is pretty much as central as you can get – a fine hotel and the perfect location; you are yards away from the first tee on the Old course and within walking distance (if you want) of all the other St. Andrews Links Trust courses (except the Castle). You are also only a few minutes away from the restaurants and bars on North, South and Market streets, as well as the other main non-golfing attractions.
As a solo golfer I purchased a 3-day ticket for £200 in the summer (2015) which entitled me to unlimited golf on all of the courses (except the Old). I simply bought this from the starter on my day of arrival (cards accepted) and could then just turn up at any course and would be fitted in as soon as the tee was free. I rarely had to wait and whilst I could have been paired up with other golfers I was quite happy to play on my own. I was invited to hit from yellow or white tees and pace of play was good, although I mostly chose to start early mornings and late afternoons. A 7-day ticket is also available on a similar basis.
Officially the first tee-time of the day is 7 o’clock in the morning at this time of year but the starters are usually there from 6am and as you might expect it is fairly quiet at that time. They were happy to let me start early each day and the only traffic I ran into was the greenkeepers! It is worth asking the helpful starters to check which courses appear to be quiet at any given time so you can plan your golf. Remember there are members’ matches and competitions as well as various other block bookings you will want to avoid. If there are two of you or more you can purchase an advance ticket which allows you to pre-book one tee-time per day. As a single golfer this wasn’t possible but didn’t prove to be a problem.
For my October 2015 visit myself and a colleague entered the Old Course ballot (you need a minimum of two people to do this) and got lucky first time! Your chances are increased if you state that you are available to play at any time of day and are willing to be partnered up into a 4-ball. If unsuccesful in the ballot we would have queued up outside the starters hut as single golfers but even in October this would likely have meant a 4am alarm call to get to the front of the line. This is what I did in July 2017 (see below).
So, which courses should you play? The answer to that question really depends on what type of golfer you are, how long you are staying for and what type of golf you a seeking to play. There is an entire constellation of quality golf holes at St. Andrews and hopefully the below will help you decide which to experience.
The Old Course is many things to many people. For me it represents ground zero for golf, the embryo for the game that I love so much today.
In some way or another it has provided the inspiration for every other golf course in existence. There is no hole in golf that doesn’t have the Old Course in its DNA to some degree or another.
It’s impossible to separate the course from the experience of playing and being at St. Andrews. Both are truly amazing and inspiring. There is nowhere better.
I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the Old Course. I won’t do that until I’ve played it multiple times in multiple conditions. All I will say is that the uniqueness of the holes, the individuality of them all, the quality of turf, the natural undulations and the seemingly random – but perfectly located - bunkering gives the course a strategy that sets it apart from all others.
Everything I love about golf is represented in the Old Course. No more words are needed.
The New course, albeit built back in 1895 by Old Tom Morris, is a championship links in its own right; par is 71 and the maximum yardage is 6,625.
Sandwiched between the Old and Jubilee courses it is at the mercy of the wind and essentially plays out towards the Eden Estuary and then back towards town.
Many locals say they prefer the New to the Old and you could argue it is the truer, fairer test of golf but as a result of that it loses some quirk, charisma and sparkle. That said this is a very fine golf course with a number of excellent holes.
There is a lovely flow to the course, early on especially, where the next teeing ground is just a few paces from the previous green.
There is a lot of subtlety about the course and some of the green complexes are outstanding – the ones at the third, fourth, fifth and sixth early on in the round are brilliant; clever, subtle and with no wind the only real defence of the course, save for the mild littering of fairway pot bunkers.
Holes eight and nine are superb holes too, the former is a par-five played to a partially hidden green whilst the latter is a stellar par-three played alongside the estuary to a fabulous gathering green. This section of the course has the most movement in the land on what is otherwise relatively flat terrain.
The short 13th is another wonderful short hole, which just glares at you, before you face a stern run for home with the skyline of St. Andrews looming closer and closer with each blow.
The New course is an essential play if visiting St. Andrews for any period of time. It may not be the most visually appealing but it is arguably the most exacting of all the layouts and a very high quality classic links experience.
St. Andrews New is featured in the National Club Golfer Top 100 under £100 Golf Courses of Great Britain.
The Jubilee course carries on in much the same vein as the New.
It is slightly longer at 6,742 yards but has a par of 72 so in reality plays about the same length.
Some same it is the toughest of all the courses but I would put it on a par with the New is this respect.
The most easterly located of all the courses it perhaps enjoys the best of the terrain and is closest to the sea. It is slightly more undulating and even some dunes come into play on a few holes.
Originally laid out in 1897 this links has seen many changes over the years and it was in 1988 that Donald Steel effectively introduced the layout we play today.
You could swap any number of holes on this course with the New and neither would be the weaker for it. In a similar manner it also plays out towards the estuary before turning for home.
The set of short holes perhaps isn’t as strong on the Jubilee as the New but there isn’t a dud amongst them. And those who enjoy golf in the dunes will savour some of the holes that play through modest sandhills which are used to best effect at the terrific 15th.
There are certainly some magnificent moments on the Jubilee but it isn’t quite as consistent and as subtle as the New. However, should the first tee be quiet on either of these two courses you would be quite happy to flip a coin as to which you play.
St. Andrews Jubilee is featured in the National Club Golfer Top 100 under £100 Golf Courses of Great Britain.
After nine holes I was certain that the Eden links would be my favourite of all the courses at St. Andrews and, despite a run of blander holes on the back-nine, it is still more than worth seeing.
Originally designed by Harry Colt in 1914 the Eden has also seen many changes in its history for various reasons.
It is certainly the most fun and has some amazing greens, especially on the front nine. It is shorter than both its elder siblings (6,250 yards with a par of 70) and is not as heavily bunkered yet the challenge remains high.
Many of the greens are more heavily contoured and you can have some really interesting putts. There are also some dramatic green complexes, none-more-so than the short eighth with a steep slope at the front.
Holes four and seven play right along the Eden Estuary, albeit in opposite directions, and are splendid holes with glorious vistas. I didn’t care much for the stretch of holes from the 10th to the 15th but the final trio are a strong way to finish.
As with the New and Jubilee the Eden is a course you will definitely want to play if you are in St. Andrews for more than a day or two. It would make a great early morning round or a late evening stroll. Unlike the other two courses the 10th tee is quite close to the clubhouse so nine holes is definitely an option too… just make sure you play the front nine!
The Strathtyrum links is the first course we come to that the serious golfer may give a wide berth to.
That said I very much enjoyed my round on this 18-hole course built in 1993 by Donald Steel that rubs shoulders with the Eden on the Western side of all the courses.
In fact it’s a layout that I have a lot of time for. It’s generous off the tee and has plenty of interest around the greens with some lovely contouring. It’s not a course that will beat you up and at just 5,620 yards (par 69) it is more than scoreable.
The Strathtyrum would be a great introduction for somebody who hasn’t played any links golf before, or a good warm-up for a round on the New, Jubilee or Eden. It is also an easier walk and a round here will take up much less time than the above mentioned courses. Not just because it’s shorter but probably less crowded too.
It’s difficult to highly recommend a round here for the more accomplished golfer but it has a lot going for it and should not be a course to be totally dismissed when heading to St. Andrews.
The Balgove is perhaps best described as a miniature version of the Strathtyrum.
It’s not quite a par three course but there are six of them in this nine-hole loop and the three par fours are only 220, 219 and 298 yards.
The total yardage is just 1,520 for the nine holes and to all intents and purposes this is a beginners or junior course.
However, there’s no reason why golfers of all standards won’t enjoy a quick whizz round here. I certainly did.
Many of the holes are around the 100-yard mark and it’s a great opportunity for fine tuning your pitching. It’s worth noting that the greens are maintained immaculately too.
There’s no doubting that the Castle course doesn’t fit easily into the collection of courses that are administered by the St. Andrews Links Trust.
It isn’t located within town and it isn’t even really a links course, certainly not from the same mould as the other six anyway.
It recently received particularly strong criticism from respected architect Tom Doak in a recent publication and others may also question why this course needed to be built. The fact that the St. Andrews Links Trust themselves refer to it simply as their ‘seventh’ course doesn’t really help its cause either.
The other way to look at it is that this David McLay Kidd course, which opened for play in 2008, actually offers a welcome change from the classic, traditional links golf on offer at the other locations. And importantly, in my eyes anyway, if the course is good (and it is) why should it not have been created? I’d rather have it the way it is now than it still be farmland like it was before.
Although it’s a ten minute drive from town the actual setting is nothing less than spectacular, perched on a rugged cliff-top, with stunning views overlooking St. Andrews. It has its own clubhouse and there is plenty of parking.
I personally thought the golf was exceptionally good too and I really enjoyed the course. The green contouring has had a lot of negative comments but I found them to be perfectly acceptable, indeed rather fascinating. There are certainly some significant borrows, putting on them can be tricky and challenging but they fit in well with their surroundings and again, like the layout itself, they make for a refreshing change.
A number of holes play along the coastline, at times perilously close to it, and a number of greens have wonderful backdrops. In my opinion the sixth is a great golf hole but there are many others that may take your personal preference.
The walk is much more demanding than the other links; at times it’s positively hilly. The bunkering is dramatic and this is not an easy course, a par of 71 against a yardage of 6,759 sees to that, but there are forward tees to play from if desired.
I can’t comment on how successful this new course has been since it opened, it was certainly much quieter than the other courses on the day I played, but it is one I think you should experience if visiting St. Andrews without question.
Because of the style and nature of the course I know some people won’t take my advice and others who do may not find it to their liking. It’s certainly not a course that will be universally loved but I don’t necessarily see that as a negative. I would suggest playing this course to break up your visit and not necessarily play it as your first or final round.
Daily Walk Up at St. Andrews
If you have not been able to book a tee-time in advance at St. Andrews and have also been unsuccessful in the ballot please do not despair because you still have one final shot at playing The Old Course.
The daily walk-up simply means arriving at the Old Course Pavilion in good time, waiting in line for the starter to arrive and so long as you are close to the front of the queue you are virtually guaranteed a game.
When I say ‘good time’ let me explain further because this is the method I used when I played my most recent round on the eighth wonder of the world. On this occasion it was a last minute decision.
I’d pretty much driven through the night – a five hour trek from Huddersfield – arriving in St. Andrews in the early hours of the morning. Staying in one of the University Halls of Residence I set my alarm for 4am and after about an hour of sleep I hastily made the three-minute walk down to the first tee.
Rocking up bleary eyed at 4.05am I didn’t expect to be first in line, however, I wasn’t anticipating being the 17th person either!! As it transpired the first person got there at 12.20am, a 2am arrival would have got you 5th spot and 3am would have netted you be 11th. This can obviously change from day to day but this is the scenario that greeted me on 27th July 2017 to give you a rough guide.
Chatting to the other people until the starter arrives at 6am makes the time go quickly and on a beautiful summer morning the sunrise over the beach is inspiring as darkness dissipates and the sun lights up the links.
When the starter arrived he promptly announced that he had a guaranteed tee-time for the first 15 people in the queue, these were dotted throughout the day and meant you could choose your time and then come back when ready to play.
He explained that the rest of us (about another 10 golfers) would probably get a time but it would mean just hanging around and hoping a group of two or three would allow us to join them. Since I was effectively second in this ‘wait and see’ list I managed to get a time at 7.40am.
Once you’ve got your name down you don’t lose your place in line so you could go back to your hotel and come back at any point during the day but you must be around when the group you are partnered with check in. It’s also possible to turn up at any point in the day and speak to the starter to see what’s available. It’s highly unlikely but you never know you may just get a game that evening if there is a remaining space.
If you’re desperate to play The Old Course the early morning walk up is an almost certain way to secure a tee-time. In fact, it’s one of those things you should do at least once in your golfing life. Just make sure you have an early night.