It was 3 in the morning and I was running towards the 1st tee of the Old Course, St Andrews.
My alarm had gone off 15 minutes earlier, which seemed reasonable – not too early, but early enough. I boiled a kettle, made some tea, stuffed a snack into my pocket and set off walking.
St Andrews at that time of day is, as you would expect, eerily still. I was anything but. Before I knew it my walk had become a jog. And then a run. Soon the iconic Royal & Ancient building came into view, then the pavilion where a once empty bench was now filled with three blanketed, bundled golfers. I couldn’t see who else was there in the dead of the night.
Now, it’s reasonable to ask, at this point, what on earth I was doing. Why had I left the warmth of my bed to run through the streets of St Andrews for a place on a wooden bench or concrete floor? The answer is a simple one: for a chance to play golf where it all began, on the most famous 18 holes in golf – The Old Course, St Andrews.
ST ANDREWS GOLF ON BUCKET LISTS
These days, it can often feel like all people do is disagree, but talk to any golfer and they’ll speak with one voice – a pilgrimage to St Andrews’ Old Course is high on their bucket list. This is a golfing mecca and the allure of playing it requires no description.
Growing up in the United States, the great clubs like Shinnecock, Oakmont, or Augusta were private and beyond reach to all but a few. But the wonder of St Andrews golf is that the Old Course is open to almost anyone. You don’t even need to bring your own clubs just a handicap certificate and sense of adventure.
That was my mission as I ran through the streets of St Andrews that morning. I had travelled in anticipation of a landmark Open Championship in St Andrews, having felt the Wandering Golfer in me pushing for a trip to Scotland. I wouldn’t let myself dream too deeply about playing The Old Course, however, and yet the process of getting on the world’s most famous links is remarkably democratic.
HOW TO GET OLD COURSE TEE TIME
There are a number of ways to go about it: you can pay an inflated fee to a golf tour operator well in advance; you can stay with a local hotel who are authorised providers of tee times; you can befriend an R&A member; or, if you have a playing partner in mind, enter the ballot, which is drawn 48-hours in advance of the date of play. A Saturday for tee times on Monday, Sunday for Tuesday and so on.
The final way, and perhaps the most rewarding, is the queue, or line, for the singles golfers – a tried and tested method for adventurers from all corners of the world, at the expense of a night of little sleep.
It was a small price to pay, in my eyes. The anticipation had been building but it wasn’t until my partner, Kendra, and I turned onto Golf Road and caught our first glimpse of The Old Course before us, the R&A, the 18th green, the 1st tee and the grandstands being assembled for the 150th Open, that I knew I wouldn’t settle for anything less. It was The Old Course or bust.
ST ANDREWS GOLF LANDMARKS
Our next stop was The Jigger Inn, a pub steeped in St Andrews golf folklore not least because it sits in the landing zone of a sliced tee shot from the iconic Road Hole. By the time we arrived, darkness had fallen and yet there were still golfers trying to finish their rounds, guided only by a near full moon and their cell phone flashlights. Only here, I thought, would this be normal.
Our walk back to our bed-and -breakfast took a special route: across the iconic Swilcan Bridge and on down the middle of the 1st and 18th fairways, with the R&A clubhouse guiding us in like a lighthouse. There, under dim yellow lights, I saw an empty bench I planned and hoped to occupy later that night. Like a moth to light, I felt my feet itching toward it but reason, or a few words of sense from my partner, convinced me to get a few hours’ sleep first.
That was a distant memory now as I ran through St Andrews in the darkness. Why was I running? Well, while I had been walking images of other sleepy golfers walking just like me had popped into my head. What if by walking I was missing out on a prime spot in line? I had no idea how many tee times were available. Having come this far, how could I recover from just missing out? As I approached the final stretch, though, I slowed my pace. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t see anyone else running or because I didn’t want those already in line to see me running towards them. I was a bag of nerves. This was it.
THE SINGLE GOLFERS LINE
I nodded my head to those hardy fellow golfers I could see and peaked to see where I would be in line: fourth! For the first time I felt like this could really happen, I may actually get to play The Old Course.
No more than 10 minutes later, a father and son showed up. ‘What time did you arrive?’ they asked the rest of us. Soon a group of large men arrived cracking jokes between their gasps for breath. And that was how it continued. The trickle of golfers ebbed and flowed for the next three-and-a-half hours. Some brought their golf bags with them and were ready to play, some brought books or electronic devices and seemed determined to mind their own business, but most of us were happy to sit there taking in the wonder of the sunrise swapping stories about golf and life.
Everything about the experience was a fascinating blend of bliss, hope, adventure and anxiety. Time passed with conversation and a sense of camaraderie but in the back of our minds we were all counting down to the moment of truth. That would come when the pavilion doors opened and we would get to ask the starter if we would, after all this, get to play The Old Course that day.
The energy began to shift as Old Course employees appeared to start their day’s work – the chatter slowed, the anticipation grew. Those who had been still for hours, were stirring now but no matter where each of us had drifted to in order to pass the time, the sense of fair play that golfers are guided by, meant our place in line was always respected.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The time had come. Excitedly I got my handicap card ready while eavesdropping on the three in front of me as they stated their case to the starter. I could hear them requesting to tee off as late as possible to recoup some lost sleep. My plan was the opposite, to tee off before 8am and now things were looking good. The moment of truth had arrived, I stepped forward ready to discover my fate, presented my card and tried to look relaxed. ‘Is it just you?’ the stater asked me. I nodded nervously. ‘Do you mind going out at 07:40?,’ he asked.
I can’t remember exactly how I reacted or whether I kept my cool, but I walked away feeling 10 feet tall and knowing I had succeeded – that was all that mattered. I was playing!
And that was just the beginning of my adventure but what a way to begin? Yes, there may be more glamorous or convenient ways to get a tee time, but the chance to roll the dice and take your place in the line for The Old Course just adds to the mystique of St Andrews golf. It worked for me and in the process created memories and moments, I will never forget. The whole experience epitomises what is pure about golf: travel, hope, adventure, fair play and ultimately success or failure. More venues would do well to emulate this unique rite of passage at The Home of Golf.
I, for one, will never forget it.