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You're on at the Old Course in St. Andrews: Here's how to play it

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor
Hell bunker at Old Course
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The penal "Hell" bunker on the 14th at St. Andrews isn't guilty of false advertising. (Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - For anyone with even the slightest appreciation for the game's tradition, playing the Old Course is a four-hour state of euphoria. A sense of satisfaction, pilgrimage, accomplishment is realized in walking the course and hitting shots on holes and bunkers filled with countless stories.

But enough about the history. You want to play well. You might only get one crack at this golf course, and you want a score as memorable as the walk itself.

It's not the most difficult of links courses in St. Andrews - most consider the Jubilee next door and Kingsbarns up the road more difficult for the common golfer - but it certainly has its challenges and quirks.

The difficultly for the first-timer comes most notably in the gargantuan green complexes: They can be up to three acres large and they feature enough undulations, false fronts, swales and humps to drive you mad. You won't find firmer greens anywhere in the world, either. Backspin is futile, and by the back nine, even the most aerial-style player is playing 40 yards or more of roll on their approaches.

The course isn't set up long for everyday play at just about 6,400 yards, but even still your driver can be used on just about every hole. Why else would Tiger Woods call this his favorite course in the world? Unlike some shorter classic links courses like Prestwick and Turnberry that require a lot of irons off the tee, you can rip it on most holes.

Playing a slight hook to the left is a safe play on over half the holes. Bunkers are plentiful (112 total), but can be avoided with a little savvy and help from a local playing partner or a knowledgeable caddie.

Get used to par-4s as well. There are 14 of them, along with two par-5s and two par-3s.

The first third of the course will likely be spent getting used to just how firm and big the greens are here. While the first hole has the Swilcan Burn running in front, every other green has room to run it up, and that's the preferred play on the next 17. You'll also still have some adrenaline flowing from the first tee and the "aura" of the course, so be sure to take your time and stay in rhythm.

Holes 7-11 in the back of the course are referred to as "The Loop" and offer your best chance to score low. After the front's only par 3 at No. 8 - a short downhill hole - the ninth is also short and straight and drivable with the right wind.

The 10th isn't much longer. The 11th is a par 3 that crisscrosses over No. 7, which often creates a backup of foursomes, especially on the par-4 ninth where everyone thinks they can hit the green from the tee, but if you avoid the two deep bunkers short of the green you'll be in good shape.

The par-5 14th is a wild one and features the massive "Hell" bunker, which must be avoided at all costs, hiding just over a ridge about 100 yards in front of the green. Avoid this hazard and you've got a great shot at a potential birdie.

There isn't a better finish in golf than the final two holes. The 17th is a demanding par-4 and your tee shot isn't blind because of a hindering dune or hill, but by an old railway shed attached to the Old Course Hotel.

On the 18th, teeing off with the in the background and numerous onlookers can be quivering, but suck it up because this hole is short and straightforward and one of the easiest birdie opportunities on the course. Aim at the Martyr's Monument between the 18th green and first tee and your drive should be safe. It's the approach to the green here that's difficult, featuring the infamous "Valley of Sin" front-left, which often turns balls away from the green as they try to scale up the slope.

The verdict on playing The Old Course

Take away all the stories and the history of the Old Course at St. Andrews and it's still an incredibly fun course to play. It's wide open on many holes.

The huge, undulating greens are mini-amusement parks, and teeing off over the Old Course Hotel on the storied Road Hole gives you goose bumps. Playing the Old Course makes you look at the game differently, from how it's played to how courses are built all over the world. You see the light. Suddenly, chasing around a little white ball makes perfect sense.

It's impossible to overstate the importance St. Andrews has had to the game of golf, and I can't overemphasize how exciting and fulfilling your first round here is.

St. Andrews hotels

Located in the heart of St. Andrews and overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course, the MacDonald Rusacks Hotel may have the best location a golf hotel could offer. The hotel originally opened in 1887 and has been stylishly remodeled and expanded, including the new dining room of the Old Course Restaurant.

Each year during the Dunhill Links Pro-Am, the Rusacks hosts numerous touring pros and was a favorite hotel for Bobby Jones during his stay. Rusacks features 68 en-suite rooms that include 24-hour room service and a limited number of guaranteed tee times on the Old Course for guests.

St. Andrews restaurants

For fine dining, try the Rusacks Old Course restaurant dining room overlooking the 18th green. The menu includes contemporary Scottish dishes in a newly remodeled, stylish setting.

For more casual bar-style food and atmosphere, the Dunvegan Grill offers a bar and formal menu, plus TVs for football with a friendly, chatty atmosphere.

Fast fact

A 19-year-old Bobby Jones came to the Old Course in 1921 for the Open Championship. Struggling with a score of 52 through ten holes in the third round, his tee shot on the par-3 11th found the giant "Hill Bunker." He picked up his ball after failing to get out after four shots and quit the open (though he did accompany his playing partner the rest of the tournament).

The incident is now known as one of the legend's lowest moments in golf. He later won the Open at St. Andrews in 1927.

Spotlight: The Road Hole

Considered by many as golf's most famous hole, the Road Hole is a long par 4 dogleg right. It's also perhaps the only time in your life where you'll hit a shot over a building on purpose.

You can play your drive safe to the left of the Old Course Hotel, but your ball may roll into the left rough. Braver souls play somewhere between the spire on the town's skyline and just over the "O" on the shed connected to the hotel facing the tee box.

From there, you will have a mid-to-long iron into the green guarded by the Road Hole bunker: a small but deep pit that usually has its way with trespassers. Going long will land your ball up against the giant stone wall. The 17th green, while still enormous, is one of only four greens with only one hole.

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Old Course at St. Andrews - FairwaysOld Course at St. Andrews - Road HoleOld Course at St. Andrews - 18th Green
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Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • St Andrews

    pablo sola wrote on: Aug 8, 2007

    I could add also that a draw -or even a hook- is mostly welcome at this course (remember a lot of times you have another hole running to the left)...and also that the par 3 11th (for me one of the most outstanding short holes in the world) crisscrosses Nº 7 and not Nº 8...
    Don´t die without playing the Old Course!!!

    Reply

  • the "swilcan" burn

    Peter Macdonald wrote on: Jul 18, 2007

    Considering it's one of the most stereotypical images in the whole golf world you'd think the author could correctly spell "Swilken" Burn.
    Just thought i'd let you know.

    Reply

      • Swilcan Burn

        William wrote on: Jun 19, 2009

        Actually, you can find both spellings in abundance, but the St. Andrews official site has it as "Swilcan Burn."

        Reply

          • RE: Swilcan Burn

            Lester Hinson wrote on: May 20, 2010

            Indeed. I checked at http://www.standrews.org.uk/2010-Open/The-Open-at-the-Old-Course.aspx Swilcan it is.

            Reply

  • Playing The Old & New Courses

    Bill Mitchell wrote on: Jul 4, 2007

    It hard to explain but something comes over you when you stand on the first tee and your heart starts racing. It took me four holes to settle down and start playing golf. Thanks to Chris my caddy. Then you can't wait for the road hole. But my favorite moment came when I played up the 18th and the locals where sitting on the wall behind the green and watching. The clapping as my par putt went in was also very special. All golfers should go to St. Andrews and experience the challenge and have fun. It was my favorite golf course as well.
    Don't forget to play the "New" course as well. I was very luck to play with two brothers who live in St. Andrews - Arthur and Ronnie. This will always be my second favorite moment. Sorry I didn't get their last name and addresses, but I did get to toast the course and the brothers for a great experience.

    Reply