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St. Andrews: So Much More Than the Old Course

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | As if the chance to play the Old Course isn’t inducement enough to visit the Auld Grey Toon, as if the opportunity to tee it up on the other fine tracks here isn’t a good reason to fly right over, here’s one more motive: There’s no place on earth with so much good golf in such close proximity.

To be sure, everyone knows about the Old, hallowed site of this week’s Open Championship and host of the oldest major in golf for the 28th time. And most duffers are aware that there are other superb places to play in St. Andrews. But how many people truly comprehend all the amazing golfing riches that exist in and around this outpost in the Kingdom of Fife, courses of enormous strength and character that were formed centuries ago by some of the oldest golf associations on earth?

I know I had never really contemplated that fact of golf life in more than a dozen trips here over the past decade. But I got to thinking about all that is available during my latest pilgrimage to the ancient ecclesiastical center as I nursed a smoky Oban in the Road Hole Bar in the Old Course Hotel. And I soon calculated that there are 16 first-rate courses within an easy drive – or walk – of that very spot. Start with the Old and New on the St. Andrews links, and the Jubilee and Eden there as well. Then, add Kingsbarns and the Castle Course just out of town, and the Duke’s up the hill. There is a pair of lovely layouts at Crail, and the Kittocks and the Torrance at St. Andrews Bay, too. And no one should overlook Ladybank and Scotscraig, or Lundin Links, Leven and Elie a bit farther away.

What an array of courses, I said to myself as I finished my whisky. And I was fairly staggered by the simple truth that had just come to me as I thought of playing all of those tracks over the years – and as I finally connected the dots for myself on what is perhaps the most pleasing picture a fanatic of the royal and ancient game can draw.

Great golf on 16 great courses. All so close by, too, and with the eminently charming burgh of St. Andrews as a base. I figured a player starting with a full tank of petrol in his rental car and a hefty supply of Advil in his golf bag could play 36 holes a day for eight days here and never have to travel more than 25 minutes at any given stretch. If he is savvy enough, he could also take advantage of packages that offer regular discounts at some of the local clubs that have formed marketing associations (such as Crail, Scotscraig, Lundin Links and Ladybank) and enjoy the flexibility of Links Trusts passes (that allow players, for example, to tee it up three times on town courses over a seven-day period of time). And he could probably count on getting on the Old at least once during his stay, whether through the ballot or by simply waiting by the starter’s house for an open spot in a group.

I didn’t have time to put that concept of a weeklong golf binge to the test on my most recent trip to St. Andrews. In fact, I only had a couple of days to play. But I managed to arrange an abbreviated version of what could serve as an enviable template for a longer stay.

I began one morning with an 8 a.m. tee time at Ladybank, one of the final qualifying courses for this year’s Open Championship and an easy 20 minutes from the car park at the place where I usually hang my garment bag in St. Andrews, the Old Course Hotel. Club professional Sandy Smith and I ripped around the heathland gem, whose initial six holes were laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1879, in about three hours. After a quick lunch, I was off to another Open qualifier, Scotscraig. A sign by the pro shop says the club had formed in 1817 and described it as the 13th oldest golf association in the world. I teed it up with a pair of good-humored members, Ronnie Beatt and Bob Redpath, and the fast and firm fairways on this tight track occasionally pitched and rolled with wild undulations. My playing partners asserted that theirs was a second-shot course, and I quickly learned that analysis was correct. Unfortunately, the one thing I could not do that afternoon was hit a decent approach.

I was back in St. Andrews well before dusk that late spring evening, and feeling not at all the worse for wear when I set off for the Crail Golfing Society the next morning. Neither the twisting road out of town nor the near-death experience of avoiding a suicidal cock pheasant that tried to cross in front of my rather fast-moving automobile slowed my travel time to that lyrically named retreat. In fact, I made it there in roughly 20 minutes, and then happily scooted around the so-called Balcomie Links there with longtime member Bob Taylor in equally efficient fashion.

Between shots on the coastal course, which was also designed by Old Tom Morris, Taylor provided interesting bits of club history, my favorite of which was about the first Captain of Crail, William Ranken, who fought for the British Army during the American Revolutionary War a few years before the club’s founding in 1786. The deft routing was something to behold, and so was the scenery, whether of the seals that bobbed in the North Sea, the fishing boats that chugged up and down the rocky shore or the flocks of eiders that skirted the tops of the whitecaps as they flew from cove to cove.

My final stop this day, and on this all-too-short trip, was Lundin Links. Founded in 1868, it was yet another enticing seaside track with testy breezes and devilish bunker complexes. My game faltered badly on the back nine, and not even the sound advice of my playing partner, pro Ron Walker, could save me from myself. But I was still able to see what a great test of golf this was, and what great fun Lundin Links was to play.

I easily could do this for a full eight days, I thought to myself as I enjoyed a speedy, pheasant-free ride back to the Old Course Hotel, past fields of barley, berries and potatoes and by hillsides yellow with rapeseed.

And next time, I will.


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