Frequent St Andrews visitor Golf Monthly’s Jezz Ellwood ponders the question and gives us his insights to help any first timer visitor to the home of golf.
The Scots, Dutch and Chinese have all laid claim to golf – or kolf as those pioneering Low Countries enthusiasts called it. But whether the game originated north of Hadrian’s Wall, south of the Great Wall of China or 130 miles east of Harwich, there is now only one undisputed Home of Golf, and that is the Auld Grey Toon of St Andrews, where the Open Championship returns (or returned, depending on when you’re reading this!) for the 29th time in 2015.
Anyone who has ever visited this modest-sized town in the East of Fife can’t fail to have been captivated by its charm, history and character. But perhaps its greatest quality is that it is held in equal affection by the most avid of golfers and those who have never wielded a club in anger. I know this for a fact, for while my wife doesn’t hate golf, it generally leaves her cold, and yet ever since our first visit over two decades ago, her desire to return falls only just short of mine – and that’s saying something!
Put simply, St Andrews is golf, and golf is St Andrews. The two are inextricably intertwined in a way that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Around every corner you’ll find a golf shop stocked to the rafters, a bar whose walls are adorned from top to bottom with the most fascinating of golfing memorabilia, and golfers heading down to the links, clubs on backs. There really is no separation between town and golf course here. Heaven knows, you’ll even spot the odd Titleist stand bag planted out with geraniums, something I’ve never witnessed anywhere else.
I say ‘golf course’, but that should really read ‘seven golf courses’, with six laid out on the historic linksland in town, and the Johnny-come-lately Castle Course perched a couple of miles above it, from where the views back to the town on a fine day are truly mesmerising. The Old Course is undeniably the star attraction, heading out from town towards the Eden estuary and back, via holes that have witnessed much memorable drama through the ages. Many a world-class golfer has felt compelled to declare that a CV without a St Andrews Claret Jug on it is incomplete.
But while golf and history seep from the very bricks and paving stones, even the most diehard of golfers should not spend every waking hour simply working their way through all seven courses, for the town has so much more to offer. First-time visitors will often wander round in a bit of a daze trying to take it all in as the realisation of just how significant this place truly is sinks in.
You really must find time to soak it all up, perhaps starting with a stroll across the 1st and 18th fairways via Grannie Clark’s Wynd to the Himalayas putting green, originally created by the caddies of the town, frustrated that their putting green near where Rusacks Hotel now stands was being ‘taken over’ by the daughters and sisters of R&A members. A round here will allow you to tick off another Old Tom Morris course, for it was he who laid it out, although the layout changes almost every day. It is the most remarkably rumpled terrain you will ever putt over, and getting down in even three will sometimes stretch you to the limit.
While this side of the Old Course, cross the road and wander down to the magnificent West Sands beach where those opening scenes from Chariots of Fire were so memorably filmed in the early 1980s. Bonus points to anyone who can remember what town St Andrews doubled for in that iconic film, and the hotel name given to the red-brick Hamilton Hall – now Hamilton Grand – which looks out over the Old Course’s 1st and 18th holes!
Heading back via the obligatory Swilcan Bridge photo, and perhaps a jar or two in the world-famous, yet unexpectedly snug and cosy, Jigger Inn by the Old Course Hotel, it’s time to head along ‘The Links’, the road that flanks the 18th hole, with one eye open for anything carved nervously off the tee. Stop off at no. 8, and not only will you be entering the 21st century Tom Morris store, but also setting foot inside the very premises of his early pro shop and workshop dating back to 1866.
Round the corner at the end of Golf Place, The Dunvegan bar will lure you in siren-like with its memorabilia-laden walls and small outside terrace. This is the perfect spot to tarry a while and watch the golfing world go by, whether rich American tourist on the trophy course trail, or veteran caddie on his way to find out if he’s been assigned a lucrative ‘double bagging’ out on the links.
From here, the town centre essentially comprises four inter-linked, roughly parallel streets heading east towards St Andrews’ most historic places. The imposing castle ruins lie on The Scores, while the remains of what was once Scotland’s largest and most important cathedral stand between The Pends. Here in the grounds lie the graves of the town’s two favourite sons - Old and Young Tom Morris – the father and son heroes of the early Open Championship era, both of whom won the title four times, but never in St. Andrews itself.
They were held in high regard in the town, yet both their lives were blessed with glory and marred by tragedy. Old Tom made it to 86 before an unfortunate tumble down the cellar stairs in the New Club brought an end to his life; Young Tom died seemingly ‘of a broken heart’ on Christmas Day 1875 at just 24, shortly after the deaths of his wife and child in a difficult labour.
St Andrews was home to both, and in a strange way it really does now feel like a second home to me. Over the last decade, I have perhaps visited four times a year on average during the course of my work, yet I feel as if I really know the place - not in the same way as a native or a local, of course, but in a way I’ve never before felt about a town in which I’ve spent such relatively little time.
I have to confess that I have occasionally even engineered slightly tenuous work reasons to justify another visit, often embarking on a 1,000-mile day trip up on the first Edinburgh flight and back on the last. But it’s always worth it, and that, perhaps more than anything, tells you all you need to know about the place.
Contributing Editor – Golf Monthly
PS As for those Chariots of Fire questions, St Andrews played the role of Broadstairs in the film, and Hamilton Hall was rechristened the Carlton Hotel. St Andrews or Broadstairs? No disrespect to the Kent coast town, but I know where I'd rather be every time.