The Home of Golf, its pretty bold whenever someone claims to be home to something. It seems Britain is full of places which are the “Home” of something. Wimbledon is the “Home” of Lawn Tennis, Wembley is the “Home” of football (or at least English football), and St. Andrews in Scotland claims to be the “Home” of golf. Well recently I paid a visit to the Home of Golf and I must say it was one of the most challenging, tiring, stressful, fun, and memorable experiences of my life.
For those unfamiliar with St. Andrews and what gives it the right to claim to be the Home of Golf, the reason that St. Andrews is so famous in the golfing world is because it has the oldest golf course in the world. The Old Course at St. Andrews is over 500 years old, to put it in perspective, they were playing golf on the Old Course when they were still debating whether the world was flat. Somehow the course survived to this day and has been popular enough to have hosted 18 British Opens, and has captured the imaginations of some of the best players in the history of the game. I felt like if I was in the British Isles, I had to see for myself what made the Old Course so great. So I planned a weekend trip with my girlfriend Nicole to play the Old Course Saturday, and a course owned by the Kohler Company which I worked for back home called the Dukes Course on Sunday.
Now the first thing that needs to be explained is how you get on to the Old Course. Since the demand to play the course is so high, the Royal & Ancient Golf Association who owns the course has put a lottery system in place for tee-times. In groups of two, three or four you give the R&A your names to be put into a drawing for the following day’s tee-times. The catch is that you have to be in at least a group of two, single players are not able to enter the lottery. Since it was just me hoping to play I would have to get a time the only way single players can, by waiting in line Saturday morning to take one of the open times. Since groups of two, three, and four are available to be taken, when the lottery is drawn there are gaps in the tee sheets, so single players may be paired up to fill the open times. However upon further investigation I learned in a call to the R&A that it is not uncommon for 15 players to be lined up before 6am each morning for those open times, and only about 6 single players on average would get out on a given day. The only train that would get in on time to play Saturday (the course is closed for play on Sundays so it had to be Saturday) arrived at 12:30 am, so I made the decision to wait up all night for one of those times.
So Nicole and I left London at 6 pm headed for Leuchars Station just outside of St. Andrews, and after a comfortable ride in we got off the train at 12:30 am. The only transportation available to get us to St. Andrews that hour of night was taxis, and the driver of the taxi we took couldn’t believe we wanted to go straight to the first tee where we had to wait. But nonetheless we went, and arrived at the starters hut by the first tee just a few minutes before 1am. As I stood in the cold and the dark after getting out of the taxi, I was in absolute awe. I could see all of the most famous places I had seen on tv, in videogames, and all of the famous pictures of golf’s past. Despite the darkness I could see the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the 18th Green, the 1st tee, the Old Course Hotel, and I could even just make out the Swilken Bridge. It was like being at a holy religious sight, just standing in awe of what all of these places meant. The moment was even captured by Nicole as I stood next to the 18th Green. I also noticed that it was so open. There were no fences, security guards, signs to warn people to stay away, nothing at all to stop people from venturing out onto the course (and there were at least 20 who did so from my vantage point that night alone). If you tried to wander onto a course of similar importance in the States like Augusta you would get arrested, but here it was just open for all.
Nicole and I stood there for about 15 minutes or so, to see something amazing. I saw a golfer with his clubs on his back walking towards the starters hut where we had to wait for tee times, and in fact he informed me that he would be joining us in waiting for daybreak to play. By pure coincidence of being woken up by patrons leaving the nearby bar (Dan was supposed to get there two hours later), our group became three, and we settled in for a long night. The other golfer was a Canadian named Dan, and he was here with his wife (pretty similar to Nicole and my situation) on holiday before he had to play a tournament on another course in a few days. It was nice to have added companionship and we began to talk about golf, hockey, airline travel, anything to just pass the time since the starter would not be showing up until 7:30 and the first tee-time wouldn’t be until 8:00. I would like to point out that for both Nicole and I we weren’t tired the whole time, it ran in cycles. We would feel great for a while, then like death a while later in which case we would take a very brief power nap. At about 3 another player showed up and went straight to sleep on the bedding he brought from his hotel (smart man).
Soon afterward I saw a women walking up, and Dan said that it was his wife Sandy. She brought coffee for her and Dan, and we began to chat. She noticed Nicole laying down on the bench next to the starters hut and said, “Well I wish I would’ve known you two were here or else I would have brought more coffee.” We politely said that wasn’t necessary, and soon afterward she left. But she came back about ten minutes later with two hot cups of tea for Nicole and I, and to be honest there was no way I could refuse a hot cup of tea while sitting cold and tired in the chilly Scottish night. It was a life-saver; it sounds dumb but go sit out on a metal bench while pulling an all-nighter on a night where temperatures are in the 40s and try to turn down a warm cup of tea then. Both Dan and I felt kind of sick soon after the cups of tea, and we both laid down on the various benches in the area. But Sandy came back, this time with more tea, coffee and Bailleys (OMG SO GOOD), and pillows and blankets while we took quick naps. I still attribute my ability to survive not only the following hours but the entire day to two things: All of the gifts and company from Dan and Sandy, and having my girlfriend Nicole with me who was an absolute soldier throughout the entire trip. People slow came after that until there were 15 of us by 7:30. The sense of joy I felt knowing I was first in line and having the starter let me know I would be going out in the first tee time of the day made everything I went through worth it.
I was paired up with three residents of St. Andrews who were very experienced with the Old Course which was very valuable. Trying to play a round of golf after an all-nighter was very interesting. But I had a very good start, minus going in the water on the first hole I was pleased with my first few holes. Actually golfing the course woke me up quite a bit, and I really played well all things considered. Playing a pure links style golf course like St. Andrews is extremely different than playing in the U.S. The shots you hit, the way you see the course, and your overall strategy changes based on the difference in layout. The wind blows so hard at times which is tough, but the wind is also very heavy since St. Andrews is at sea level which takes adjusting as well. My shots had to be much lower, and in general the sooner the ball was on the ground the better. Playing high shots was also tougher just because of all of the slopes in the greens and fairways. It was a real learning experience from a golfing perspective. It also was interesting because of all of the history that was around me. Playing the back nine slowly coming into town constantly seeing the town itself against the sky was simply amazing, and playing the last two holes over the hotel, and crossing the Swilken Bridge were two of the most memorable experiences of my life. I even playing in front of one of the largest galleries that has seen me play, which was about 50 or so people watching players come in on the 18th hole.
All in all, I have never seen a town so crazy about golf. The whole town (literally just about the whole town) has some connection to that course. People come and watch with a great deal of frequency, they play golf themselves, or somehow contribute to the legacy of that course which puts their small town on the world map. On Sunday after my round at the Duke’s Course owned by the Kohler Company whom I work for, I witnessed one of the greatest things I have seen. On Sundays, the Old Course is closed and it is treated like a public park and literally thousands of people like me come and pay their respects to the home of golf. People were wandering the course in every direction just observing the majesty of golf’s birthplace. Spending a whole day at the Jigger Inn just of the 17th Fairway, Nicole and I watch the sun set on a wonderful weekend of golf, and truly a beautiful piece of history coming alive right before my eyes. I hope to go back again someday, and make that ultimate pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in golf.
Joe Hansen is studying abroad in London, England, at the Foundation for International Education (FIE).