Best of 2016: A Golf Pilgrimage to Royal St. Andrews

There’s no way around it. It’s an avoidable cliche that playing a round of golf at Royal St. Andrews in Scotland is a pilgrimage for any lover of the game. It’s an undeniable bucket list event that any player would be grateful to undertake — knowing full well there are countless players who would love the same opportunity.

When a golfer stands on the first tee, with the city of St. Andrews standing in the background and the sea filling the opposite horizon, he or she must realize it’s a matter of sharing an experience with thousands of players who drove that first ball of a round throughout the centuries. Golf is the only sport on Earth offering an experience like that at a destination like Royal St. Andrews.

Also: 2016 Ryder Cup Explores the Future Popularity of Golf

Known as the home of golf, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was established in 1754, and The Old Course at St. Andrews is recognized around the world as the official birthplace of the game — tracking its history back to the 15th century. The Old Course regularly hosts tournaments, including multiple Open Championships.

All totaled, Royal St. Andrews offers seven courses, all open to the public. The lineup includes:

  • The Old Course
  • The Castle Course
  • The New Course
  • The Jubilee Course
  • The Eden Course
  • The Strathtyrum Course
  • The Balgove Course

For this writer’s Royal St. Andrews experience, I would take on The Castle Course – the newest of the venue’s challenges and one of the most beautiful. However, before heading for my tee time, I honored the tradition of visiting the graves of father and son Old Tom and young Tommy Morris.

The father was a former greenskeeper of The Old Course and a multi-time winner of the Open Championship. Son Tommy won four consecutive Open Championships (an unequaled achievement) before the age of 21 and died tragically young at 24. Golfers trek to the burial grounds amongst the ancient ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral to pay their respects and ask for a little luck out on the links.

And links golf is the order of the day across Royal St. Andrews, including The Castle Course. The links style course grows from the natural terrain of seaside Scotland. Rolling hillocks and frequent bunkers run along distant beaches. While trees are few and far between, players have to contend with frequent bunkers and thick rough that can consume a golf ball.

The Castle Course was built by David McLay Kidd and designed by Mick McShane. It offers a uniquely peaceful golf experience amongst Royal St. Andrews’ courses. Set a few minutes’ drive from The Old Course and the headquarters of The R&A, the track rises above the town of St. Andrews, offering occasional views of the city and its castle ruins.

Locals call a links course “an unmade bed,” and even lies are few and far between. This player struggled through the first three holes, posting double bogies on each. But, I settled down with three pars and three bogies over the final six to score a respectable front nine. On the back, I settled into a peaceful hike with my clubs across my back. I stopped worrying about scoring and focused on the experience of playing in this magical space.

I was struck by the memory of learning the game from my late father. I can remember our first round together at a small, par three municipal golf course in the Midwest. On that day many years ago, neither of us could’ve imagined I would one day play Royal St. Andrews. I found myself wishing more than ever that he was still with me, seeing this with his own eyes.

Those thoughts stayed with me until the 18th tee — when a bright rainbow spread across the North Atlantic sky. Perhaps it was a silly, romantic notion, but I felt as though it was sign — my old teacher looking down on me and letting me know he was indeed sharing this special round of golf with his son.

As I walked off the 18th green (carding a par on that final hole to highlight my day’s play), the rainbow faded from the sky, its job done. It served its purpose just as Royal St. Andrews did — providing this player with the round of his life.

All photos by John Scott Lewinski


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