Barack Obama St Andrews Old Course Barack Obama on the 18th tee, St Andrews Old Course. © Duncan Kirk

St Andrews: An Old Course Baptism
Darren Kilfara's expert guide for mere mortals to the course loved by legends – and presidents

On the last Friday in May, my in-laws spent the day in St. Andrews. Their daughter graduated from the University of St. Andrews and got married in St. Andrews, so the Auld Grey Toon has a special place in their hearts. Not that they needed a special reason to return there, St. Andrews is a lovely place for anyone to spend any day.

Shortly after completing the fantastic Himalayas Putting Course, for my money the best golfing experience for non-golfers in the world, they were returning toward the Royal & Ancient clubhouse and were surprised to find a large crowd gathering behind the 18th green of the Old Course. They soon discovered why: the 44th president of the United States was coming up the final fairway, finishing his first-ever round at the Home of Golf.

Barack Obama St Andrews Old Course The 44th President again, this time on the 17th green, St Andrews Old Course. © Duncan Kirk

What would Barack Obama have thought of the Old Course? By most accounts, he's an average golfer, with a handicap somewhere between 13 and 17; he's obviously well-traveled, in worldly if not necessarily golfing terms. But none of that travel or the golf he's played could have prepared him for the Old Course – he wouldn't have seen anything like it.

Nobody has.

Three steps to heaven

I was blessed to live in St. Andrews for nine months, and I've played the Old Course approximately 30 times; nearly every golfer I meet expresses an interest to play the course eventually, or their delight at having played it once or twice. In my first book, A Golfer's Education, I defined a three-stage process through which most people experience the Old Course:

In the first stage, you're entranced by the history and the mystery of what is fundamentally a living museum of golf, but you'll have little clue what you're doing or where you're going. You'll probably remember the first hole and the last two holes, all of which are well defined, but the rest of the course is a blur of angular slopes, camouflaged bunkers and half-hidden greens. Even with a caddie to guide you, the golf you'll play will feel bewildering. That hardly matters, though: you're in the Home of Golf, and every moment feels special.

Beginning with your third or fourth round, you may take an intense dislike to the Old Course. As the historical magic wears off, it may begin to feel fraudulent: is there any "there" there? The architecture remains impenetrable; all you know is that you're getting stuck in new bunkers every round and wondering more and more whether history and tradition is all the Old Course has going for it. How can this be one of golf's greatest layouts?

However, somewhere between eight and twelve rounds after you've started, all of the pieces click into place. Now you know where the bunkers are, where to aim your drives, and how to use the slopes to your advantage. And you realize the Old Course is a strategic masterpiece, a test of course management offering risks and rewards to golfers of all abilities. Only then can you fully understand why St. Andrews is so beloved by so many of the game's legends.

Two tips to help get there

Few golfers are fortunate enough to move beyond the first of these three stages. President Obama almost certainly won't, not that he's likely to care: he got the quintessential first-timer's Old Course experience, complete with pressure-inducing gallery behind the first tee and 18th green, on an unusually warm and sunny day. But if you want to emulate him and play the Old Course yourself, I'd offer two tips for extracting value from your 175 green fee and making your first round feel as much like the third stage as possible:

1) Do Your Homework. The Old Course rewards careful study. Don't just rock up on the first tee and expect it to resemble any other course you've played: research it in advance, online or otherwise. Try to commit yardage book diagrams to memory. Watch hole-by-hole flyovers or old Open Championships on YouTube. And if you can visit St. Andrews in advance – particularly on a Sunday, when the Old Course is closed to golfers but open to walkers – go for a stroll and examine the terrain with your own eyes.

2) Interrogate Your Caddie. If you hire a caddie for your round, don't just passively accept his advice for each shot. That's the easiest way to survive the course, but you won't feel like you're making any decisions yourself. Try to participate in his decision-making process. Ask about the hazards you're trying to avoid, and if there are more aggressive or conservative alternatives to the line of play he's suggesting. (But ask quickly: nobody likes a slowpoke, least of all the Old Course marshals or the players grouped behind you.)

These tips won't fully bridge the gap to Stage Three by any means, but they should enhance your pilgrimage and help you feel less like an uninformed tourist. Like our recently departed president, you may get only one shot at the Old Course. Embrace it. Make the most of it. You'll get out of it what you put into it.

For more information about how to play the Old Course yourself, visit www.standrews.com/Play/Courses/Old-Course/Booking-the-Old-Course

Darren Kilfara formerly worked for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer's Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student-golfer at the University of St. Andrews, and Do You Want Total War?, a novel about how people study and experience history.

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