How to Play the Old Course: An 18-Hole Guide

She’s wily and demanding, but if you treat her right, she’ll reward you

If you haven’t played the Old Course it’s surely on your bucket list; and when you get your chance, you’ll want to play well. If you’ve had a crack or two at it, you’ve likely walked off the 18th green thinking, “Yeesh, I could have scored way better than that.”

The good news is, on a relatively calm day (and there are plenty of those in St. Andrews) the Old Course is hands-down the easiest championship golf course in the world. It’s short and flat, the fairways and greens are enormous, and although bunkers and gorse abound, water comes into play on only two swings.

That said, the Old Lady is a bit mysterious. Her secrets are myriad and she doesn’t reveal them willingly. I’ve been courting her, with mixed results, for half a century—something close to 500 rounds. She still teaches me something every time, but I think I’ve at least figured out how to minimize her cruelty. What follows are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

Before you tee it up, a couple of tips. Number one: Take a caddie. I am not generally a big proponent of caddies, but when you have one shot at the Old Course and you want to play well, it’s the only way to go. The St. Andrews caddies are well trained, and most are veterans who know every inch of the course, have seen thousands of shots played in every kind of wind, can assess your game quickly, and will show you the best line for every drive, approach, pitch, and putt. Beyond that, even at the $100-plus fee, most are also what the Brits call “good value,” which means they’re highly entertaining.

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1st Hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Number two: Pack a rain suit and rain gloves. Even on days when the forecast is good, you can expect a random 10-minute gully washer, and on some days you can get all four seasons in one round. To compensate for the added weight in your bag, remove your most lofted wedge—you won’t be needing it.

Now, to the tee. The most difficult thing about the opening tee shot at the Old Course is the fact that it’s the opening tee shot at the Old Course. A sports psychologist would tell you to pretend you’re hitting to a treeless, bunkerless 100-yard-wide fairway. Happily, you don’t need to do that because that’s exactly what you’re looking at. However, picking a target can be difficult, so let me help. Three hundred yards away, just to the right of the iconic Swilcan Bridge, is a defiant little gorse bush—the lone sprig of vegetation on the hole—growing impossibly out of the stone sidewall of the Swilcan Burn. That’s your target.

If you’ll be taking a caddie, skip this paragraph. Otherwise, heed my words: Once you’ve chosen the club for your approach to the first green, put it back in the bag and take one club more. This is the only hole where extra-clubbing is a must. If you go through the green (and that’s pretty hard to do), the worst score you’re likely to make is a five; if you plop into the Swilcan Burn, the best score you’re likely to make is a five. Plus, you’ll be in a sour mood early.

After No. 1, our journey takes a 45-degree turn to the right, assuming a northwesterly path it will follow for a mile and a half, through a quintet of par fours sandwiching one par five.

The strategy off the tee for all six holes is the same—stay left—or as the caddies are fond of saying, “left is right, right is shite,” as the preponderance of rough and bunkers awaits a push or slice. However, the prudent drive leftward usually will leave a more demanding approach than a bolder line down the center or right. This is both the essence of strategic design and one of the fascinations of the Old Course inasmuch as it was completely unintended centuries ago by greenkeepers Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris.

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7th Hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Hole No. 2 brings the first of the course’s double greens, shared with the 16th. Your best hope for par here rests on something completely out of your control—hole location. You want it on the flat lower right side of the green where you can easily bounce and roll an approach rather than the higher left which calls for a lofted, or lucky, shot across two bunkers and a herd of buried camels.

For long hitters the 3rd is drivable in a strong following wind, but beware Cartgate, the first of the course’s notorious steep-faced bunkers, embracing the left entrance to the green. The surface slopes hard from front to back and left to right, so factor that into your approach.

The 419-yard 4th is the hardest hole on the outward nine. Here the stay-left strategy calls for a 200-yard carry over a plateau of dense rough; if you can’t do that, take the center lane, just don’t leak more than a couple of yards as gorse, bunkers, heather, tall grass, and a cartpath await. Dominating the green site is a massive hump at the front left, roughly the conformation of a VW Beetle. Salient features such as this are integral to the challenge of the course, and the best of them occur within the last five or 10 yards of the green as sort of a goal-line stand by the Old Lady.

The Seven Sisters bunkers lurk at No. 5. Women of ill repute, they lure anyone with the slightest inclination to stray right on this, the only par five on the outward nine. On slightly higher ground to the left is the sole inward par five (No. 14), and the parallel position of these two midway on their respective nines dramatizes another delightful idiosyncrasy of the Old Course: The hole sequences of the front and back nines are mirror images. In other words, if you fold the scorecard in the middle, the pars of the holes match up, the two par threes (8 and 11) meeting each other as do the par fives (5 and 14). Once again it was utterly unintended, but what other course in the world can make this claim!

This is a very reachable five if your second can scuttle through the eight-foot-deep swale that fronts the green. The double green is one of the largest in the world—38,000 square feet—large enough to contain the first 10 greens at Pebble Beach—so don’t be surprised if you make par after hitting the green in two and then three-putting.

play old course
10th Hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

The Old Course has only two blind tee shots, and the first of them comes at the 6th where a raised dune obscures the landing area. That’s just as well as 10 grasping bunkers flank the fairway, six on the right and four on the left. Downwind, a solid drive will get close to this green, and if you have anything less than 70 yards for your approach, I’d suggest hitting it with a putter. I often putt as many as six or seven approach shots a round, sometimes up to 100 yards: It keeps the ball out of the wind, eliminates the chance of a nutty first bounce, and is easier to judge than you may think because the fescue fairway grass is the same as on the greens and runs at about the same speed. (Plus, I’m a lousy wedge player.)

Our northwest passage concludes at the 7th, which is also the beginning of The Loop, a five-hole sequence—two par threes and three fours—routed in a circle. The aspiration of every Old Course regular is to play The Loop in five straight threes, something I’ve never managed to do, in large part because of this hole. It starts with a Darwinian tee shot; if you’re strong enough to fly your drive 240 yards over a crossing ridge, you’ll be rewarded with a flat lie and a short iron; if not, you’ll be dealing with some aspect of gorse, rough, and uneven terrain and facing a lengthy carry over dreaded Shell, the second largest bunker on the course. No matter which fate befalls you, take plenty of club to clear the billowy green front, and allow for your ball to kick and roll rightward. While walking to the green, stay alert as this hole crosses paths with No. 11, with “incoming” a real threat.

I see the Old Course as sort of a three-act play, with Act One being the just-completed seven-holes out, an exercise in leftward tacking and bunker avoidance. Act Two—the five holes to come—brings a reprieve with no hole (on a calm day) requiring more than a drive and a short iron. If you’re going to make a good score, this is where you must take advantage.

Holes 8 and 9 briefly reverse course and head back southeast. Eight is an uncomplicated mid-length par three, except when the pin is at the extreme front or back of the green, the former calling for a tricky bounce-on approach, the latter presenting a stern putting assignment.

Nine is surely the easiest par four in major championship golf, less than 300 dead-flat yards from the regular tees and only about 370 for the pros. Yes, a couple of pot bunkers loom in the right-center of the fairway (Tiger Woods reportedly avoided them by teeing off with a 7-iron every round en route to victory in 2000), but you didn’t come to lay up. Take aim at the pin and let ’er rip. Downwind, even medium-length hitters can slap one pin-high, and if you fall short, you can putt your approach, as this green is unprotected and flat as a pancake.

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11th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Ten is only a bit tougher. The tee shots here and at 9 are the only ones where “stay left” does not apply, and the gorse and heather left of this fairway can be particularly penal. Also, the approach plays longer than it looks, so take plenty of club and allow for some bounce and roll to the right.

The stretch from 8 to 12 requires only one superbly struck shot, and that is the tee shot at number 11, my favorite par three in all the world. It’s 174 yards but over the years I’ve attacked it with everything from a pitching wedge to a driver, depending on the wind. Although the green is the most visible on the course, equally in view is the 12-foot-deep Hill bunker (where in the 1921 British Open 19-year-old Bobby Jones took four strokes and failed to complete the hole) along with its co-conspirator, vertical-faced Strath, gaping hungrily front and center. Furthermore, the green has markedly more slope than any other. I once experienced the delight of making a nine here in a competition and was never in a bunker.

The elevated tee of No. 12 gives you a clear view of the distant green. Sure there’s gorse right and left, but the welcoming fairway tumbles gently to the target. What you don’t see are the six bunkers in the middle of this fairway. They’re obscured because, for much of its life, the Old Course was played in reverse, in a clockwise circle instead of counterclockwise as it is today. The raised front edges of the current bunkers (which obscure them from view) are visible from the opposite side. Long hitters can fly all but the last of them; everyone else should aim at the gorse right or left and hit a club that will leave them short of it.

Although this is a double green, what stares back at you seems more like a half green, a shallow, two-tiered target that can be very hard to hit and hold especially when the pin is on the back plateau, just a few paces deep. Whether you choose to play a bump and run or a lofted iron, a bit long is usually better than a bit short, leaving a straightforward chip or putt. The pros will sometimes “lay through” this hole and chip back from behind the green.

There’s a saying in St. Andrews, “the Old Course begins at the 13th hole,” when out of bounds right becomes your companion all the way to the clubhouse. And so the final act begins.

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(photo by Kevin Murray)

A trio of deep bunkers—The Coffins—sits left-center on 13. The tour pros tend to power over them into the 6th fairway, which leaves a clear view of the green. The rest of us should stay in our own patch, hoping our blind approach avoids two guardian bunkers and leaves a reasonable putt on the mammoth green. I shall never forget the birdie I made here a few years ago in the R&A Autumn Medal on the longest putt of my life, 188 feet.

To the number-one handicap hole, the par-five 14th. A stone OB wall is on the right, the malevolent Beardies bunkers are left, but the fairway is ample so swing away. If your drive is shorter than 250, you’d be wise to play your second to the left into the 5th fairway, which will leave a good view of the green. Those who dare to play straight ahead risk a descent into Hell, the sandy cavern where Jack Nicklaus in the 1995 Open took four swings en route to a 10. This is another good hole to putt from anywhere inside 50 yards as the right-front of the green rises up like a cresting wave.

Holes 15 and 16 are relatively uncomplicated assignments, a pair of gently rightward-bending par fours where a solid drive opens the green to a mid-iron approach. Of the two, 16 is the more intimidating, with the Principal’s Nose and Deacon Sime bunkers beckoning on the left and the OB fence cautioning against a bold but shorter route to the right. As Nicklaus has famously said, “Only fools and amateurs go right on 16.” The front porch of this green is four feet lower than the rest of it.

Now the famed Road Hole, the 17th. Unless you have a well-trained power fade, you’ll have to hit a blind tee shot over the hindquarters of the Old Course Hotel to have any chance of reaching this green in two. Aim where your caddie tells you and blast away. The slender two-tiered green, set at a right angle to the fairway, is pinched between the Road Bunker (contoured to gather shots well beyond its confines) at the left-front and the road itself beyond. This is the one moment where under-clubbing is a very good idea: Take one less than the yardage suggests and stay to the right. If your ball happens to run up to the second tier, great; if not, you’ll have a chip or long putt and will have spared yourself some road rage.

For the finale we’re back to that enormous fairway where we began. Aim at the red clock on the R&A clubhouse, well left of the green. A good drive will finish close to Grannie Clark’s Wynd, which runs across the first and 18th fairways toward the beach. From there it’s 100 yards. If you should blast a drive and get within 50, take out the putter again, rap it briskly, allowing for some break to the left, and show the assembled onlookers what you’ve learned. If the ball finishes close, prepare to doff your cap, because there will be applause!