Letter from St. Andrews: Once Before You Die

Don’t ask me why it’s taken me so long to figure this out, but it just dawned on me that there’s really only one thing you want to know from a guy who lives in St. Andrews: how to get on the Old Course. Herewith therefore, along with my apologies, are 21 bona fide ways. Some of them, admittedly, are a bit more bona fide than others.

1) Get on “The Ballot”:  Over half of all tee times on the Old Course are allotted according to a daily ballot. You sign up either by phone or in person by 1 p.m. the day before you want to play (you must be in a group of at least two—no singles—and the handicap limit is 24 for men, 36 for women). You’ll hear your fate by 3 p.m. The results are posted at several locations in town as well as on the Internet. If you want to see what tomorrow’s ballot looks like, log onto www.standrews.org.uk/cgi-win/ballot. Your prospects: 25 percent in season (mid March through October) 95 percent off season. (Caveat emptor: In the off season, you’ll have to play your fairway shots off astro-turf mats.)  Your cost: $207 in season, $101 off. (Note: All costs have been converted at the rate of $1.80/pound sterling.) [Editor’s Note: the ballot is now 48 hours in advance.]

2) Ride a local’s coattails: Residents of St. Andrews and environs and members of the town’s five golf clubs (three men’s, two women’s) have blocks of starting times allotted solely for their use, (specifically, 8–9 a.m. all year round plus 1–2 p.m. in the winter and 5–6 p.m. in the summer). Guests are allowed to take part in these times, as long as the local folk play in the group. And if your host is feeling insanely generous, he may even let you use four of his 24 annual “guest points,” meaning your green fee will be reduced by about two thirds. Your prospects: 80 percent in season, 99 percent off season. Your cost: $65 in season, $32 off season (assuming you get to use the points).

3) Walk on as a single: If you’re on your own or don’t mind splitting up your group, you can join the pre-dawn queu at the starter’s box next to the first tee of the Old Course. Depending on the time of year, your wait could be as little as a few minutes or as long as a few hours. Your prospects: 80 percent in season, 99 percent off season. Your cost: $207 in season, $101 off season.

4) Book way in advance: The St. Andrews Links Trust (which controls all the tee times) accepts advance applications (by e-mail, fax, or letter), beginning the first Wednesday in September for the following year. Allocation is first-come, first served, and you’ll get a reply within a month of receipt of your application. Contact: Reservations Office, St Andrews Links Trust, Pilmour House, St Andrews Fife KY16 9SF Scotland. Tel: 011 441 334 466 666; Fax : 011 441 334 477 036; www.standrews.org.uk. Your prospects: 40 percent. Your cost: $306 in season (includes a second round on either the New Course or Jubilee Course).

5) Call a reputable tour operator: These include members of the Scottish Incoming Golf Tour Operators Association and the American Association of Golf Tour Operators. There’s also the Old Course Experience, which has a deal with the Links Trust for roughly 900 starting times a year. Tour operators can guarantee you a tee time, but it’s part of a deluxe package. Your prospects: 100 percent. Cost (using Old Course Experience): $1,908–2,206, which incudes a round on the New or Jubilee plus two nights at a top hotel, daily breakfast, one dinner, transfers to courses, etc.

6) Move here: A 1974 Act of Parliament guarantees any resident of St. Andrews full privileges on all six of the town’s courses for an annual fee that is currently $198. Unfortunately, you must be a certified tax-paying, voting, U.K. resident—and they require more than one statement of proof, in the form of signed affidavits by local clergymen, schoolmasters, solicitors, etc. Your prospects: 70 percent. Your cost: $100,000–$2,000,000 for a home, plus the $198.

7) Move near here: People who live in Northeast Fife (but not within the confines of St. Andrews) may buy a links ticket at twice the price the St. Andreans pay. Unfortunately, due to the large number of people now retiring to this neck of the woods, there’s a four-year waiting list for the ticket—and there are absolutely no exceptions. Mary Thomson only recently got her ticket after a multi-year wait—not extraordinary except that her husband is Peter Thomson, five-time winner of the Open Championship. Your prospects: 100 percent (eventually). Your costs: $50,000–$1,500,000 for a home, plus $396 for the links ticket.

8) Join the Royal & Ancient Golf Club: Okay, they’re not exactly on a membership drive, but hey, you never know. After all, the membership stands at around 2,000 and roughly 275 of those are Americans. Once you’re in, you have free playing privileges on all six St. Andrews courses for as long as you remain a member. Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: If I told you’d I’d probably be drummed out of the club, but rest assured, it’s very, very reasonable, especially by American standards.

9) Join the St. Andrews Golf Club or the New Club:   These are the two other men’s clubs in town and both have regular access to the Old Course. Unlike the R&A, membership (for Americans at least) does not bring with it free access to the courses, but you may buy a links ticket (at three times the prevailing price). Your prospects: less than 5 percent. Your cost: Roughly the same as the R&A, plus $594 for the annual ticket.

10) Enroll in the University of St. Andrews: Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious seat of learning accepts roughly 500 American students each year. Granted, you may be a little old for matriculating, but once you’re in you qualify for a local-rate links ticket. Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: Roughly $30,000 for first-year tuition, room, and board plus $198 for the ticket.

11) Join Rotary International: The Rotarians have been playing an annual tournament here every June for the past 50 years and it includes one round on the Old Course and one on the Eden Course. It’s open to all members worldwide, and is limited to 360 spots but it rarely sells out. Your prospects: 100 percent (once you get into your local Rotary club).Your cost: $475 entry fee.

12) Join the Royal Air Force and get stationed at Leuchars: Just across the Eden estuary, about three miles from St. Andrews, is an RAF station that is home to three squadrons of Tornado F3 fighters. If you can get yourself assigned there—even as an American serviceman—you’ll be eligible for a links ticket at two-times the local cost. (And if you can make it to base commander, you’ll be eligible for membership in the R&A.) Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: $594 for a links ticket.

13) Play in the Dunhill Links Championship: The European Tour’s version of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, this annual October event gets you onto the Old Course, Carnoustie, and Kingsbarns, playing in a two-man team alongside a tour pro. Throw in practice days and you get six rounds of golf—seven if you’re one of the 20 teams to make the cut for Sunday’s final round on the Old Course. Your prospects: 40 percent. Your cost: $7,500

14) Buy the last spot in the Dunhill Links Championship: The truth is, last year all the Dunhill spots were sold quickly and there was a waiting list of over one hundred. But there is still a way to guarantee yourself a berth—go on the Internet and make the highest bid in the Pilgrim Foundation charity auction that takes place about two weeks before the event. Of course, you’ll pay a bit of a premium—last year’s winning bid was $32,000. But it’s all for a fine cause that preserves and protects the historic buildings in town. (See www.pilgrimfoundation.org). Your chances: 100 percent. Your cost: whatever it takes.

15) Give Your father (or son) a Treat: Each April The Old Course Experience stages a father-son tournament (see my November/December 2004 column) that features golf on five courses including the Old. Spots are still available for 2005. Your prospects: 100 percent.Your cost: $7,000 entry fee for two.

16) Play in the St. Andrews Links Trophy or the St. Rule Trophy: These are the two big men’s and women’s amateur events held here each summer. It’s a great value—the entry fee is only $100 and the men play three of their four rounds on the Old Course, the women two of their three. Of course, to be eligible for the Links Trophy you’ll need a handicap of scratch or better, for the St. Rule (Annika won this a few years back), six or better. Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: $100 entry fee.

17) Get a Job in the British golf media and join the Association of Golf Writers. Next May, in preparation for the Open Championship, members of the AGW will be invited to a media day at St. Andrews which will include a round of golf at on the Old Course. Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: nil

18) Get a Job at the St. Andrews Links Trust: The organization employs roughly 200 full-time workers and one of the perks is a free links ticket. Your chances: less than 1 percent. Your cost: nil.

19) Get a High-Level Job at the R&A.  All members of the senior staff—about 10 of them—get links privileges. Your chances: less than 1 percent. Your cost: nil.

20) Qualify for the 2005 Open Championship: Pull that one off and you’ll get an entire week of play on the Old. Your prospects: less than 1 percent. Your cost: $180 entry fee.

21) Win the Open: All champions are granted the “Freedom of the Links,” entitling them to a lifetime of gratis green fees. Your prospects and your cost: nil.