A day at St. Andrews

I‘d previously been to Scotland four times prior to this recent trip. On none of those occasions had I ventured to St.Andrews because I didn’t want to go there unless I was playing golf. My earliest memory of the Old Course was watching Seve win there in 1984. Since then a trip to play there was high up on my priority list. So finally making it there was a huge thrill.

The biggest problem is getting a game. They have a daily ballot system – a bit like a lucky draw for those who haven’t got a reserved tee time or who aren’t members. After two unsuccessful attempts at the ballot (I was there with my golfing mate Michael) we were running out of options.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to play the Old Course we asked around. As you do, we ended up in a local bar and met an old time caddy George. After a couple of pints George became most helpful. He pulled out a laptop and checked the next day’s time sheet. There was some good news.

There were at least 15 potential spots available to those prepared to queue up. It’s first come first served. Completely fair but a few issues we weren’t yet prepared for.

1. To get to the top of the queue you have to be there early. Like 3.30am early. Anytime after about 5am there was the potential for 20+ eager golfers to be ahead of you.

2. You are not guaranteed a game. With a first hit off from 6.30am and a last of 4.30pm, it could be a long day. Those who have a guaranteed tee time do not have to accept anyone queuing up into their group.

So Mike and I decided it was worth a shot. We had come all this way and weren’t going home without giving it a serious try.

We set the alarm for 3.00am and made it to the first tee, golf clubs and all, at about 3.40am. To my utter surprise we were not the first in line. Jason, a big Texan, had been there since 2am. He had actually spent the previous day traveling and didn’t arrive in St. Andrews till late. He decided it was best to go straight to the tee rather than risk sleep and miss out (he had only one day in St. Andrews).

So it’s not even 4am and I’m waiting around the first tee at the most famous course in the world. It was cold (when isn’t it cold in Scotland?) with not much to do. By 4.15am there were five others joining Mike, Jason and me. At this point we had an informal putting contest to kill time. That lasted less than 15 minutes and with enough light for photographs, most of us wandered around taking some happy snaps.

Cam and Mike at St. Andrews Golf Course

Cam and Mike on the 1st tee approx. 5am

It was actually a lot of fun. We all had the same mission and there was a sense of camaraderie amongst us all. We swapped stories of where we were from, courses we played, our favourite holes and how cold the weather was (yep, it was cold). Most of all we just hung around soaking up the atmosphere and wondering if we’d get a game. It took a while but 6am came around and the starter arrived.

James was a young and very polite Scotsman. He was the chief starter and worked 12 hour shifts six days per week. Each morning he must come to work not knowing what and who to expect. He was a champion – he made sure that those there first made the list and very apologetically told those “late starters” that they wouldn’t be getting a game. It worked like clockwork – there was no arguing or trouble.

With no slots coming up before 7.30am I was getting worried. At this point Mike and I decided to fend for ourselves. We had hoped to play together but with no realistic chance of finding two spots in the same group it was every man for himself. I pulled rank and took the second position with Mike relegated to third.

Jason hit off at 8.00am. With no sleep for 35 hours he looked a tired golfer. His opening tee shot told the story – a weak high ball to the left. But he was away.

It looked like I’d make the 8.10am group, but the American three-ball didn’t want any extras. Bummer.

Then my luck changed. The 8.20 group invited me to join them. My heart rate rose as I tried to limber up my tight, tired, cold and stiff body. At this point I was hoping my automatic game would help me. I started getting nervous, more nervous than I’d been in a long while.

Playing with three locals, Steve, Paul and Greg, I was feeling better because they were friendly and welcoming. What a relief that was as it was a complete lottery who you ended up with.

Cameron Strachan at the Old Course

L to R: Steve, Paul, Cameron, Greg

The opening tee shot

This is a lesson for everyone. We all get nervous and there is no magic button to press to ensure you hit every shot perfectly. Up to this point in the trip Mike and I had a running joke going. He had duffed nearly every first tee shot while I had negotiated most quite well. But things were to change.

It must have been the situation but I was feeling really anxious. My brain was telling me I wasn’t any good and it didn’t know how to hold or swing the golf club. Little Pesky was giving me a complete rundown on why automatic golf was a waste of time and that I was a complete loser for wanting to play golf at St. Andrews. Pesky was going wild. He was having a field day and I was copping it with both barrels.

So it wasn’t surprising that my opening tee shot, while hit solidly, flew hard and to the right. It ran into the Swilican Burn fronting the green – I was disappointed as I wanted to start the day better. Michael thought it was the funniest thing he’d seen all trip. I could hear him laughing with our new friends as I put the driver back in my bag.

To make the day a memorable one I had hired the services of a caddy. He actually missed my opening shot (rumor has it he was still in the bar) and caught up with me as I toddled off down the expansive first/eighteenth fairway. Frankie caught up with me and we had a laugh before getting to my wet ball. In what might be a first at St. Andrews, Frank actually gave me three sledges inside the first 30 seconds,

Sledge #1: “Australia! You guys a shit, we just thrashed you in the cricket” (Frank was a Pom and wasn’t going to let the cricket thing slip through. He certainly didn’t waste any time)

Sledge #2: “For God’s Sake man!!! What’s in your golf bag? It’s the heaviest thing I’ve carried in years”. (I told him I would add a brick or two if he mentioned the cricket again and it wasn’t that heavy).

Sledge #3: “Why the #&*@ did you hit driver from the tee? Nobody with a brain ever hits driver from there”. (I kindly reminded him if he wasn’t late I would have hit whatever he wanted).

Frank was a legend. A great guy who had been a professional caddy in his hey day – had caddied for Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam amongst others. We agreed that I would listen to him and play the shot that he recommended. I decided it was best to listen to him as he’d had 25 years experience around the Old Course – I also didn’t want any more arguments about our cricket team. We were the perfect team – he told me what to do and I’d do it. Fantastic partnership…

I dropped my ball out of the burn, wedged it on and two-putted for a five. Not the greatest start but I was feeling a lot better. I reminded myself to “play” the game. Not to get distracted and swing freely. It was good advice and something I would recommend to all.

Away

My second drive was a good one. I smashed it down the middle and had 125 metres to the pin. (I can’t be sure because Frankie did all the measurements, but I trusted him. He was also good at translating from yards to metres. I’m hopeless with yards). It was also surprising because Frank had given me the 8-iron. He’d only seen me hit two full shots and was already able to club me. The eight iron was perfect – I made a solid strike and the ball finished in the middle of the green. Two-putts later I’d made a par.

The noticeable thing was the wind. It was really strong and it sort of felt heavy – like there was a wall of wind to penetrate on each shot. The outward holes were all into the wind so it was going to be tough. Although I’ve played a lot of golf on windswept courses, this wind seemed different. It was going to be a challenge.

I three-putted the third green after a wayward approach and got my first taste of the huge double-greens. I think on most other courses I’d be facing a chip shot but not at St. Andrews, I probably had a 30 metre putt. Not so easy in strong wind, a long putter and no real grasp of the speed (the practice putting green was really slow – one reason why the impromptu putting contest didn’t last long)

So it was a pretty ordinary start. Two over after 3 holes and with a tough into-the-wind stretch still to come.

I made a good par at the fourth. I followed the drive with a low hard five iron onto the green and managed to sink a tricky 1 metre putt for par. Yes!

I birdied the par 5 5th. A good drive and three wood left me pin high right for two. A chip and putt later I had made birdie. 1 over.

By this stage the wind was howling. Welcome to St. Andrews I thought. The 6th hole wasn’t that long but it was tough. I again found the fairway but came up way short with the 2nd. The approach got up into the wind and from there had no chance. I putted from well off the green and the ball finished within a foot. I had saved par. Still 1 over.

The 7th is a tricky little hole. It shares a green with the 11th and the approach came from an uphill lie but into the strong wind. Frankie gave me two clubs extra, a 6 iron from 135 metres. I struck it well but it drifted slightly to the right, hit the edge of the green and rolled off. I made a good fist of the chip and putt but the par try missed. 2 over.

The course turns down wind here. 8 and 9 play downwind as the course loops back around to the 11th. I parred 8 (par 3 – a wedge and two putts) and was able to birdie the 9th. It’s actually a very simple hole. Massive wide fairway and a large bunkerless green. I found the back of the green with a three-wood and two-putted for a 3. The course then turns back into the wind. Frankie told me these were two key holes. If I could par them then the remainder of the course would be downwind and somewhat easier. 1 over par.

I made a par on the 10th and walked to the 11th tee. It has never really looked like much on TV but this is a brute of a hole. It’s a massive green with a huge amount of slope. Measuring around 170 metres from the back tee, it’s a tough par 3.

“Welcome to one of the shortest par 4’s in the world”, joked Frank. And he wasn’t wrong. Left and long was dead – with almost no chance to get up and down. Short was no good either, protected by Shell Bunker (a huge shell-shaped bunker) with the only bail out zone right of the pin.

With the wind at it’s peak and dead into us, Steve wanted to call it a day. He wasn’t playing well and was fed up with the wind and his poor play. I was no chance to give in and urged him to keep playing. Frankie had the hole at 155m. I didn’t know what to hit. Frank came to the rescue and gave me a 5 iron. Trusting the club, I aimed left and tried to hit my favourite low draw shot it. I struck it well but it finished right of the pin, safely on the green (seriously, I can’t describe how strong the wind was).

The putt was incredible. It was up the most severe slope I think I’d ever putted on it. I had just watched Steve and Paul putt from left of the hole, only to see their balls catch this slope and roll past my ball and off the green. Their shots back to the hole came up way short, despite hitting them really hard. Frankie’s advice was simple, “give it a good whack”.

I did. The ball still ended up 15 feet short of the cup. I couldn’t believe it. I seriously thought I’d hit the putt too hard and would end up past. In a stroke of luck I sunk the second putt for a par. Still 1 over par.

I parred 12. This was a good birdie chance but I hit a poor tee shot and never really looked like doing better.

Thirteen was a mystery to me. Of all the holes at St. Andrews this was one I didn’t know much about. I was in the hands of Frankie here and once again put my faith in him. He gave me a 5 iron from the tee, leaving 110 metres to the green. When I struck my wedge I knew it was a good one, it ended up close enough for me to sink the putt for birdie. Now at even par.

Fourteen was my big chance. A downwind par 5 I had the chance to get on in two and make birdie. My drive wasn’t that great – the play here is to aim down the 5th fairway and then shoot across. Unfortunately I miss-hit the drive and it ended up in the rough bordering the two holes (Did you know that the joining fairways all add up to 19? 5 + 14 = 19, 1 + 18 = 19. The joining greens all add up to 18). I then smashed a rescue to the front of the green but wasn’t able to get the ball up and down. Even par.

Fifteen and sixteen are shortish holes. At least they are when they play downwind. I played them well enough to make par. Nothing fancy to report.

The road hole: I started to get nervous here. The previous night Mike and I had walked around and the hole is a real menace. It has a really narrow green that sits at a funny angle. If you miss it you’re typically in the road hole bunker (not a good spot) or on the road (probably worse). I knew If I could par this one then the 18th wouldn’t offer too many problems.

The Road Hole Bunker

For about the 4th time this day my drive went left. I was in thickish rough 155 metres to the pin (which was placed right behind the bunker). I selected the nine-iron, aimed right, opened the clubface and gave the ball a hard hit. It felt good but I didn’t see it – when I looked up I was blinded by the sun (it had come out finally). When I heard some clapping from behind the green I knew I had done well. When I got to the green I was pleasantly surprised. The ball had flown right of the flag (over the bunker) and landed softly on the green. It pulled up about 20 feet from the pin. A nervous two-putt later (the first putt was way quicker than it looked) I had secured par.

The 18th hole was a lot of fun. I smashed the drive down the huge fairway and was confident of making no worse than 4. I was then able to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the surroundings. I had lived a boyhood dream of playing this great course and felt proud of the way I had played. There was validation of my theory that great golf is possible without a lot of practice and technical thought. There was also proof that we can all overcome nerves, self-doubt and even fear and still perform well.

Cameron and Caddy Frank

My little pitch and run found the green and I narrowly missed my birdie try. I tapped in for four and 72 stokes in total. I was thrilled with the score and pleased I could say I shot par around St. Andrews first time out.

The morning of golf was finished off in style when I was invited into the clubhouse to join my playing partners for a pint or two of local ales.

FYI: Mike got a game also and played really well. His biggest disappointment was three-putting the road hole after hitting the green in two. Jason didn’t play that well but had a great time too – he nearly fell asleep at lunch.

Some extra thoughts:

1. I really don’t think it’s possible to overcome nerves or self-doubt. Pesky is always going to be there on every shot you play. The skill is learning to deal with him (accept him and move on) and not getting too distracted.

2. Learning to play the game is more important than your swing or technique. To be honest, I had to throw technique out the window. If I’m 100% honest I didn’t play that well. I made some good putts but drove the ball very badly.

3. Course strategy is vitally important and a part of the game I think most amateurs neglect. Frankie was incredibly helpful – he chose conservative lines from the tee and was satisfied with finding the green. He didn’t try for miracles and probably saved me between 3 – 6 shots for the day. You don’t always get to play with a caddy but adopting a more conservative game plan will probably help you.

4. Golf is fun. It really is. And the more you can play the game the more fun it becomes. If you focus on ball striking and scoring alone I think you’ll be disappointed.

5. Automatic golf offers something deeper and meaningful. I don’t want to get too deep, but my experience at St. Andrews (and the other great courses in Scotland) proved that there’s something greater about the game than just score.

Leave any thoughts below…

Old Course Clubhouse, 1st tee and 18th fairway

Resources:

If you ever go to St. Andrews please consider staying at the Riverview Guest House. Hosts Jack and Nancy are absolute legends and they cook a mean breakfast. Make sure you tell them I sent you 🙂

If you haven’t read my golf book then here’s your chance. It goes into greater detail about automatic golf and getting the most from your game, even when you don’t get that much time to practice.

Get my complete golf learning resource. It has all my info in the one place, including videos and audios. There’s a tonne of content that will keep you out of trouble.

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11 Comments

  • Lukey

    Reply Reply September 6, 2011

    Cam
    Not a real lot to say other than I am jealous
    Cheers Lukey

  • Gregor

    Reply Reply September 6, 2011

    Sounds like you had a great time. Well worth the early start !

  • Steady

    Reply Reply September 7, 2011

    Fun with a capital F. Isn’t that why we PLAY golf for fun. Ultimately when you take the fun out of playing anything then your not playing.
    Great post Strachs.

  • Joseph Myers

    Reply Reply December 8, 2011

    I had Frank the Caddy as well, which is how I caught sight of your round. Frank made the round a great experience, and made me feel as though I was playing Championship golf

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply December 13, 2011

      Do you have his contact details?

  • Thomas Graves Jr.

    Reply Reply January 21, 2012

    Sounds like a fun day. You lived all of our dream. Am I jealous? Nah. I am happy for you, and I look forward to the day when my dream comes true. And I can only hope that Frank is still caddying when I get there.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply January 22, 2012

      Hi Thomas. make sure you look Franky up – he was an absolute Champion. And I hope you make it to St. Andrews. It’s a fantastic place and the Old Course is something all golfers should experience once. You’ll love it.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • James

    Reply Reply January 21, 2012

    Re: ‘something greater about the game than just score.’ I have played (and won) many competitions, but the match that gave me the most lasting pleasure to this day was one I lost. In a knockout comp. both my opponent and myself played way better than our respective handicaps and there was never more than a hole up or down during the match – which I lost on the eighteenth to a birdie putt. If I had won the match, I genuinely could not have been any happier with the events of that wonderful day.
    Yours in golf.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply January 22, 2012

      Hi James: Thanks for posting. While most of the time it feels great to win, when you really play the game it doesn’t always matter. Sometimes your opponent is that little bit better. Good stuff.

  • Leftienige

    Reply Reply November 24, 2012

    Hello Cam , from a flooded Devon, U.K. Congrats on your memorable day at St. Andrews. A friend of mine got through to the final round of a national comp there. Said they gave a wonderful day of it , the sponsors were a top whiskey maker , and the stuff flowed like water! I can only dream of something like this, the closest I ever got was 3 days at the Open at Royal St. Georges. Fantastic to stand a few yards from the likes of Ernie Els and see how it’s meant to be done. I don’t think many courses here in North Devon will be playable for the next few weeks, we’ve had floods for some time now . I’ll be using the time to try to improve my ever-shortening backswing (I’m 61 now, and not too flexible). Any tips would be welcome, Cheers, Leftienige.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply November 25, 2012

      Leftienige: See the floods on the TV. Hope they subside soon. I wouldn’t worry too much about the length of your backswing – focus on hitting the ball with freedom and without fear and you’ll do just fine. The backswing will then take care of itself.

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