Eggman in Scotland, Part 3: Walking the Old Course

Reflections on a first in-person encounter with the Old Course on a beautiful evening in St. Andrews


On Sunday before Open week, the only thing between us and St. Andrews was a lengthy cab ride from Gullane up the coast. It turned out we were lucky to make it to the Home of Golf as quickly as we did. Our wonderful driver mentioned to Brendan Porath with 20 minutes left that she had gotten lost on two of her three recent attempts to get to St. Andrews. In the year 2022, I can’t fathom why anyone who drives people for a living would choose not to enlist the help of a digital map.

It was about 6 p.m. by the time we had dropped off our bags and checked in at the media center. With credentials in hand, we set off to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams: a walk around the Old Course.

I can’t tell you how many people over the years have given me their takes on the Old Course. It reminded me, in a way, of the lead-up to having a child. Everyone has a little comment or tip, and you just kind of nod along. At the end of the day, you can’t really relate to what they’re talking about.

Also, I was worried I just wouldn’t get the Old Course in the way I was supposed to get it. Many people I respect had told me how disorienting the course can be the first time. I didn’t want that to be my reaction.

That worry melted away when I stepped onto the first tee. It was a warm evening—about 75 degrees—and the shadows on the course were popping. Part of me was disappointed that the grandstands, TV towers, and other tournament infrastructure obstructed some of the course’s sightlines. But at the same time, the huge buildout around the 18th and first holes brought a kind of gravitas to the place. Maybe it’s sappy, but I did think about all the history that had taken place here, all the legends of the game who had played these holes. I thought about the profound influence that the course had had on the game.

The first detail that caught my eye was the 17th green, pressed up against Old Station Road with the Road Bunker eating into the other side. I imagined playing to that green from where I stood on the first tee. That was an actual hole long ago, when the Old Course could be played in both directions.

Walking down the first fairway, I couldn’t believe the firmness of the turf. It was like walking on concrete, and I wondered how many chunked and thinned wedges I’d see that week.

The first and 18th are fine holes, but getting past the second tee shot and into the fairway, you begin to understand what makes the Old Course world-class. The flat terrain gives way to the wavy ripples that make the course one of a kind, shaped by nature and time.

The second hole is where this movement really starts. Having watched for years on TV, I couldn’t really comprehend what these undulations were like. They aren’t massive and dramatic like the ones at Sand Hills and National Golf Links, but rather small and subtle. It made me think of the ninth fairway at Prairie Dunes—what I’ve always thought of as the perfect size of landforms for a fairway. The ball can easily roll along these contours and get to odd places, whereas with massive features, the ball either scales them or doesn’t. The contours of the Old Course were clearly shaped by nature. You could see how they connected across the fairways to corresponding holes. It truly looked like a wind-blown beach with grass on top of it.

The 2nd hole at the Old Course. Photo: Andy Johnson

The huge false fronts found on many of the Old Course’s greens were another characteristic that I found appealingly natural. The back edge is what I love about these contours. While the front catches your eye because it’s huge, the less severe slope on the back side is what ties it all together. It reminds me of how a wave is structured. The concave front of the wave is what you see, but the gentle swell in the back supports everything.

At the Old Course, the downslope behind a false front exacerbates the penalty if you leave your shot short. Not only do you have to contend with the front of the wave, but you also know that once your ball gets over the crest, it will run away. Few putts give me more trouble than one that goes up uphill on the first half and downhill on the second half. These putts create doubt—something skilled golfers can struggle to cope with.

The waves of the false fronts are an integral characteristic of the Old Course. Photo: Andy Johnson

The Old Course is a trek out and back, but there is a brief pit stop. Just as with a hike, you go to a certain spot and take a break, maybe to eat some food. On the Old Course, the picnic spot is the Loop, which encompasses the seventh through 11th holes. This stretch of golf combines a little madness—the seventh and 11th greens in particular—with intense wind and some subdued golf.

Every green at the Old Course would be in the running for the best green at most other courses, except for the ninth. It’s a short par 4 with a big pancake of a green. Upon first look, it’s jarring and feels extremely out of place compared to all the others. At the same time, if you think about the hike analogy, you like the place you stop for a bit to be comfortable, and the eighth, ninth, and 10th holes provide some comfort at the Old Course. The rest of the course throws wild feature after wild feature at you, and the heart of the Loop is almost a refuge from the zaniness. In this area, the biggest feature you have to deal with is the exposure to the sea at the far end of the course and the wind that can come with it. This section of the course, while not spectacular, shows that it’s fine for a course to take its foot off the gas and give players a bit of a break. Having some subtlety and smallness makes you appreciate the reentry into the big stuff that comes on the 11th and 12th.

The "pancake" 9th green. Photo: Clyde Johnson

At great courses, I tend to find myself getting sad when I know the round is coming to a close. At the Old Course, the end of the round is signaled by the view of the town. With every shot, the town gets bigger and bigger in your field of vision, marking your progress toward the 18th hole.

On that walk back, an amazing feature that never gets its due on broadcasts is the wildly choppy 16th fairway. While I hope one day that the full scale of the hole is restored, with the short grass extending far left of the Principal’s Nose bunker, this fairway, even in its reduced form, is extraordinary.

The 16th fairway at the Old Course. Photo: Andy Johnson

As you approach town, the amount of people on the course increases. We bumped into friends when we got to the 17th green. It was a fitting end to a Sunday walk at the Old Course. It’s just a big park where you run into friends and have a chat about your trip over and the week ahead. There is a community feel as you walk up the 18th, re-immersing yourself in the world’s greatest golf village.

After this mind-blowing first walk in the evening, sundown approached and it had gotten late. It was the start of a trend that plagued our trip. Our days often finished so late that limited restaurants and dinner options were available. So we ended up at a place called Ziggy’s, a little hole in the wall that was still serving food and had an available table for two idiots without a reservation. Ziggy’s is a restaurant that is UK-rock-themed. Its namesake, David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), is plastered all over the walls along with other icons. It’s a cool-looking place and has a nice identity in a town full of golf fans. I found it so odd, though, that Ziggy’s doesn’t play any music! Why go through all the effort of creating this identity and not do the easiest thing to foster it?!

Anyways, it’s a tiny little place with an odd menu. I learned early the next morning I should not have ordered the ribs. A little over 24 hours later, a different part of my Scotland experience started, but I’ll spare you some of the details of my Monday at the Open.

When we traveled to Scotland, we used Luggage Forward to ship our clubs. They were there when we arrived, which was quite convenient as we watched endless frustrated tweets from airline travelers separated from their checked sticks and images of “suitcase mountains” in European airports. Use the code THEFRIEDEGG for 10 percent off shipping. One more thing straight from their own mouth: When you send your clubs or bags with Luggage Forward, it is guaranteed to arrive on time or they’ll refund double what you paid for to ship the bag to make it right.