Ask a local what the best course is in St Andrews and the chances are the answer will be the New. Even allowing for an understandable touch of perversity – borne from enduring a never-ending stream of golfers from all over the world jetting into town, hacking their way around the Old Course and then disappearing again – it is an opinion that has genuine merit.
So many of these visitors fail to realise that there are a further 135 holes to play without even the leaving the town. At the risk of stating the obvious, St Andrews is the ultimate golfing destination. Within a couple of miles lies the elevated Duke’s, offering panoramic views of the town. On the far side of the harbour are 36 even newer holes – the Torrance and Devlin courses at St Andrews Bay.
And on the very same stretch of linksland as the Old lie the 18-hole New, Jubilee, Eden and Strathtyrum courses, along with the nine-hole Balgove beginners’ course. Throw in a state-of-the-art driving range and it is difficult to imagine what more you could ask from a golfing resort.
All of the latter six courses within the town lie under the jurisdiction of the St Andrews Links Trust, whose prerogative it is to ensure that the courses remain both affordable and available to the general public. That has not always been the case with the Old Course, not least because so many times each day are reserved for tour operators and guests at the Old Course Hotel.
But largely due to recent times of recession, it is much easier to get a game than it was a few years ago. Those entering the daily ballot for start times are, at present, often successful. According to the reservations office, around a half of all tee times on the Old Course are awarded by way of the ballot. Those applying have anywhere between a one in two and one in 20 chance of getting a game, varying on the day.
And while it remains entirely understandable that any golfer travelling to the Home of Golf should want to play on the world’s most famous course, the New and the Jubilee, in particular, deserve far better than to be considered consolation prizes when a tee-time on the Old proves unattainable.
While reserving a guaranteed slot on the Old Course involves planning a good year ahead, it is possible to play the New by turning up on the day at the Links Trust clubhouse, located next to the Old Course’s 1st green, and putting your name down for later the same day.
It is a refreshing way to go about playing a course of its stature. Getting on at others half as good can involve ringing up weeks ahead and practically begging the secretary for the privilege of treading their hallowed turf. And, make no mistake, the New is the real thing.
If it was anywhere else in Britain, it would have played host to countless national and international events over the years. Running parallel and adjacent to the Old Course, it was commissioned by the R&A after demand for the town’s only layout had exceeded supply.
Old Tom Morris was handed the design brief and it opened for play in 1895. With its history now spanning three centuries, the term ‘new’ is strictly relative. In fact, it is probably the oldest ‘new’ course in the world.
The New is the real thing. If it was anywhere else in Britain, it would have played host to countless national and international events over the years.
Like the Old, it lies on a narrow piece of land and the front nine travels directly away from the clubhouse. The middle holes go back and forth at the far end before turning back towards the town, with the final green adjacent to the 1st tee. But while the 3rd and 15th holes share the same green, and other holes the same fairway – both St Andrews trademarks – the New has surprisingly little in common with its illustrious neighbour in terms of character.
For a start, the front nine occupies the inside of the course with the back nine running for the most part along the outer perimeter. So the hooks that gravitate towards safe ground in the centre of the Old Course tend to find trouble on the New.
It is much tighter and generally less whimsical, which is why many of the locals rate it as a fairer test of golf. With three long holes and four short ones there is also more variety, and although the bunkers can be punishing there is nothing as pernicious as the infamous Strath and Road Hole bunkers.
And if the Old Course can appear something of a wilderness on first impressions, the New is much clearer with its demands. Colourful gorse and thick rough offer graphic demarcation and fairways are visible from every tee bar two.
Despite this, care must be taken to avoid the many bunkers strewn on the left, right and occasionally in the middle of the fairways. It is advisable on each and every tee to consult the course guide to work out where the hazards are positioned and how to avoid them.
On the shorter front nine in particular, it is often advisable for longer hitters to throttle back and play for position. Defences against would-be bullies are perfectly arranged to stop all but the most foolhardy and skilful from reaching the long holes in two and threatening the greens on the shorter par fours.
A better idea is to sacrifice distance from the tee since only one of the par fours on the outward half requires more than a short iron approach unless conditions are particularly unfavourable. In truth, this is where your score must be made because the last five holes play straight into the prevailing wind.
Needless to say, there is every opportunity (and necessity) to employ the driver on these holes. Nor should you expect to prosper on the short holes. The 9th and 17th measure 225 and 229 yards respectively and are particularly fearsome. While the other two are less daunting, severe contouring means finding and then holding the right portion of the green can be a difficult job.
After a pair of reasonably short opening par fours, the long 3rd completes a gentle opening that offers every chance of a decent start. As at any links, the key to a good score is to take maximum advantage of these easier holes to set against the inevitable bogeys and worse that will be made when confronted with sterner challenges.
The daunting, blind tee shot makes the 4th the first such hole to navigate. With little to see beyond banks of gorse, an iron to the corner of this dog-leg left is the sensible option, leaving an approach of some 140 yards that needs to be placed wide or over the three bunkers that protect the front and left of the green.
The drive at the 445-yard 6th is even tougher. With the obvious choice of reaching for the driver complicated by a fairway that narrows into a neck at around 275 yards, a lengthy second is almost inevitable and needs to favour the right half of the green, due to a hollow that gathers the ball to the left.
A pair of birdie opportunities follow before two of the New’s sternest challenges. The not-so-short 9th demands the truest of tee shots to avoid the beach to the left and the heavy rough to the right. The outstanding 10th will test any player.
Often playing into the wind, the safe line for the blind drive is to the right but finding the green in two from here involves a blind shot of at least 200 yards, flying over wild hillocks every last yard of the way. From the left of the fairway, having flirted with but avoided more knee-high rough, the green is both visible and much more accessible.
The 11th and 12th can both be negotiated without undue alarm before a solid short to mid-iron is called for to reach the back of the 13th green, which slopes severely from back to front. Then begins the long journey back to the clubhouse, into the prevailing wind.
Holes 14 and 15 are solid two-shotters that can become rather more when the wind blows but it is the 16th that can really threaten to ruin a good card. At 431 yards, and often playing much longer, the best approach for most players is not even to attempt to find the green in two, settling instead for the chance of a pitch and putt par and, at worst, a five.
The same tactic should also be used at the next, a long par-three. Anything carrying the bunker some 75 yards short of the putting surface will leave a straightforward chip down the length of the green. The main problem at the final hole is the bunkering at the front of the green. It is best to be bold with the approach to ensure avoiding them.
It can be a relentless closing stretch of holes. But all you need do if you find your game and spirit flagging during this relentless stretch is look ahead to the inspiring horizon of the Auld Grey Toon in the distance. Only the flintiest of souls could fail to be uplifted by the thought of playing at the spiritual Home of Golf.