Alan Shipnuck: “The Old Course is even better backwards”

America’s premier golf writer Alan Shipnuck assesses St Andrews – and reveals his love for Scotland’s courses

I have played the Old Course in St Andrews six times and it has grown on me a little more after each round.

The first time I just found it so underwhelming off the tee, with some half-blind shots thrown in, that I didn’t get out of what I hoped I would, having waiting for so long to play it.

That first time, I played it twice in one day. In the first round, I came off thinking I loved the greens and I couldn’t get enough of the setting but I was confused where to hit it off the tee.

So the next round I took a caddy and it made a world of difference. You know, just having someone tell you what was the best line was huge. It goes for every course I suppose – but possibly nowhere with more relevance than on the Old Course – that the more you play it the more you appreciate its subtleties.

There are a lot of awkward drives to me, but the closer you get to the green the more fun it is. It is endlessly fascinating.

When people say take away the ocean and Pebble Beach is an average golf course, it’s the same with Old Course and its history. You can’t ‘take away’ the history of St Andrews when you play the Old Course.

It’s intrinsically woven into the turf.

• View the NCG top 100: Scotland’s best golf courses

It’s incredibly fun and is very scoreable. It shows up modern courses that have been built and are just too hard for normal golfers to enjoy.

You’ve got double greens that are a big target, no real rough, only the burns as water hazards.  But it’s still quirky – and I love quirkiness on a course. It has that. OK, you have a hole like 18 that is not super challenging but it is still so much fun to swing away freely off that tee.

So I have grown to love it.

It is still the No.1 for any American coming over there to play; it’s way above anything else.

People do Ireland trips and don’t go to Scotland but if they go to Britain, they definitely try to play the Old. 

Even if you go up to the Highlands as your main trip to play Dornoch and Brora, you still try to play the Old somehow.

In 2004, before it was such an organised thing as it is now, I played it in reverse. It’s even better backwards! It’s amazing. 

I love the town itself too. I booked an AirBnB in St Andrews for the Open at Carnoustie and drove to the championship every day because I love the town so much.

I never miss out on playing golf in Scotland when I am over covering the Open. It’s criminal to be over there and not play.

It’s a bit different now to how it was when I was over covering it for a weekly magazine, when it was standard practice to leave the press tent late afternoon and play golf until sunset.

Those rounds, finishing in close to darkness, are some of my most treasured memories.

You’d be able to play sneak on the Old and play nine holes or just skip the loop. Or play 5 or play 14; you’d get your work done and go play.

The immediacy of the internet, Twitter and videos has changed that dynamic so my clubs see a lot less action these days. But one night after dinner back in St Andrews, myself and a few colleagues played the 18th on the Old using hotel lights for guidance. It was so cool.

I love the Old… but Cruden Bay tops it for me. And so does North Berwick.

Cruden Bay is so quirky and so fun, every hole an adventure on a spectacular piece of land.North Berwick I could play every day for the rest of my life. Those would be my top two in Scotland, then probably the Old, although I love Machrihanish.

It’s a so tough selection between Machrihanish and the Old. I love Prestwick too but I’d take the Old over it.

I like Castle Stuart. If you said I could play 10 rounds between the Old Course and Castle Stuart I would play at least three at Castle Stuart.It’s so much fun. It’s a bit like the Old Course with half-par holes where you can take your chances.

Kingsbarns is another I love, as everyone does.

One place I’d love to get to is Skibo Castle. And when I’m there I will have another game at Dornoch, because it was the wrong wind and we didn’t get as much from it as we should.

Alan Shipnuck St Andrews

Alan writes for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com