Up to Par: Worshiping at the ‘Cathedral of Golf’


– A true believer hits the links at St. Andrews in Scotland.

Vacations are a funny thing. After months of diligent planning, an off-handed detour can become the Holy Grail of the entire trip.

Such was the case during our 25th anniversary trip to Scotland, Ireland, and England. My wife, Wendy, loves European history and filled our itinerary with iconic sites and landmarks. There was no shortage of ornate castles and museums in these countries, so I left my clubs at home.

Our first several days were spent wandering the magnificent grounds of Edinburgh Castle, pursuing the Royal Mile, climbing Arthur’s Seat, and sampling whiskey.

But my mind was on St. Andrews.

Often referred to as “The Cathedral of Golf,” St. Andrews has been the titular home to the sport since the early 15th century. This golf universe includes the venerated “Old Course,” the “New Course,” and “Jubilee” – three 18-hole courses that stare directly into the teeth of the ocean with an atmosphere that drips with history and culture like condensation down a crystal decanter of single-malt Scotch.

Finally, our itinerary included a look at the “Old Course” at St. Andrews, lunch at a local pub, and then a car ride out to the next town. But after 25 years, my wife knew me well enough to see I needed much more than just a visit. She encouraged me to play that day, knowing there was more history for her to explore in town.

Even with short notice, I managed to get in a round on the “Jubilee Course” with two fellow Americans, singer Toby Keith’s pilot and co-pilot. The weather was perfect with a slight breeze trickling off the Firth of Forth. I found myself stopping often on many holes, just taking in the beauty of the land and its surroundings. We all finished the day with decent scores despite the rental clubs.   

The itinerary said we would leave for Ireland the next day, but that evening, Wendy and I both decided to throw it away. She had St. Andrews Castle to explore and I had another round in me.

Though the Old Course was closed because of a European Mini Tour, I wanted to walk the course, cross the Swilken Bridge, and imagine the paths Nicklaus, Daly, and Woods took as won the British Open.

I took another chance on the second day of this unplanned golf trip and asked the starter about playing the “New Course.” He said if I was willing to wait, he may be able to pair me with a group. My patience paid off when Tom, a local member of the Royal and Ancient Club, and his business partner from Norway arrived.

Playing with a local member gave me great insight on the course and its history, as well as Scotland’s political and cultural history. The company was incredible, but I couldn’t say the same about the weather.

A famous boxer once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” That was me that day, ready to tee off when the temperature dropped and sideways rain began to hit us in face.  If I were anywhere but Scotland, I would have had second thoughts about continuing to play. However, the allure of playing St. Andrews in the elements became too strong, and we continued down the first fairway.   

Links-style golf in Scotland is unlike anything I had played before. Deep, cavernous bunkers and unforgiving rough gave me a new appreciation for the fairway. The howling wind contributed to me finding a couple of St. Andrews’ infamous bunkers, which almost requires you to hit it sideways to get out and continue play. The conditions seemed to change each hole (as did my layers of clothes), but all seemed to calm by the 11th hole. Walking the 18th hole reminded me of why nothing short of a monsoon was stopping me from playing this great golf course. Upon sight of the green came the Royal and Ancient Club, with the town of St. Andrews set in the background. Nowhere else on Earth does the majesty and reverence for the game of golf come into focus quite like St. Andrews.

After the round, Tom invited me in for lunch and a pint on the hallowed grounds of the Royal and Ancient Club. He gave me a tour of the club, including the lockers with many legendary golf names on the printed across the top and the trophy case with the Claret Jug and the original British Open Belt. It was the perfect ending for a St. Andrews experience.

We never made it to Ireland on that trip, but this year marks our 30th anniversary and we have ten full days devoted to Ireland this time. I am not taking clubs, but I will have my golf glove and a sleeve of Pro V1s stashed away in my suitcase, just in case we happen to drive by Old Head Golf Links.

Story and photos by Rodney Jarrard

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