There can be few places on Earth which better represent the Holy Grail of golf, than the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland.
The home of the Open Championship (one of the four majors), it was here that Tiger Woods won the 2000 Open, coming as his second consecutive major championship, making him the youngest ever golfer to complete the career Grand Slam. On this hallowed green, some of the world’s greatest golfers ended their Open careers, including legendary Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
One of the world’s toughest courses, "no other golf course has as many famous landmarks as (the Old Course) St. Andrews, its 112 bunkers and endless hills and hollows have been cursed for centuries, and many have their own names and legends,” according to Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN).
But part of St Andrews', and the Old Course’s, iconic status for golfers comes from its humble beginnings. It was here that Old Tom Morris, considered the founding father of golf and modern green keeping, was born (1821), lived and died, having earned a permanent place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. You can still see his modest house on a cobbled street in St Andrew’s overlooking the 18th, where his great, great grand-daughter still resides.
For those wanting to eat, drink, sleep and dream a part of golf’s history, there can be no better location than The Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa. Situated on the 17th hole of the Old Course, with panoramic views over its fairways, West Sands Beach (site of the legendary Chariots of Fire scene) and the rugged Fife coastline, golfers have flocked to stay here from when the hotel was built in 1968 by British Transport Hotels, due to its proximity to the railway. It incorporated a pub next door called The Jigger Inn from 1850, a listed building and structurally unchanged.
Enter the hotel and there is an energy, a sense of history written into the fabric of the walls. Charming paintings of golf courses and black-and-white photos complement the antiques and traditional walnut panelling in the library; one corridor contains a Hall of Fame of leader boards listing all the winners of the Open Championships, a golf world Who’s Who, starting with Old Tom Morris in 1861 and ending at Shane Lowry in 2019.
Hanging in the lobby is an oil painting of The Old Course Hotel’s owner, 82-year old American billionaire, Herb Kohler. In the painting he is teeing off of the legendary 17th, smiling, ruddy-cheeked and white-bearded, framed by an applauding crowd. His is a remarkable story; when he took over his family plumbing business in 1972 it was turning over around US$100m; by the time he had handed the reins to his son David six years ago, it was making in the region of US$7 billion, according to reports. He bought the hotel in 2004- “when it came up for sale, he jumped at the chance as he loves St Andrews,” says a representative. It was also the perfect partner for Whistling Straits, the course he had built on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1998, which hosts the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
His acquisition of the Old Course led him to develop the Hamilton Grand, a luxury redbrick apartment complex just behind the 18th green, often the backdrop to some of the most nail-biting moments in competitions.
Kohler, who now into his eighties, doesn’t play as much golf as he used to (for years he played 100 rounds a year), still visits regularly and according to a representative, is “very hands on” with the upkeep. It was his idea to drive a recent renovation, and one can see the rational. Every time the hotel holds a large competition such as the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, it hosts the world’s A-List celebrities and golfers, who arrive by the dozens in private jets (20 private jets landed this year, I am told, fewer than normal due to the pandemic). Celebrity competitors who graced the fairways last month included Piers Morgan, Ronan Keating, Bill Murray, Shane Warne, Jamie Redknapp and Ruud Gullit and many more.
To meet the expectations of these high-flyers and their entourage there are 31 new guest rooms (in addition to the 174 existing rooms and 35 suites) and a new penthouse on the fourth floor with an internal lift, fire pit and panoramic balcony overlooking the Old Course, priced between £2,000-£2,500 a night. Unsurprisingly the delightful Kohler spa with its 20m indoor swimming spa pool, hydrotherapy pool, steam room for deep muscular relaxation and detoxification, cold plunge pool and sauna, gets fully booked during competition weeks.
And a new sleek, sophisticated bar and 80-seater restaurant called Swilcan Loft opened last month. Menu highlights include the truffle and champagne risotto and the Black Isle beef rib eye, which can be washed down with Bollinger Special Cuvée.
But for some, there will be no better way to start off a stay at the Old Course than at the 19th century Jigger Inn, with a steaming bowl of Cullen Skink, the traditional Scottish smoked haddock-and-potato soup, accompanied by crusty bread and a roaring fire. One can imagine Old Tom Morris warming up for a competition, 170 years ago, in much the same way.