First-tee nerves at the Old Course are a sensation unlike any other

Ryan Barath on tee at St. Andrews' Old Course

Hitting a bucket-list first tee shot is a nerve-racking experience.

D. Barath

As a kid, it was always something I said I would do — one day I’ll get to St. Andrews and play the Old Course — but year after year the pledge remained just that: only something I said I would do.

Then came April 2023.

After more than a decade of broken promises to myself, I finally made the 3,300-mile journey from my Toronto home to the Home of Golf, and, yes, it lived up to the hype.

How it started

Typically these types of trips are planned years in advance, but my wife Dana and I aren’t big on long-term planning. As another Canadian winter was coming to a close and we were looking to escape somewhere we had never been together, I suggested Ireland. Not to play golf, but for all its other splendors.

Not missing a beat, Dana said, “If we’re going that far, do you want to go to Scotland? And if we’re going all the way to Scotland, don’t you want to play golf?”

Reason 2,729 why I married her.

The plan was in motion.

It didn’t take long to get the trip in order and after about a week we were all set for an eight-day excursion to Ireland and Scotland, which would hopefully include playing the Old Course along with enjoying the surrounding town of St. Andrews.

The practice putting green next to the starter’s building. Ryan Barath

What do you mean hopefully?

As I said, this trip came together last minute and without a booking, getting onto the Old Course was still just about hope.

On such short notice, the only option I had to secure a tee time I had longed for my entire adult life was to rise at the crack of dawn, or spend a sleepless night waiting in line at the Old Course starter’s building, as so many others have done before me. I should note here that thanks to a lovely friend who lives in the St. Andrews area and works literally up the street from one of the most famous first tee’s in the world, I had an inside track to what the tee sheet looked like a few weeks in advance of my trip. The news was good: Because it wasn’t yet the tourist high season, there were single-only tee times available for the duration of our stay, provided I was willing to put in the time for a chance at one. That in mind, a couple of days after we arrived I was prepared to take my place in line late Sunday evening for — fingers crossed — a Monday spot.

Touching down

We departed Canada on a Friday evening. After an overnight transatlantic flight, one 6 a.m. sprint through the Dublin airport to our connection, one tram, one train and one cab ride, we arrived in St. Andrews. By 10 a.m. Saturday, I was standing — emotionally overwhelmed — behind the 18th green of the Old Course with Dana, just feet from where the Open Championship had been contested nine months earlier, and many more times before that.

The Old Course at St. Andrews.
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Not to get overly dramatic, but when I say emotionally overwhelmed, I mean it. I had waited a long time to see the Old Course, and at that moment it was less about the course and more about fulfilling a promise to myself I had broken so many times that I had doubts that it would ever happen. Then, suddenly, it was all right there in front of me: the first tee, the Swilcan Bridge, the Road Hole, West Sands Beach. Golf heaven.

There is always hope

Since it was a Saturday afternoon and a windy one, I figured, I’m here. Might as well ask, right? I walked through the automatic doors of the starter’s building with the long-shot hope that I might avoid the possibility of waiting hours in near-freezing temperatures to play on Monday.

The starter told me that 19 golfers took 19 spots that morning and based on the sheet there were potentially two spots left that afternoon before the course shut down for interclub matches at 2 p.m. The reason these two remaining spots were only potential is that locals with a yearly ticket have the right to refuse to play with tourists. So, with a glimmer of hope, I submitted my name. After leaving the starter’s building, we explored some of the surrounding area and, with the goal of fending off jet lag, sought out some fresh air and sun. With the wind gusting over 25 mph on West Sands Beach, the fresh-air part was easy. With only wispy clouds in the sky, so too was the sun part.

West Sands Beach. Ryan Barath

As the tee time inched closer, I felt like a child on Christmas morning. I returned to our hotel room to organize my clubs, put on my layers, grab my hand warmer (truly a cold weather travel essential), and returned to the first tee full of hope and anticipation.

I waited a long time for this

As a mid-30s father of two, most of my golf is played in the late afternoons or early mornings. Range warm-ups are not part of my normal routine — so being jet-lagged and punch drunk off a redeye felt more natural than going to the range to smash a bucket. I also wasn’t keen on the idea of going all the way to the range to build up nerves and excitement only to be disappointed.

I arrived back to the first tee around 15 minutes before my scheduled tee time to find out that the St. Andrews residents who I was potentially paired with were a younger couple who were more than happy to have me join their group. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a grown man well up with tears before plunking down close to $400 for a round of golf, but there I was, gleefully swiping my credit card.

After the debit machine pinged approved, the starter gave me the full rundown along with my first-tee kit: yardage book, scorecard, tees and pitch-mark repair tool. I went outside to meet my partners and caddie, and spent the next few minutes nervously staring down the first tee toward the first green and Swilican Burn.

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It was finally time

Most sports phycologists suggest that negative thoughts are not the best way to approach an impending task, but it’s hard not to stand there looking at one of the widest fairways in all of golf and imagine Ian Baker-Finch’s miss left, or hitting a complete chunk in front of strangers.

You only get to do something for the first time once and with that in mind — and thinking about everything that had led to this moment — it was finally my chance to do something I had only ever imagined. My caddie asked me if I wanted to hit my longest iron to ensure staying out of the water. But with the crossing wind, along with welling eyes and shaking hands, I opted for a low-cutting 5-wood instead.

After one last look at my target, the ball shot off my clubface and down the fairway. At that moment, the nerves morphed to joy, the jet lag lifted and I was just another golfer chasing after a little white ball.

Ryan Barath Editor

Ryan Barath is GOLF Magazine and’s senior editor for equipment. He has an extensive club-fitting and -building background with more than 20 years of experience working with golfers of all skill levels, including PGA Tour players. Before joining the staff, he was the lead content strategist for Tour Experience Golf, in Toronto, Canada.