One of golf’s greatest traditions is now history (and that’s just fine)

St. Andrews old Course

A quartet of golfers camp out for a tee time on the Old Course in the summer of 2022.

Sean Zak

For decades, visiting golfers to the Home of Golf were promised one thing: if you really want to play the Old Course, you can. 

Even if the ballot lottery might not pull your entry; even if you might not have any friends who could book a tee time on your behalf; even if the tour guide company was simply too expensive — golfers still had a chance to earn a tee time by joining the singles queue and camp overnight outside the Old Course Pavilion.

But the St. Andrews Links Trust is here to say: no more of that. 

A new system begins March 12, as was announced by the Links Trust Wednesday, which will have interested golfers signing up in person (in the same location where golfers used to camp out) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the day before they wish to play. Their photo will be taken, ensuring that only the intended parties can show up for the tee time the next day, and once 5 p.m. strikes all entries will be lumped into a random draw, with single tee times handed out from there. Whoever is selected will be notified shortly after via text, and then they can dream about that opening tee shot all night long…from a much more comfortable bed. Those who aren’t selected will be slotted into priority order in case a tee time comes available later in the day.

In effect, the Links Trust is simply instituting a digitized waiting list. Not the kind that guarantees access, but more like the waiting lists imposed by college admissions. You might get selected, and you might not. The old system, which was formalized in the 1990s, was also a waiting list, but one that demanded players loiter outside, in the elements, alongside the 1st tee and practice green, hopeful that when the sun rose their place in line would be high enough on the list to earn a precious tee time. 

Stakeholders involved have been brainstorming a way of improving this system for years now, and finally they’ve found a solution. Gone are the days of buddies trips camping out on the concrete overnight, and to some thrill-seekers that will feel like a shame. But also gone is the risk involved with a septuagenarian tweaking their creaky back as they wake up on the sidewalk. 

“The significant growth in the number of golfers utilizing the singles queue in the past decade has been such that we felt it was impacting the customer experience and becoming increasingly challenging for our dedicated team to manage expectations,” said Neil Coulson, CEO of the Links Trust, which manages the courses in St. Andrews. “For many golfers, playing the Old Course is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the new singles daily draw will ensure golfers successful in securing a tee time can enjoy the experience having had a good night’s sleep while maintaining the practice of allowing single golfers to join pre-existing groups of two or three.”

What may surprise those unfamiliar with St. Andrews or the daily Old Course tee sheet is that plenty of space remains on the tee sheet after ballot entries are chosen. For example, there are currently five singles slots available between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. for this coming Friday. Now, anyone interested and willing to sign-up in person will have the same opportunity to grab one of those slots without having to bring a sleeping bag and a pillow to the 1st tee. 

The new system will undoubtedly be better for local hotels, bars and restaurants. Golfers visiting the county of Fife will be inclined to make St. Andrews their headquarters, or to pay the town a visit each day to ensure the greatest chance of playing the Old Course. (They’ll be allowed to enter the draw as many consecutive days as they’d like.) What it will increase, however, is scenarios where golfers with a tee time at, say, Crail, just 20 minutes down the coast, could bail the night prior to their tee time because they’ve locked down a precious time on the Old Course. We’ll cross that (Swilcan) bridge when we come to it. 

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.