‘Pure golfing romance’ – I got a sleeper train to play a round at the home of golf

R&A Clubhouse, St Andrews

Is there any more romantic way to travel than by sleeper train?

I once had dinner in Paris, took a stroll to the railway station, slept in a compartment all by myself across France and Germany, then had breakfast in Berlin. Beat that.

Well, I gave it a go last month with a visit to St Andrews to play the Old Course. Granted, Crewe (my departure point on the Caledonian Sleeper) pales when set against Paris, but the Auld Grey Toun loses nothing in comparison with any of the world’s great tourist destinations.

My arrival, on this golfing day trip for the ages (officially the 2024 AIG Women’s Open media day), was early. By 6.30 I was watching the sun rise from the Western Sands, location for the opening scenes of Chariots of Fire, before taking a wander to the harbour via the castle and the abbey, taking in all the non-golfing historic sites of St Andrews.

After a quick tour of the resplendent new R&A clubhouse, there was time for a square sausage and potato scone breakfast, a quick putt on the practice green and an offer of best wishes to the Australians anxiously waiting to see if they would be rewarded for their own early start to the day with a tee time.

Then it was time to hit the first blow. Time, also, to recall so many of the great moments that parcel of land had witnessed in my lifetime alone: the glorious fist pumps of Seve Ballesteros in 1984, Nick Faldo’s demolition of Greg Norman in 1990, Costantino Rocca’s absurd up-and-down in 1995, the brilliance of Tiger Woods in 2000 and 2005, and then another memory encroached – the sight of a visibly terrified Jamie Dornan shanking his opening drive into the crowd at the start of the final round of the Dunhill Links Championship.

Not the best mental preparation, but it didn’t seem to do me much harm because, in a slight daze, I smacked my drive down the first, found the centre of the green with my approach over the Swilkin Burn, and drained the putt for birdie.

Swilkin Burn, St Andrews

An hour later, half of me was wishing that I had not made the journey from the first to second green and had, instead, walked off the course, dropping my mic as I did so.

Truth be told I had been wary of the second shot at the first because, being a golfer who likes to run the ball into green, I am no fan of the burn.

Perhaps, though, my concentration on that threat left me vulnerable to the trickier tests to come.

Because the approach to the second is infinitely harder, needing to negotiate a series of severe humps and hollows that first hide the target and then kick the ball away from it. I walked to the third tee muttering that I’d have taken 10 shots to play the first two holes (if maybe not in the manner I’d achieved it).

The next few holes went much the same way. “Aim left” is the famous instruction for every tee shot on the Old Course and I heeded the advice. But time and again those pesky hillocks knocked my approach shots in all directions.

Downhearted? Not a bit of it. There’s just too much fun to be had soaking up the vibes.

The terrain might be tripping me up, but it was impossible not to relish the puzzles it set. The enormous size of the double greens? Laughably wonderful. The sight of the town on the horizon? It prompted a smile every time I noticed it. The raucous chitter chatter of the Americans on adjacent holes? Even that failed to disturb the feeling of contentment.

A return to form

And eventually my game returned to something like I had hoped it might be. The haggis sausage roll at the turn attracted the crows and gulls (my partner even had her bag attacked by them) and revived the spirits.

Two good blows on the 10th left me with three feet for another birdie. I daydreamed boasting to friends that I’d opened both nines on the Old Course with birdie and then missed the putt.

No bother, a couple of solid chips later I was level-par through the first three holes of the journey home and daydreaming again.

Was I ever going to learn?! Whenever you think you’ve got the Old Course sussed, it will bite back. Three dropped shots in the next two holes came and went in a blink of the eye whereupon another glimpse of the town on the horizon prompted a resurgence.

Back-to-back pars followed, reminding me that simplicity works: keep the ball out the rough, keep it out the sand, don’t leave yourself a first putt outside 40 feet.

And then to the 17th tee, both one of the most bizarre and most-loved spots in the sport.

Bizarre because no other course in the world could get away with presenting a tee shot that needs to be hit over the side of a hotel outbuilding that is, in itself, a recreation of the railway sheds of the past.

Most loved because for some wonderfully unfathomable reason the golf world has not just accepted such a daft test but lapped it up.

The only other time I played the course I walloped my tee shot at 17 into the hotel. This time I found the fairway and maintained the theme of the day by assuming I’d got the job done. I’ll admit I was vaguely tempted to hit my first putt into the road hole bunker just to experience that particular test, but I resisted the temptation.

And then to the 18th tee where another playing partner smacked his drive off a building and into a parked car.

18th tee, St Andrews

No such drama for myself. A prod down the middle was followed by a slight mishit that travelled like an intended knock down shot and earned an entirely unwarranted round of applause from the watching spectators when it found the middle of the putting surface.

Thoughts of Seve’s fist pumps returned. So, too, did the daydreaming. I imagined myself reducing this round to “I started with a birdie and I ended with a birdie” – and then I left the putt short.

No matter. Playing a round of golf at the home of the sport, in the footsteps of the greats, and completing it in front of Old Tom Morris’s shop, is about as fun as it gets.

There was time for a final wander, a couple of pints in the Jigger Inn and dinner in town before the sleeper train home beckoned.

Pure golfing romance.