It’s incredibly discouraging that my life has already hit its high watermark at 26 years of age, but I don’t think it’s going to get better than playing the Old Course at St Andrews.

Last summer, my parents and I took a weeklong trip to see just how much golf we could take in a week bracketed by international flights. Our trip began in the Troon area where we played Prestwick (an insanely cool and quirky course that was one of the first 24 courses in the world) and Western Gailes (a criminally underrated track that combines the kinkiness of the older tracks, like Prestwick, with spectacular ocean views and firmly challenges your ball striking even when the wind is down).

After two days out west, we headed to the birthplace of golf, with a plan to play the Old Course, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie over the next four days. 

The rub with the Old Course, aside from the 10-plus hour flight and pricey fare from Chicago, is that there are only a few ways to get a time. One, you can pay an arm and a leg and other assorted appendages to a company that reserves time for you. Two, St Andrews holds lotteries each fall where you can select a range of dates to enter your name into a metaphorical hat. Three, if prior options fail, you can enter the daily lottery, which isn’t exactly easy to hit in the peak season since every golfer on earth dreams of playing there.

And then there’s the fourth option, the last and most democratic one: You wait in line.

St Andrews doesn’t book every tee time and no-shows inevitably occur. So every day, the starter arrives at 6 in the morning to fill open slots by a first-come, first-served basis.

We got into the seaside town of St Andrews a little after 4 in the afternoon, planning to stroll around, head to a pub for dinner, and wait for the results of the daily lottery. If we struck out, we’d just enter the next day and reshuffle the itinerary. But when you get anywhere near the course, it’s all you can think about. 

It’s magnetic. The town opens up to the course. St Andrews is cozy and cluttered with storefronts and homes built up against one another, but as you walk down the hills toward the water, the landscape widens to the green expanses of its half dozen courses. It feels like if you poured a cup of water in the city center, it would eventually flow to the first tee. 

I told my folks that I’d be going to bed immediately to stake my claim in the line at 3 the next morning and they could join me if they liked. They, clearly saner than I, passed on the invitation and went out to explore.

When I trudged out to the starter’s shack the following morning, golf bag in tow, the temperature was in the 40s and a light shower draped the city. I was bundled up in the special rain gear any discerning golfer purchases before a Scotland adventure and headed toward the shack.

I was 17th in line.

No. 1 in line was there to celebrate his graduation from college on the West Coast. He was wearing shorts. He was new to the game, having only picked up golf once he went to school. He also was enviably unbothered by having slept for probably less than 3 hours the night before. 

Spots 9 and 10 were taken by a married couple who had played everywhere there was to play on the East Coast. 

There was a threesome of finance guys in their 40s and 50s (spots 14, 15, and 16) who were way cooler than that intro would have you believe — being able to tell stories about how they played Royal County Down has a way of endearing you to golf literati. I was glad to run into them later to see they’d found a slot where all three could play together. 

There was a single (No. 27) who had just gotten off the plane from Melbourne. And an older man who’d played the Old Course a dozen times already and filled the role of Sherpa perfectly.

Once we shook out the cobwebs of being awake several hours before sunrise, everyone milled around the shack, aware of our bond without calling it that. There’s no other place where you can be surrounded by people with the same brand and severity of addiction to the game. Everyone in that shack had flown across an ocean to pay respects to the original cathedral of the sport. 

Watching the sunrise over the course as No.’s 55 and 56 arrived was as close to a religious experience as you can have on a golf course.

The starter showed up precisely at 6 a.m., and the group filed into a line without jostling or confusion. I exited the shack at 6:20 a.m. with a confirmed tee time at 11:50 a.m. It was surreal. Knowing that you’re about to play the same course where virtually all of history’s best golfers have played for the past 500 years makes you feel very small. It’s the peak for any mortal who can’t get on Augusta. 

A few times over the round, I’d see a person I met in line in the starter’s shack. We’d share a nod or a wave or a “Can you believe this?” in passing. No one exchanged a business card or phone number. We were content to have shared this singular experience together.

Only in golf.

Ben Goren

Ben Goren is a contributing writer for Stick and Hack and has been addicted to the game of golf for the past 15 years and isn’t interested in finding a cure. He’s also offering one kidney in exchange for a Cypress Point tee time (serious inquiries only).