Paul Gallagher was back at the Home of Golf recently. Always a special trip. No matter the occasion, we swingers never tire of a stay in the Auld Grey Toon.
It’s that time of year when industry individuals pick their locations and migrate from all corners of the country and globe.
Recent golfing glue acronyms were in the form of IGTM (International Golf Travel Market) in Slovenia or closer to home, IGTOA (Ireland Golf Tour Operator Association) at Galgorm in Ballymena. This scribe donned another hat to take part in the SGTW (Scottish Golf Tourism Week) at St Andrews.
SGTW set up camp at the Fairmont Hotel several miles outside St Andrews but still overlooking the golfing mecca from the high coastal vantage point beyond the resort’s two golf courses.
It’s a classic industry gathering with an itinerary packed full of dinners and networking events plus the marathon ‘speed dating’ sessions over two days between suppliers and buyers.
With a nordy Irish accent I must have come across as a fraud who had infiltrated this most Scottish of gatherings when representing a company called SimpsInns, a family owned hospitality business with hotels and restaurants in Ayrshire.
We hardly got up for air over the three days, but many of the overseas tour operators at least managed fam (familiarisation) trips around Scotland before the speed dating kicked in.
It was almost a year to the day since I was back in St Andrews. The last time was a four ball with a best mate, my brother and my dad Theo to celebrate his 70th birthday.
There were no work distractions on that special trip; it was golf all the way, washed down with a few obligatory beers of course. The focal point was a round on the Old Course to tick another item off the bucket list. It was as memorable as it was magical, yet it was so very close to not happening at all.
Our visit to the Auld Grey Toon came in the eye of Hurricane Ophelia. Breakfast was consumed with one eye on forecasts with the skies as grey as the stone buildings of St Andrews. The light became so mean and moody mid round it was more akin to a scene from Apocalypse Now rather than clipping balls off the most famous fairways of them all.
All of which got me wondering what makes this place so special? There is an insatiable appetite to play the Old Course – a desire that comes from every part of the world.
Truth be told, it’s not the test of golf we come for, there are better courses in St Andrews never mind Scotland.
It doesn’t possess the playability of Portmarnock or the rawness of Royal County Down. It doesn’t have the drama of Dornoch or the thrill of Turnberry but make no mistake the Old Course at St Andrews has its own magical powers.
Setting off from the first tee and coming down the final three holes is simply a tingling experience for all golfers. For mere mortals it’s knowledge of walking in the footsteps of legends and also experiencing first hand some of the most iconic holes in golf. To finish in the middle of the town on the sloppy 18th green is a special moment to take in a panoramic 360-degree view.
To play the Old Course is to tick off the top item of a golfers’ bucket list. For an industry reliant on facilitating such dreams, this can be an opportunity and curse all at the same time.
With over 400 delegates packed into the cavernous atrium at the Fairmont, the overriding message from both sides of the table was the insistence on playing the Old Course can be hugely problematic, especially when availability gets squeezed.
Overseas golfers simply don’t want to play anywhere else. And if they don’t get the Old Course tee time then the entire trip to Scotland and/or Ireland could be brought into question.
There are plenty of other trophy courses to pick off, but the Old Course is non-negotiable. A trip could be postponed to the following year on the back of one booking’s availability.
Itineraries are built around that one round at the Old Course. The same can be said at some of our own trophy courses in Ireland.
Having spoken recently to one of Ireland’s leading tour operators they confirmed Royal County Down’s closure for visitors for the month of October for essential course maintenance has an impact on inbound business for the same reasons as the Old Course in that overseas visitors make their decision to travel based on that course’s particular availability.
These select, and most desirable courses are the glue from which itineraries evolve. Everything else slots into place.
And so, after three days of talking shop and trying to work deals for the months and years ahead, it was time to escape the confines of the Fairmont.
There were no clubs this time, but a wee donder doon Grannie Clarke’s Wynd and onto the links to step foot over the Swilken Bridge was just the fix required before departing the Auld Grey Toon one more time.