Reflections on My Last Trip to St. Andrews

(What follows is a rambling synopsis of a wonderful trip to Scotland).  You arrive in Edinburgh from Portland, Oregon at 6:30 a.m. after twelve hours on the plane and a two hour layover in Newark, clear customs, jump on the Airlink shuttle to Waverly Station, then schlep your bags about 5 blocks up to the bus station.  You jump on the X60 to St. Andrews, pay the driver £12.50 for the round trip, and two and a half hours later you’re in the home of golf, a bit woozy and wondering what day it is, but there nonetheless.  It was nirvana to return to a place that holds so much history beyond the world of golf, but it was the history of the game that brought me back. 

After dropping off my gear at the St. Andrews Tourist Hostel (great place manager Matthew!) I made my way down North Street to the Old Course.  Today you could never build a golf course in the middle of a city, but then there wasn’t much of a town when they started playing golf here four-hundred years ago.  Quickening my pace, I turned right on Golf Place, past the wonderful Dunvegan Hotel and pub, then left onto the Links, the little road that borders the eighteenth fairway.  I walked slowly past Tom Morris’s shop, and watched a foursome playing up the 18th, crouching down to touch the turf under the white fence rails that border the hole.  Rubbing my fingers over the velvety grass and scratching at the sand underneath, I could feel Old Tom Morris there.  So damn cool!  It brought back memories of seeing Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson play here in the 1990 and ’95 British Open.  It also stirred my imagination to consider what the place must have been like when Old Tom was indeed an old man, watching over the links from a chair in front of his shop with his trusted companion, a collie named Silver.

Rain accompanied me the first couple days as I walked around the town and the cathedral grounds, visiting the graves of Old and Young Tom, before exploring the castle ruins.  The sun came out that first weekend there and stayed around for two weeks, an occurrence the locals claimed to be extraordinary – an early summer it was!  I took advantage of it and loved walking past the harbor and along the East Sands washed by the breaking waves of the North Sea, following the Fife Coast Trail to the new Castle Course, the seventh course built in St. Andrews.  From there, high on the hillside, you have a fantastic view back to the town.

With such great weather the beach was teaming with people, as were the streets as I made my way down back to the course, which I visited every day to watch players go off the first and come up the eighteenth.  I saw a few funky shots during my stay but most of the people who come here can play the game well.  Next to the second tee lies the putting green of the Ladies Golf Club, formed in 1867 after caddies complained that the ladies were crowding them out of their own little putting course next to the site of the current Rusacks Hotel.  Mrs. Boothby, wife of a prominent R&A member, suggested that a quiet spot across the Swilcan Burn next to the second tee would be a suitable place for a putting course of their own.  The result was the “Himalayas,” so called because of its rolling layout featuring many humps and bumps.  After World War II, the ladies opened the green to public play for a small green fee, currently £2, and is it fun!!  The holes range from 30 to 75 feet generally and you must navigate huge moguls and slopes over a surface that is not so perfect, but I think it must be something like what they putted on a hundred years ago.  I had plenty of 3-putts, a few 4-putts and one 5-putt, but did make a 60 footer my first time around, so that was great.  Another time I did a shorter circuit in 44 putts and made a nice 45 footer on one hole.  On the next hole, a 60 footer running right back toward the second tee, I left it a foot to the right, and hoped the guys waiting to tee off might have noticed my – smirk –prowess.    

On Sundays the course is closed to play and people are allowed to walk it.  So with camera in hand I joined other locals and tourists with their dogs and children, and sallied about the oldest golf course in the world.  For me it was so neat to walk the fairways and greens of every hole, to imagine Sam Snead teeing off #1 in 1946, Bobby Jones hitting into Hill Bunker on  #11 in 1921, and Jack Nicklaus driving over the green on #18 in 1970.  And what was is like for Old Tom and his partner Allan Robertson in the 1840s?  How could these guys even play at all with their primitive clubs and balls? 

At the end of the day, with the setting sun casting long shadows across the last green, I felt sublime, and the place had become familiar to me somehow.  During the week it was off to the library of St. Andrews University each day to research the history of golf here (more on the “Rabbit Wars” in a later post).  One of the things I was able to actually put my hands on was a charter from 1552 signed by Archbishop Jonh Hamilton which confirmed the right of the people, among other things, in “playing at golf, futball, schuteing at all gamis, with all uther manner of pastyme as ever thai pleis.”  I could clearly read the words “golf” in two places on the document and ran my fingers lightly over it (the librarian didn’t make me wear gloves to view it – sorry guys, I HAD to touch it), and to actually see and feel the real thing made the history that much more real.

The folks at the British Golf Museum were also kind enough to allow me to look at the scrapbook of Allan Robertson, the first man to ever break 80 on the Old Course, with a miraculous 79 in 1858.  I tried to get my head around that. This was on a course that played 6,300 yards long in a day when a long drive went just under 200 yards, and with putting greens akin to a patch of grass trimmed short by the teeth of rabbits or sheep.  Wow! 

I regret that my back does not allow me to swing a club as I’d like to since surgery, but I did bring a few clubs to use at the practice center hard by the 16th hole.  I was able to hit a few three quarter 6-irons and 3-woods down the range a decent distance for me now, with the R&A clubhouse, built in 1854, in the background.  That was very cool indeed.  I was also able to hit a few good shots out of a replica of the Road Hole bunker in the short game area, which was a thrill.  I am inspired to work on my therapy and get my back to where I can play the game again, even if I never break 90 again, let alone 80 – the game is too precious to give up without a fight.  I want to go back and play all the courses before I die.  The last night I used the practice range I stopped at the Swilcan Burn bridge on the way back to the hostel, and sat there in the quiet darkness, appreciative that I had the opportunity to spend some precious time in the old grey town again.

By the time I left St. Andrews, alas, the weather had changed, and one day it hailed and snowed off and on until the afternoon, whipped around by a howling wind.  But the golfers were on the first tee, ready to play.  The poor bastards, freezing their asses off – hearty souls for sure, worthy of a salute from the ghost of Old Tom and a bark of approval from Silver.  God bless you all.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: