My First Visit to St Andrews
When I was 12 years old, I started playing golf. It was hard for me to ignore the game. Our home was on the 18th tee of the George Wright Golf Course, a Donald Ross designed 18 holer. Keep in mind, this was no posh country club existence. It was a place where everyone could play, a “muni” course owned by the City of Boston.
Back then golf, while mildly popular, didn’t enjoy the mainstream acceptance it does now. I loved the game. I loved playing, watching, reading and studying about golf. I used to sit at the kitchen table with rulers, pencils, erasers, protractors and sketch paper designing my own fictitious golf courses.
At the time, the United States and the UK had slightly different rules and I played with the UK golf ball which was slightly smaller and had a better ball flight. I knew about the Royal & Ancient, the governing body of golf for everywhere in the world except the US and Mexico. And I knew the R&A was in St Andrews, the spiritual home of golf. For the longest time, I knew that I wanted to visit Scotland and St Andrews. I wanted to see the Old Course in St Andrews, the postage stamp green of Royal Troon, the lighthouse at Turnberry. I wanted to be rained upon and feel a biting, assaulting wind while I played. I wanted to play a driver into a short par 3. I practiced my bump and run shots because I saw it all on television, first in black & white then in color though it still looked black & white. I remember Nicklaus’ win at the Old in 1970 like I was there. I remember the drama of Trevino’s win at Muirfield in 1972 after Nicklaus had already won the year’s previous two Majors. I dreamed of golf in Scotland.
At age twenty, my dream of visiting Scotland finally came true. While I was in London for a family reunion (Mum was raised in London), I attempted to talk my golf playing cousins into joining me in St Andrews for 2 days. There were no takers. “Why,” I asked them plaintively. “Because it rains a lot in Scotland. And because Scottish people live there,” they genuinely replied. That was my first lesson in Scotland/England relations. But it wasn’t going to stop me. I was going with them or on my own. I had to see Scotland, St Andrews and the Old Course.
The next day, I decided to board the overnight train from London Euston station to Edinburgh and then on to Leuchars, the closest station to St Andrews. It was my first and only experience on a sleeper train and a good way to begin the trip, dreaming about the adventure while the train rocked gently northward. Waverly station in Edinburgh is a well organized spider’s web of trains shuffling off in all directions and I found my local train to Leuchars in a flash. “I’m close,” I remember thinking. “I’m in Scotland now,” I completed the thought. Upon arrival in Leuchars, the only thing I could think of was, “where the hell am I?”
The ride through Fife to Leuchars is seemingly farm after farm scattered with a castle in ruins here and there in the distance. Remarkably, Leuchars train station is in, what seemed at the time, the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know that a Royal Air Force base was minutes away and that the Old Course was 15 minutes away. My taxi driver filled in the blanks. He was as amazed and bemused that I was in Scotland as I was. The short drive into St Andrews felt like a shortened eternity but just past the first visible part of the Eden Estuary, mecca came into view. Then, as I still do now after a few hundred trips, I felt my chest rise as I gave out a silent gasp. The Old Course, the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, the church spires, the stone buildings, the West Sands beach revealed themselves slowly and one by one. It was now all very, very real for me. Finally.
I played the Old Course that day by introducing myself to the starter as a single. He got me paired up with two other golfers straight away. If I’m honest here, I remember the first tee and how I felt (the same as now) but not much more than that. I was numb. I do remember it was a splendid day. If you listen to the Scottish people you would think it wasn’t typical but I have come to learn otherwise. It was crisp, it was clear and it was truly idyllic. That day, my caddy scratched his head and wondered how can this lad be a 5 handicapper. I was hitting the ball everywhere and for some reason, I didn’t care. On the par 5, fifth hole, the Hole O’ Cross (out), I finally hit a great drive. I was pretty certain I could reach in two but needed the input of my experienced caddy. “What do you think I should hit here,” I asked. In what I have come to appreciate as the Scottish banter he replied, “based upon your previous performance, I’m not sure it really matters.” (if you roll your “r’s” you can have a good laugh to yourself)
On the 18th green, just above the Valley of Sin and in the shadow of the R&A club house, I shook hands with my playing partners after a completed round. I expressed my hope that my dreadful golf didn’t ruin their day. They assured me that it was only a little ruined, another example of the fine Scottish banter. I may have shot 180 that day (78 the next day) but couldn’t have cared less. What happened after golf is what has brought me back to Scotland and St Andrews, first as a visitor and now as a homeowner, year after year.
As I was walking back to my bread and breakfast accommodations, there was an elderly gentleman standing outside his modest home. “Hello,’ he greeted me. Bag over my shoulder, I returned the salutation. “You’re an American,” he queried. “Yes, from Boston,” I offered. “Ah, Boston, Massachusetts,” he triumphantly replied. His name was George and I stopped and talked to him for awhile. He asked me a variety of questions. Initially, he thought I was in St Andrews for University. When I told him I was in St Andrews for golf you could see his protective shield drop. Now, we were sharing in the brotherhood of golf. George told me that he lived in St Andrews his entire life. “Lucky,” I said. “Indeed,” he agreed.
After learning I was off to the pub for food, George offered his home and dinner. He told me that his wife was inside preparing supper and that I was more than welcome to join them. I thanked him for his generosity but I was going to the pub to watch the football match and have a quick bite. He wouldn’t hear of it. George called his wife outside, made the introductions and I walked inside with George on one arm and his wife on the other. I had dinner with them, watched the football match and kept in touch with them until they both passed away.
That was my first day in St Andrews and Scotland. I slept soundly wondering about day two. What I learned as fact on that day 43 years ago, in early May, is that George and his wife’s generosity were the rule in Scotland rather than the exception. I still love golfing in Scotland and play as often as possible but often times my visits to Scotland have nothing to do with golf. I visit because I feel welcome and connected. One can sing the praises of the golf, the scenery, the history, the great cities and towns, the lochs and mountains all you want but it is the Scottish people that make Scotland one of the greatest places on earth. Their warmth and wit make a stranger feel at home immediately.
And that’s why I love St Andrews and Scotland. It’s why I feel at home, every time I return.