2024-06-24 11:06 PM

Picking Splinters: Sharing St. Andrews

Minced onions, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt and a sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and stomach. That’s what’s in haggis. I know that because I ate it, not because I had been stuffed into one.

Last week, you may recall I had developed an irrational phobia that I would be shunned by the whole of Scotland after its inhabitants witnessed my god-awful golf game, thereby ruining a once-in-a-lifetime experience for my father.

The fears proved unfounded, though the cause of my concern endured right up until I stepped onto the first tee box at the legendary Old Course in St. Andrews.

The terror persisted because I had not acquitted myself particularly well during our first round on the New Course. “New” is a relative term in St. Andrews, where the first recorded round of golf was played on the Old Course in 1457. The New Course is still 113 years old, which is roughly how old I was after those 18 holes got done roughing me up. Put more vividly, remember that Darwin Awards winner who attempted suicide by hanging himself over the edge of a sheer cliff AND putting a plastic bag over his head AND shooting himself, only to screw up, shoot the rope, fall several stories down the cliff into the sea and emerge from the water alive? Let’s just say I know what his body felt like when they fished him out.

So yeah, the knees felt a little wobbly when I prepared to tee off on the Old Course, whose first tee and 18th green are monitored closely by dozens of passersby and golf enthusiasts eager to glimpse the sport’s sacred ground. The course has been played by the best golfers in the game has ever seen, presidents, celebrities, global icons and now Mike Hume was about to tee it up with about 100 pairs of eyes trained on his backswing. No pressure at all there.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the tee box – I just started smiling. Talk about irrational, I was probably about to humiliate myself in front of a contingent of onlookers that outnumbered my high school graduating class and there I was beaming like an idiot.

It was an unexpected reaction, but it wasn’t without explanation. I mean, this was it. This is the Old Course, where golf was born, where fairways and greens were originally trimmed by grazing livestock, where Bobby Jones – as great a golfer as ever was – once picked up his ball and walked off the course after 11 holes because The Old was beating him up so badly.

I had been worried about not playing well, but that’s not what golf on the Old Course is about. It’s about the experience. It’s about following in the footsteps of legends and the sneaking suspicion that some of their ghosts are watching you swing. It’s about sharing in a spectacle that every year draws in thousands upon thousands of golf lovers from life insurance salesmen to Super Bowl quarterbacks. Oh, did I not mention that Eli and Peyton Manning teed off with Archie and their brother Cooper two hours before we did? Must have slipped my mind.

Only the Old Course could turn football heroes into footnotes for a sports writer, and the links commanded my full attention on a day that began with rain on the first hole (a par), then gave way to sunshine on the par-five fifth (a five-putt triple bogey after reaching the one-acre green in three shots), was revisited by showers and a cold wind on the 10th (another par) and side-ways rain and 30 mph winds on the 15th (regarding my score there, we English majors can’t count that high).

My father, of course, was playing quite well. He and his caddie, Jimmy, a second generation caddie who began carrying bags in 1949, were working well together. While he was not, as I had dreamed last week, Sean Connery’s brother – though he did carry his bag once – Jimmy regaled my father with stories of the course that ranged from performances during the British Open to temper tantrums from former U.S. vice presidents to German bombing raids during WWII.

My caddie, Dennis, another St. Andrews lifer, was thrilled that I knew the history of Bobby Jones and his relationship with the Scottish town. I think that helped curb his disappointment with several of my “Clark Gables,” his name for shots that are “Gone With the Wind.”

Sharing the heritage of the sport is what St. Andrews is all about. That’s why a round on the Old Course costs considerably less than playing 18 at Pebble Beach. Because of that, people like my father and I can share in the same experience as the Mannings and actually live out one of my dad’s dreams.

I had never seen an expression on my father’s face like the one that graced it when we crossed Swilcan Bridge, but I knew it well. I’m sure it was the same one emblazoned on my mug the first time I laid eyes on the grass at Yankee Stadium.

When we finished, we shared a pint at The Dunvegan pub, retelling the stories of Jimmy and Dennis, along with our own, to my mother, my girlfriend and anyone else who would listen. Low scores? Those are good. Sharing the experience of the Old Course? Now that’s what it’s all about.


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