Letter from St. Andrews: The Auld Grey Toon

Well, we’ve made it to the Auld Grey Toon, but not to our auld grey hoose. Renovation of our apartment—sorry, our “flat”—proceeds apace, which is to say thoroughly behind schedule and riotously over budget. As I write this, the place is uninhabitable—a grim, hollowed-out hovel from which you might expect a grizzled G.I. to emerge, groaning, “Nope, Saddam’s not in this one either.

Still, each night before bed I give thanks to the man upstairs—that is, to Mr. Andrew Lang-Stevenson, a preposterously generous London knee surgeon who has given us asylum in his sumptuous, seldom-used weekend retreat, which just happens to sit smack above our place. So Libby and I are comfortably ensconced, and able to stay (literally) on top of things.

Speaking of Andrews, saintly and otherwise, one of the first people I saw upon pulling into town was Andrew Albert Christian Edward Mountbatten-Windsor. You know—Chuck’s brother, Liz’s kid, Fergie’s ex, the Duke of York. At precisely 8 o’clock on the morning of September 18, 2003, I stood and watched His Royal Highness smoke one 250 yards down the first fairway of the Old Course, over the heads of two dozen flummoxed caddies, as a small teeside cannon uncorked a deafening blast. The occasion was the ritual “playing-in” of the captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, Andrew becoming the sixth member of the Royal Family—and the first in 66 years—to assume that position.

Cannon blast aside, I expected fall in St. Andrews to be rather quiet. Silly me—the first few weeks here brought non-stop activity. Immediately following the R&A’s Autumn Meeting (essentially a three-day club championship for 500 guys from around the world) came the week of the Dunhill Links Championship, won by the resurgent Lee Westwood. Since my cable isn’t hooked up yet, I wasn’t able to watch it on TV, but hey, just by standing at Dr. Lang-Stevenson’s bay window I was able to see Ernie Els birdie 17 and 18 to pull within one, then watch Westwood ice it with a closing par.

The pro-am title was won by a jubilant Sam Torrance and his son, Daniel, who had their photos taken on the Swilcan Bridge and then spun a few festive figure-8s in a golf cart, holding their silver platters high in the air. Daniel, by the way, outplayed his father, shooting rounds of 73-70-68-67. Look for this son of Sam to take a shot at the European Tour next year—at the age of 16.

Photo by Graylyn Loomis

Celebrating with Sam that evening was his good buddy David Feherty, in town for a corporate gig with the Famous Grouse. Little did I know that the Famous Grouse is a blend that includes my most beloved adult beverage, the Macallan single-malt scotch, until the following evening when the Pepers and Fehertys met for dinner at a local Indian restaurant. David and Anita arrived straight from a whisky tasting with the Grouse boys, David bearing a house-warming gift that looked liked a vinegar bottle, the handwritten label of which said it was from Sherry Cask #637, bottled in 1952. My first thought was to save it for another 50 or so years but instead we polished it off before the arrival of our chicken vindaloo.

Also going on in our backyard was some on-location shooting of “Stroke of Genius,” a movie about Bobby Jones that’s scheduled to premiere in the U.S. this spring. It stars James Caviezel (who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s controversial film “The Passion”), with Malcolm McDowell as O.B. Keeler. Caviezel, his hair slicked back, bore a decent resemblance to Jones except that he’s six feet—sorry, 1.83 meters—tall, about 150 millimeters more than wee Bobby.

One of the extras in that movie is Gordon Murray, my new neighbor from the End House (all the residences in St. Andrews seem to have names—ours is called Arran House). A voracious golfer who seems to be on the Old Course every day either playing or (just for the exercise) caddying, Gordon is a member of the St. Andrews Golf Club, a society that has produced no fewer than 22 British Open champions. In October he and his wife invited us for a bibulous dinner on the occasion of the club’s 160th anniversary. The SAGC, I’m told, is in the Guinness Book for having more scratch-handicap members than any club in the world—over 150 at last count. I guess if you can win their club championship, the Open is pretty much a cakewalk.

Meanwhile, in one frenetic weekend the population of this little town doubled and the average age halved as another school year began at St. Andrews University. Lest you forget, there’s one other royal in town—heartthrob Crown Prince William, known hereabouts as “Wills.” Not coincidentally, applications from females worldwide have skyrocketed and the town is crawling with beautiful young ladies all looking for William. To be honest, I’m on sort of a Wills watch myself. No sightings yet, but a friend of a neighbor has a daughter whose dentist knows the sister of his girlfriend. I figure it’s just a matter of time until I buttonhole him and his Uncle Andrew to join me for a quick 18 on the Old Course.

I’ve had a few goes at the Old, the New and the Jubilee, as well as Kingsbarns and the Devlin and Torrance courses at St. Andrews Bay. The weather has been remarkably mild, but with the coming of winter, our daylight hours have dwindled. Scotland can serve up nearly 18 hours of sunshine in mid-summer but musters barely half that now—a window just wide enough for two brisk 18s.

Truth is, I’ve had precious little time for golf, given the renovation project. To speed things along, I’ve been helping the workmen whenever possible, mostly as a gofer. In fact, I’m just about to head off on another errand. It seems the carpenter needs me to pick up some tacks at the hardware store. Beg pardon, I mean the joiner needs some drawing pins from the ironmonger.