Letter from St. Andrews: A Prince of a Day

This may be The Home of Golf, but the 800-pound gorilla in St. Andrews is neither the Old Course nor the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. No, what rules this Royal Burgh is The University of St. Andrews—producer of a third of the population, provider of more than 9,000 full-time jobs, and annual generator of $300 million to the local economy.

Academia is not only bigger than golf here, it’s older. The first written evidence of golf is 1457—by that time the university had been humming along for a generation or so. The actual starting date is a bit murky—a seat of higher learning was established in 1410, but things didn’t become official until three years later when Pope Benedict XIII bestowed the papal blessing and King James I added a royal decree.

So the Auld Grey Bastion of Higher Learning is now within a year or two (or three) of its 600th anniversary. And whether because of the fuzziness of its birth year or because the Scots love a good wee party, the celebration has already begun. It started in February when the university’s most illustrious geography major, Prince William, along with his classmate, the soon-to-be-crowned Kate, came to town to kick off a string of celebrations and commemorations that won’t end until November of 2013.

Wills—as we insiders know him—was here from 2001 to 2005, and I was a full-time resident for the latter half of that period. As a hopeless Anglophile I’ve always been fascinated with the royal family, and I’d hoped to get a glimpse of the lad on the street, at a pub or restaurant, maybe even on the golf course, but sadly it never happened. This was particularly frustrating because it seemed everyone else in town had had a sighting.

When one of my elderly neighbors said she’d bumped shopping carts with him at the Tesco supermarket, it was the last straw.  I knew where he and his flatmates (including Kate) lived—it was only three blocks from our home. “You can tell which house it is and when he’s in residence,” a friend told me, “by the plain-clothed cops loitering outside the door.”

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. When my little West Highland Terrier Millie and I went on walkies, we detoured from our usual route and passed leisurely in front of his highness’s place. (Millie, being my best friend, often bought us some extra time by choosing to poop in the vicinity of the royal stoop.)

On a couple of occasions I did come under the suspicious gaze of a pair of gray-suited, earpiece-wearing goons who made it tricky for me to linger and gawk for any respectable period of time. With my drab clothing and Harry Potter horn-rimmed glasses, I suspect they saw me as just harmless enough to be a serial killer, or at least a deranged stalker (which of course I was).

Each new “Hi there” with the goons became a bit more awkward, so after about a month I abandoned my mission. (The last thing I wanted was for my friends back in the States to open a newspaper and see a photo of me being wrestled and strip-searched against the back bumper of an unmarked Land Rover while clutching a pendulous bag of dog poop.)

So the young Prince never got to meet me. But a handful of other students did—and the catalyst was, of course, golf. Each spring, the R&A invites interested members to volunteer for a series of matches against the golf teams of four Scottish universities—Dundee, Edinburgh, Stirling, and St Andrews. These are essentially calls to slaughter. The R&A has very few players, especially local members, whose handicaps are below three and the university teams have very few players whose handicaps are above three. Typically, the club must reach well down the skill ranks. In one case, they reached all the way down to me.

Perhaps because it was my first such match, I was paired with the team captain, Jim McArthur. A two handicap, Jim is the current chairman of the R&A’s Championship Committee (which runs the Open Championship).With those credentials he might be expected to be a serious sort, but he’s quite the contrary, a delightful fellow with a puckish sense of humor and an ability to make people feel instantly at ease, exactly what I needed.

The match was on the Old Course, preceded by cocktails and lunch at noon in the clubhouse. I was the last to arrive. (I’ve since learned that the Scots are extremely prompt about social engagements, particularly when free alcohol is involved.) Noting that everyone was holding adult beverages, I ordered a Bloody Mary.

“Good choice,” said Jim. “We’re going to need all the blood, sweat, and tears we can muster against these chaps.” He then introduced me to our two opponents, a pair of clean-cut, well-mannered young men, one of them a two-handicapper, the other scratch. We chatted with them and their teammates for a while, and then Jim took me aside.

“George, on paper you and I have only one chance against these boys,” he said.

“And what’s that?” I asked.

“Get them ruddy well pissed before they play,” he said.

“Pissed. Do you mean American pissed—angry—or Scottish pissed—drunk?”

“Scottish,” he stated. “They may be better players than we are, and they may be better drinkers than we are,” he said, “but it’s unlikely they can drink and then play any better than we can. The good news is that our match is the last of the six four balls to tee off, so we have plenty of time. Just leave it to me.”

“You’re the captain,” I said, taking a very small sip of my drink.

Jim then called for everyone’s attention and addressed our opponents. “You lads are clearly some of the finest young golfers in the land,” he said, “and it was therefore incumbent upon us to assemble a team of strong and forbiddingly talented players to do battle with you. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that so you’ll just have to play against these twelve blokes who’ve shown up.”

He then dispatched the first two matches to the dining room. The rest of us ordered another drink, and a half  hour later Jim and I and our two opponents took a third drink to the lunch table. With several ounces of vodka now coursing through my veins, I’d begun to question my captain’s strategy. After all, the drinking age in the U.K. is 18—surely these kids knew how to handle their liquor at least as well as I did, probably better.

At lunch Jim ordered a bottle of claret which the four of us polished off somewhere between the starter and main course, at which point a second bottle arrived. Never had I consumed this much alcohol before playing golf—and we weren’t done. As we changed into our golf togs in the locker, a porter arrived bearing a silver tray with four large cordial glasses filled with a clear liquid.

“Ah, the nectar of the fairways,” said Jim. “Kummel, everyone?”

Kummel (pronounced alternatively “kummel” and “kimmel”) is sort of the haggis of postprandial libations, its origin and ingredients a bit mysterious. Ninety percent of the world’s kummel consumption seems to take place in St Andrews at the R&A, in Prestwick (at the Prestwick Golf Club) and in Gullane (pronounced alternatively “Gullin” and “Gillin”) at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (pronounded “Muirfield”). It tastes a bit like liquefied rubber bands.

Thus infused with eight drinks, we made our way festively to the first tee where, for the first time in my life, I felt absolutely fearless. My drive split the fairway and traveled almost 300 yards, my wedge approach nearly hit the flagstick before stopping 20 feet away, and my birdie putt barely missed. One of the lads had to sink a five-footer to tie us.

I parred the next hole and then birdied No. 3 after hitting a drive onto the front of the green. The old guys were 1 up! Two holes later both Jim and I made birdie on the 5th to go 2 up.

My swing was free and easy, no shot seemed beyond my skill, and best of all I was putting like a kid. If I’d known that abundant quantities of liquor could be so salutary for one’s game, I suspect I would have become an alcoholic at age 14.

Jim and I made the turn 2 up before the booze combined with our age—an aggregate 70 years more than our adversaries—took its toll and we lost three holes in a row. At the 12th, having double-bogeyed the two previous holes, I topped my tee shot into the face of a bunker no more than 50 yards from the tee. There are few golf experiences more humbling than to wade into a bunker and play backwards toward the tee, thereby reducing a 50-yard drive by 30 yards.  At that point, I’m not sure what I needed more—a gallon of coffee, a needle of morphine, or another kummel.

I never really recovered, but the veteran Jim played heroically, halving the lads on the next four holes, parring 17 as they both bogeyed, and then birdying the 18th for a 1-up victory. Two of our other five pairs managed to squeak through and miraculously—virtually without precedent—the R&A had halved its match with the college boys, 3-3.

The whole thing was way more fun than meeting Prince William.