Letter from St. Andrews: Blessings of Eighth Place

Two hundred yards or so behind the 18th green of the Old Course, on a broad street called the Scores, sits a sturdy stone townhouse with a brass plaque at its entrance. Inscribed on the plaque are the words “The Old Course Experience.”

“Could this possibly be what it suggests?” I wondered on the day I first strolled past it. Behind this unassuming gray facade, could there possibly be a Disney-caliber exhibit, equipped with surround sound and virtual reality, the purpose of which is to show exactly what it feels like to be 200 acres of  windblown, divot-riddled dirt?

Brimming with ignorance, I pressed the doorbell. Surely, I thought, that buzzer would trip off something special—perhaps a choir of falsetto-voiced, computer-animated greenkeepers chortling a chorus of “It’s a Sod, Sod World.”

What a letdown. The establishment turned out to be nothing more than a golf tour operator that guarantees its customers an Old Course tee time on the day they select. No strobe lights, no streaming video, no pixilated pyrotechnics, just a little eight-page brochure.

Ah, but one of those pages caught my eye, the one that trumpeted “The St. Andrews Father-Son Tournament.” As it happened, my younger son and favorite golf partner, Scott, was about to head over, and the dates of his visit coincided exactly with the week of the tournament.

The timing was perfect, and so was the venue. It was here in St. Andrews, after all, that father-son golf made its big-time debut, with Old and Young Tom Morris combining for a total of eight Open Championship wins. Following them were the Parks (Willie Sr. and Jr., good for six Opens ’twixt them) not to mention the Dunns, McEwans and Forgans, who knew not only how to wield clubs, but how to craft them as well. A century later, St. Andrews is still brimming with dads and lads who play together regularly (not to mention a few father-son-grandson three-balls).

Indeed, sometimes the whole town seems to be divided into two distinct generations. When the university is in session, nearly half the residents are under 25 while the other half—the year-round population—appears to be alarmingly over 60. Hereabouts, you’re either long in the tooth or in the bloom of youth.

And so it’s totally appropriate that once each spring several dozen additional fathers and sons descend on St. Andrews for the mother of all tournaments. Nine different countries were represented in the field that Scott and I joined, and we spent our four days playing side by side with duos from Germany, England, Scotland and the U.S. The winners were a pair from Taiwan.

In some cases the fathers had brought college-age sons as I had, and there were even a few high-schoolers in the field, but most of the teams were comprised of young-adult sons and their senior-citizen dads, on a last fling together à la James Dodson’s

“Final Rounds” (which, incidentally, is about to be made into a movie, to be filmed here next spring, with James Garner scheduled to play the father).The venues, in keeping with the spirit of the event, were a mixture of old and young courses. After a practice round on the Duke’s Course, a fine parkland layout designed in 1995 by five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, the tournament unfolded at Kingsbarns (2000), the Devlin Course at St. Andrews Bay (2002), the New Course (1895) and the Old Course (c. 1300), arguably the four best playgrounds in town.

Scott, a 3-handicapper, hadn’t been playing much golf when he arrived, but once the bell rang he turned it on with a 75 amid high winds at Kingsbarns, while his father struggled to finish the 18 holes without hurting himself. Oh, how old and mortal I felt that day, watching my son consistently outdrive me by 50 yards. But our 41 better-ball Stableford points (roughly 40 of them from Scott) staked us to a share of third place among the 60 or so teams.

The next day the wind gusted close to 50 mph but I finally joined the squad and we ham-and-egged our way to a two-day total of 76 points, which kept us among the leaders. I also won the long-drive prize that day. Okay, it was the Dad’s Only division and most of my co-competitors were Metamucil addicts, but hey, a win’s a win. Besides, there was a big headwind, so that 157 yards was much longer than it looked.

I’d figured Team Peper would make its move on the New and Old Courses, and indeed we did—backwards—slipping to fifth place after three rounds and finally into an ignominious tie for eighth, comfortably outside the prize list.

We were dejected—for about 15 seconds. Over those five days, we’d had too much fun. In addition to the golf, there had been several lunches and dinners with the other fathers and sons, rife with intergenerational ribbing, not to mention a malt whisky tasting and a kilt-fitting demonstration during which one brave father and son volunteered as models, immediately becoming the targets of a series of ribald catcalls.

For the awards banquet, all 100-plus of us got decked out in full Scottish regalia. Scott, who had scoffed at the prospect of donning a plaid skirt, took one look at himself in the mirror, resplendent in kilt, waistcoat, sporran and shiny black shoes with laces crisscrossing smartly up white kneesocks, and said, “Hey Mom, don’t you wanna take a picture?” She did, of Scott and me on the Swilcan Bridge, and it became an instant classic of the family album.

Scott and I haven’t played together since that father-son tournament, and it may be many months before we do, but until then I have some fond and indelible memories, one in particular. It was during the last round, on the elevated tee of the par-3 11th hole of the Old Course. As is often the case on that hole, play had backed up a bit. Scott stood on one side of the tee making mini-practice swings, taking the club back a few feet and checking his backswing plane. I stood on the other side, watching him and thinking thoughts that, for me, were uncharacteristically warm, fuzzy and fatherly. Suddenly, as if he’d heard me, Scott stopped his fiddling and looked over at me. We held each other’s gaze for a moment. Then he gave me a sheepish, knowing smile and I smiled back, neither of us saying a word.

Golf just doesn’t get any better than that.