Letter from St. Andrews: Farewell, Auld Toon

It was nearly 30 years ago that I hit the best golf shot of my life—a screaming slice from the 18th tee of the Old Course that sailed over the white OB fence and clattered into the Auld Grey Toon. I never found that ball but I did find something better—a “For Sale” sign. Incredibly, a two-bedroom residence overlooking the golf course and the North Sea was available, and just as incredibly, I had enough in my meager savings account to make the down payment. Two months later, my wife Libby and I signed the documents that gave us possession of 9A Gibson Place, St. Andrews. So began our love affair with the most magical little city in the world.

I must say, when we bought the place we had no idea what it would lead to—I saw it mostly as an investment, and for nearly 20 years it was just that as we rented to University of St. Andrews students during the school term and visited occasionally in the summer. Then in 2003 everything changed when I left my job at GOLF Magazine to pursue a freelance career. With our two sons out of the nest, my good wife had an incredible inspiration: “Why don’t we sell our house and go on an adventure to St. Andrews,” she said, “just for a year or two. We can fix the place up, sell it, and then come back and decide what we want to be when we grow up.”

Well, we did sell our house in the New York suburbs, we did head to St. Andrews, and we did fix the place up—from top to bottom—but by the time the renovation was complete we loved our new life so much we didn’t want to leave. So for most of the last 10 years, St. Andrews has been our home, the place where we’ve cooked our meals, tended our garden, walked our dogs, and, of course, played our golf.

I’ve often wondered how and why this happened, what  quirk of fate brought me to that tee that day to hit that wonderfully horrible shot. Maybe novelist Somerset Maugham had the answer when he observed that certain men tend to travel afar in a subconscious search for something they don’t quite feel at home, and that, “sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

That is surely what happened to me in St. Andrews. I didn’t learn to play golf here but I did learn to play it the way it should be played—simply and honorably, the bag on your shoulder and a spring in your step, with an abiding respect for the course, the rules, and your fellow players.

But the enchantment of St. Andrews is much more than golf. It’s the crisp sea air, the long summer days, the ancient stone buildings and cobblestone streets, the perpetual vitality of what is surely the most cosmopolitan small town on the planet. Above all, it’s the people. In our time here Libby and I have been fortunate to befriend a collection of the most thoughtful, genuine, and genuinely good people we’ve ever met, from the caddies and cabbies to the students and shopkeepers to the dozens of dogged victims at the St. Andrews, New, St. Rule, and Royal & Ancient Golf Clubs. To have made their acquaintance is among the greatest joys of our lives.

Now, however, our sojourn is about to end. On September 1, we listed our home for sale. We’ve sold our car, closed our bank account, packed our belongings, and shipped them back to the U.S. This will be my last “Letter from St Andrews.”

Why are we leaving this town we love so much? The UK immigration folks say we may not stay any longer. My visa has expired and my only option is to apply for permanent resident status (essentially dual US/UK citizenship). Trouble is, they go by a Byzantine points system here, and when I total up all my qualifying points I’m borderline. I could still apply (for a non-refundable fee of a few thousand dollars), but my chances are slim. So we’ve decided to make a change.

There’s no major tragedy here—we’ve had a great run and I’m sure we’ll find a kindred golf nut to buy our place. In the future, we can come back and visit, and that’s exactly what we plan to do for a couple of weeks each fall.

Meanwhile, there are the memories, the many wonderful memories. Bobby Jones and I may have little in common, but we do have this: “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences here in St. Andrews, and I would still have had a rich and full life.”