Golf Literati Dinner

OK, how many people do you know who have sat on a couch next to one of only two guys to have ever won five British Opens? Is it a small number? Really small…?

Well, add me to them. Tonight I sat next to Peter Thomson, for a glass of wine before dinner, and then next to him for a delicious steak dinner at a banquet. How could this be happening? Oh wait, it’s JD. It MUST be happening. Since only these things happen to JD.

If you have been following the True and Exciting Adventures Of JD In Scotland, you know that anything is possible. And probably is going to happen. Right?

As you must remember from the cashmere letter, I noted that my new buddy Dr David Hamilton, R&A member and golf historian, had invited me to join him and a bunch of his friends for a dinner at the St Andrews Golf Club overlooking the 18th hole at the Old Course.

The names of those attending, as they appeared in David’s little table setting:

Malcolm Campbell
Jake Davidson
J.D. Douglass
Maynard Garrison
David Hamilton
David Joy
Graeme Lennie
David Malcolm
George Peper
Greg Ramsay
Peter Thomson
Michael Tobert

And there were another nine (last) names of people at the bottom, who evidently expressed their apologies for not being able to come. I will know more about them after I have determined first names.

All righty then, so you’d like to hear about the latest miracle in my Scotland Adventure? Really? Then I will tell you. You better sit down.

If you recall, two weeks ago my innocent compliment on a gentleman’s cashmere sweater in a pub turned into a tour of the R&A, another tour and a pint at the St Andrews Golf Club, and most importantly a very special new friend, Dr David Hamilton. The last thing he did after we had returned to his house after our memorable afternoon, was to present me with an invitation to a jacket and tie dinner. This dinner was to be a gathering of golf writers and historians, the ‘Literati’. It was going to be held, I was told, at the St Andrews Golf Club, right next to the Old Course. I had no idea what it would turn into.

A day early I picked up my one white dress shirt from the dry cleaner, since the treatment seemed warranted. In Glasgow at a kilt shop I had purchased a Douglas tartan tie, which Dr Hamilton recognized at a glance. At a “charity shop” – a second hand store, and around here they’re filled with nice stuff because the town is pretty wealthy – I found a beautiful black cashmere sports jacket for next to nothing. Khaki trousers completed my kit.

At David’s house at 6:30 pm, he showed me the table setting cards his publishing company had made for the occasion. About 4×5 inches, the folding outer cover was a slick, hard paper on which was printed part of the Charles Lees painting, “Evening on Musselburgh Links”. It’s a beautiful painting that is also on the cover of the book he wrote, “Golf, Scotland’s Game”. Inside is a separate, more delicate folio page, with the announcement of the event on the left, and the list of those to be attending on the right. My name was on that list. I quickly glanced at the other names, and while I saw Scottish sounding names I didn’t recognize any. Who were these people?

We walked the five minutes to the club, adjacent to the 18th fairway, and found our well-appointed table in the upstairs dining room. The room was lined with fantastic paintings of famous golfers and famous courses. The table was next to a huge window, and sure enough we had an enviable view of the Old Course. David decided it would be best to meet the arriving fellows downstairs in the lounge area, since it was very quiet at the time, and there were lots of inviting couches and chairs.

The first gentleman to arrive approached David while I was occupied by a trophy case full of ancient golf balls and clubs, record-breaking scorecards from the 1800’s and hundreds of fascinating and magical things I wanted to look at. When I realized the first guest was here, I walked over. David introduced me, and the gentleman held out his hand and said he was Peter Thomson.

At that point I looked like Bambi’s dumber brother in the headlights. All I could manage was, “How do you do, Sir.” We then sat down in one of the big green leather couches, and bottles of wine came out of nowhere. I was sitting on a couch having a drink with one of four men, and of only two still alive, who has, FIVE TIMES, won the Open Championship. (That’s the “British Open” to you Yanks.)

Let’s detour for a moment. Only one man, the immortal Harry Vardon, won it six times. Four men, Peter, Tom Watson, J.H. Taylor and James Braid, won it five times. And four men, Willie Park, Tom Morris père et fils, and Walter Hagen, won it four times each. Mr. Thomson, an Australian, won it in 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1965, and keeps a hand in the game by working as a TV announcer at major golf tournaments. He still plays, and in fact he had just come to St Andrews after playing at Mull, in the Inner Hebrides.

I was trying my best to keep from spilling my wine, or snorting it up my nose or farting. Mostly I succeeded while answering his questions and telling him a little about myself, and how I came to be there. I WAS SITTING ON A COUCH WITH PETER THOMSON, ONE OF THE GREATEST GOLFERS EVER.

Soon more gentlemen arrived, mostly pretty old but with plenty of gleam in the eyes. You could tell they thought the evening would be pretty special. There were a variety of accents and countries represented: Scottish, English, one American (besides me), a Japanese, and one guy from Tasmania. Let’s face it; I couldn’t make up this stuff.

Soon there was a healthy buzz as old friends caught up, and they exchanged new books they had just published, and I just sat back taking it all in. Can you imagine?

Then David got our attention, and said we should go up to dinner. The stairways were lined with paintings and photos, and I spotted a photo of Bobby Jones, when he returned to Scotland in 1958 to accept the honor referred to as Freedom of the City of St Andrews. This exceptional designation had been given to only one other American, Benjamin Franklin. Jones had signed the photograph, and the shaky handwriting gave witness to the degenerative bone disease he suffered from late in his life.

David had thought out a seating plan, which he had on a scrap of paper. I was in the middle of the long table, and Peter Thomson was on my right. On my left was George Peper, a transplanted New Yorker who had been the editor at Golf Magazine for 25 years, and who wrote, “The 500 Greatest Golf Holes”, and “Two Years in St Andrews: At Home on the 18th Hole”. That title lifted my eyebrows. Also here was David Malcolm, a golf historian and columnist on scottishgolf.com, where you can see his picture. He became my favorite of the evening, and I’ll get back to him later. There was Malcolm Campbell, who wrote, “The Scottish Golf Book”, Michael Tobert (“Pilgrims in the Rough”), and Greg Ramsay, the Tasmanian I mentioned earlier who wrote a new book about golf on his island. He is affiliated with the Nant Whisky Distillery (!) founded in 1821 on that devilish island.

There was Graeme Lennie, head golf pro of the Crail Golfing Society, where he gives demonstrations of hickory-shafted clubs, and perhaps the greatest talent of them all, David Joy. He is a gifted painter of golfer portraits who showed some of his recent dazzling work, a golf historian and the star of a one-man show, “The Keeper of the Greens”, in which he dons a beard and impersonates Old Tom Morris. There were a couple other gentlemen, including Jake Davidson, a retired radiologist and 40-year friend of Dr. Hamilton, and a Japanese fellow whose name I can’t spell from Vancouver, who knows Lake Padden GC (my home course in Bellingham, WA) very well. What an amazing bunch of guys.

The chef, or “himself” as the others called him, came out and greeted us, and then described the evening’s menu choices. We were the only ones in the dining room, so we had the kitchen all to ourselves. For an appetizer there was either Scottish smoked salmon or a roasted tomato and pepper soup. For the main course we could choose either grilled salmon with shrimp or a steak with a peppercorn sauce. While we were thinking it over more wine arrived along with bread and butter. These Scots are fond of their butter. And there was non-stop talking while passing new books back and forth.

Thinking of myself as the ‘child who should be seen and not heard’ I kept my mouth shut, which should surprise my brother. My job was to listen, asking a question or offering an opinion only as often as necessary to demonstrate that I was awake and not a complete idiot. Peter told wonderful stories about golfers, including Sam Snead, who won the Open here in 1946. I told them how, when I was about fourteen, I bought a Snead golf book featuring early stop action photography. Each page showed a different phase of his swing, with the club moving only a few inches. I had propped the book up on a chair on our back porch, where I could see my reflection in the sliding glass doors so I could mimic Sam’s swing. This was more or less how I learned to swing a golf club. Peter surprised me by saying he did much the same thing, and that he always admired Snead’s swing. (I’m NOT kidding.)

The smoked salmon appetizer was delicious, and the conversation slowed only slightly. Perhaps the sharpest wit at the table belonged to David Malcolm, who had a face as craggy as any Scottish cliff. He had strong opinions on a variety of subjects, and it was clear he had a vast and detailed knowledge of golf history. He also made me laugh the most. The main courses arrived, and since I was looking forward to my first good steak in quite a while, it was disappointing to see they were all barely a half-inch thick. It was tender and tasty, but more like well-cooked roast beef than a proper steak, and the peppercorn sauce was good. These people really need to be taught about steak. Oh, and there was still more wine materializing.

For pudding course we could choose ice cream with a variety of sauces, and my dad will be happy to know that Peter Thomson chose ice cream with butterscotch sauce. I went for cheese and biscuits (crackers), and hoped that a bottle of port would appear. The guys down on the other side of the table were talking about a tournament they were in, and the matches they would face tomorrow. It rained all day long the day of the dinner, and so later I looked up the forecast on weather.com.uk, and laughed when it showed a monotonous prediction for rain for the next eight or ten days. (Sounds like Bellingham…) After a rainy morning today the sun came out and I was tempted to wear the shorts British men seem to abhor. Good thing I didn’t, since it got chilly when the wind came up this afternoon.

We finished and somehow rolled down the stairs, where some of the literary lights shifted to whisky. A few men had to leave, so that left about six of us. Feeling pretty elevated with the experience, I offered to buy anyone a scotch. Ironically the only one to take me up on it was George, the American, who requested a Macallan. Many consider this the Rolls Royce of single malt scotches, and while the sweet young thing with braces behind the bar poured the two drinks – I joined George in a Macallan for myself – I steeled myself as I waited for the exorbitant amount I owed. I expected to pay four or five pounds PER DRINK, and was astonished, as only a tight Scot can be, when told it was just under three pounds for the lot. Life is good, and George and I enjoyed a very fine dram.

Slightly emboldened, I sought out David Malcolm, the craggy columnist, and we talked about golf and history. He recommended some books to read and some local people to talk to. He is currently working on the definitive biography of Old Tom Morris. I liked this guy more and more. At this point I diverted his attention to his suit, a beautiful tweed, worn with a dark brown shirt and oatmeal wool tie. I asked him if I could have his suit when he died. He liked that, but said that, even though he was nearly eighty, he wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon. I pressed him a bit more, asking on which side he tucked, so I’d know how much alteration would be required. He laughed; we were having a good time. With his mane of white hair in a modern style coming across his forehead, and the tweed suit, he cut quite a figure, especially for an older guy. I blurted out, “You remind me of Errol Flynn!” He let out the biggest laugh yet and flashed the kind of smile you can’t fake. He was enjoying himself, and told me Errol Flynn was one of his favorite actors and personalities.

We all left together, and after a block he lit a cigarette and said that’s where he would wait for his wife, who was due to pick him up there in a few minutes. He chuckled once more over the Errol Flynn comparison and he winked at me as he said good night.

I walked David home, and then I walked alone back to Deans Court, where I started to put some thoughts down on my Mac. Something was missing. I wanted just one more whisky to better illuminate the evening’s memories. It was about 11:15 pm. Online I verified that the Tesco’s on Market St, low-cost retailers of everything from groceries to booze, was open until midnight. I closed my laptop and headed out, hoping to buy a bottle of Scotch, since there was none in the house. By 11:30 I was looking at the bottles trying to decide, when an employee said, “Sorry mate, no alcohol sales after ten.” DOH! Dejected, I headed back, and decided to stop at the Central, my favorite pub, for either a pint or a whisky. It was about 11:50 when I walked in, and Pete said, “Sorry, JD, we just gave last call a few minutes ago.” DOH!

So this was a learning experience after all. No bottles of booze after 10 pm, and pubs close around midnight. And Peter Thomson, distinguished gentleman and winner of five British Opens, is a pretty nice guy.

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