My Day at the R&A

Saturday, August 26

Unbelievable. I’ve had an unbelievable day, and it’s not even 3:30 in the afternoon yet.

Let’s see, I’ve been taken on a personal tour of the R&A (the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the world’s premier governing body of the rules of golf, and the organization that runs the Open Championship), where I saw some of the most famous trophies in the world of golf. I saw the oldest golf trophy in the world, the silver belt won three times in a row (1868-70) by ‘Young’ Tom Morris, who was then allowed to keep it. I saw the belt’s replacement, the “claret jug”, an ornate silver wine pitcher that is now globally known as the trophy representing the most prestigious tournament in golf, the Open Championship. (Or the British Open, if you’re an American.)

I saw gorgeous wood paneled rooms lined with paintings of famous golfers and famous people, and cases everywhere filled with ancient clubs and balls. There were many clubs and balls used by famous golfers to win championships in Scotland, and other, lesser places. I saw things precious few mortals are allowed to see.

From there we went to another members only place, the St Andrews Golf Club. Here I must digress and remind you that while a “golf club” is that long stick, made of wood or metal, which the golfer uses to hit a golf ball, it is also a social organization. This particular club, the St Andrews Golf Club, is one of many such clubs in Scotland, but one of the oldest. It was much noisier and more crowded than the R&A, where men in suits spoke quietly and reverently. After another tour, we had a bowl of soup and a bun, washed down by a pint of Guinness, which should please my brother Dave.

Then we walked along Golf Place next to the 18th fairway of the Old Course, and talked with golfers as they made their way past the horde of formally attired people in yet another wedding party wishing to be photographed on the Swilcan Burns Bridge. (On my office wall for years was a photo of my dad standing on that famous bridge, and now I suppose I’ll have to get one of me standing there.) My friend and guide David Hamilton pointed out various important sites, such as the golf shop of the Auchterlonie family, known for hundreds of years as St Andrews club-makers. Then we walked back to David’s house, where I thanked him and headed on my way.

If my Scotland adventure can be looked at as one amazing event or coincidence after another, featuring such miracles as selling my house just in time, meeting Sheila and many other people, including two guys who work at the St Andrews Links Trust, the organization responsible for the management of the six golf courses, then this latest is the biggest surprise of them all. Let me tell you what happened.

Yesterday afternoon was a happy day. It was mostly sunny and pleasant, in the sixties. Since my condo and car had sold – with never-ending thanks to Steve Inge, Leroy Plumlee and many others – and my back account was elevated, I was able to pay my student fees early. I had hoped this would open certain doors and allow me to accomplish various important tasks like purchase my heavily discounted student golf pass (about $220 to play as much golf as I want on ALL the golf courses for ONE YEAR; this should answer the question as to whether I’ve played golf here yet). In addition, I was able to initiate my computer account, so my new email address (jdd22@st-andrews.ac.uk) has been activated, and I’ve already sent a few emails.

Then I decided to get some actual work done, so I plopped down in the library, at what I hoped would be my reserved carrel (#58), and forced my way through some pages of Scottish history. If you go to the School of history’s website you’ll see the list of books they want me to have read by the time classes begin on the 25th of September. Lucky me, a scholar’s work is never done. (The late Capt Jack Sandsberry once called me the “young academician”, and I hope he’s watching all this.)

Soon it was about dinnertime, but before hitting the grocery store (Tesco) and walking home, I stopped at the Central for a pint. (This is the first pub I discovered in StA.) I sat outside at a rare open table, and worked through a few more pages of “Image and Identity”. Soon it became, and I know this is hard to believe, too hot, so I moved to a corner inside. As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” so I ordered another pint. No, it’s not what you think! I just didn’t want to carry home heavy groceries in the unrelenting Scottish sun; that could wait until things cooled down.

Soon a different couple took the place of the previous couple and sat next to me. Nothing special, in their sixties, but the man had on a very nice cashmere sweater. I knew it was cashmere because the label by his left hip flipped up as he sat so I could read it. Mostly I had my nose in my book, but as I’m IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY I’m also occupied with looking at and listening to people, half of which are not Scottish. When the man left to order another round for his wife and him, I politely mentioned to the wife that I admired his sweater, after which I got up to go to the loo.

When I got back we all exchanged smiles, and I remarked to him that I told his wife I liked his sweater. Then he said he noticed my history book while I was gone and soon it came out that I was a new, American postgraduate student in Scottish history, interested in golf history. Soon we had launched into a lively discussion and it was clear this guy knew a thing or two about the history of golf, viewed from several different angles: science, rules, people, and specifically the manufacturing of clubs and balls. We were having a fine time, telling stories and laughing. After a few moments of pensive silence, he grabs my notepad and writes what appeared to be his vitals, and then says, “Come around my place at eleven tomorrow for coffee.” I’m a little stunned but gracious, since it seems he’s got something to show me, maybe a collection of books on golf club-making. After another pause he says, “Bring a jacket and tie.” I had no idea what was going to happen Saturday.

Well, duh, something involving a jacket and tie would be a little special, but what?

Last night after I got home I did laundry when I hadn’t planned to, but it was necessary since my one good shirt was dirty. And as this might be important I broke out the iron and ironing board (?!) and attempted to make my shirt and one good pair of pants look halfway decent. This morning I got up in plenty of time and stopped by the store to get flowers for the lady of the house, and Mrs. Hamilton was surprised and happy to get them. She made a pot of French press coffee (which should make McFinn happy) and brought out a plate of cookies. The three of us sat at a large table in the dining room, the second room I saw with multiple sets of golf clubs. We made small talk and he wanted to hear a little about my background. Then he moved some papers and books into my field of view. I focused on the three books, all about the history of club-making, and he called the author by his first name, indicating some familiarity. I noted he had made photocopies of the title pages of each, which of course included the title, author, publisher and date. Then he seemed to discuss points enumerated on the main document in front of me, which I thought was some form of C.V. or resume, since at the head was his name in the largest type, followed by his address, phone and email. Then I read the next line centred on the page: “To add to the professional guidance and assistance in your project – herewith some scraps and amateur thoughts.”

By adding this intelligence to the closer scrutiny of the documents, I concluded that Mr. Hamilton had put together a well-organized guide, drawn up either last night or this morning, to help me with my college career research, including a list of St Andrews locals “seriously involved” in golf history.

I was beginning to feel lucky indeed, since this generous and learned fellow clearly intended to take me under his wing. This generous and learned fellow is Dr David Hamilton, a retired surgeon who has written books on medical history. More recently his historical energies have been directly towards golf. He then slid a new-looking book, “Golf, Scotland’s Game” (ISBN 0-9510009-3-4, Partick Press, 1998), with his name on the cover, towards me. I said, “May I borrow this?” He said, “It’s for you!” and proceeded to write inside, “Required reading for J.D. with the author’s best wishes. David, St Andrews, 2006.” At this point I was having trouble breathing. It turns out to be one of at least six books on the history of golf he’s written, and I know now that, yes, Virginia, he’s a full member of the R&A.

He says, “Let’s get you a tie and go for a walk.”

He produced a tie (I had a jacket but not the requisite cravat), which I put on, and we said goodbye to his wife Jean, and headed off. By now I know pretty well the walk along North Street towards the golf courses, and as we walked along we talked easily about everything. We stopped at the 18th green of the Old Course and politely applauded when a gentleman sank a lengthy putt. We talked about strategy for playing the 18th, depending on pin placement. Then we headed for the R&A building. He headed right for the entrance, where it says ‘Members Only’ on a plaque that looked like it was made by a jeweler who died three hundred years ago. We walked inside, where the distinguished man at the desk greeted him cheerfully by name, and David introduced me. We then walked all over the place, Dr Hamilton stopping to point out important paintings and items in trophy cases. There were large rooms with high ceilings and large candelabra, and more paintings, some at least eight feet tall. There was a snooker room, rooms where gentlemen were enjoying refreshments, and a library, which boasted many old volumes in well-weathered leather, as well as a copy of the book David gave me. Astonishing stuff to see. Each room beckoned with large leather chairs, and large windows looking out at the golf course. I wanted to sink down roots like a tree.

Finally we left, and walked down the narrow road, The Links, that runs parallel to the 18th fairway, and has lots of golf shops. We came to one of the town’s social clubs, the St Andrews Golf Club, and walked up the steps and then through the gate that said, once again, ‘Members Only’. The seal of the club was in ornate tile in the pavement we walked over, and David produced a credit card-like key, ran it through the receptor, and we walked in. Here the emphasis was on amateur golf champions, and there were lists of names of golfers who had been members of the club, the amateur titles they had won, and the names of past presidents of the club. There were more very old paintings of golfers, which I love, including a very big and impressive one of Bobby Jones, and ancient clubs, score cards and balls in cases, but this time there was more noise. Here we found ourselves in a large room with golfers enjoying food and drink after playing a round. There were lots of smiles. This time we ordered at the bar and sat down. Golfers and men in ties walked by, smiled and said hello to my new friend. David told me he would find out if it’s possible for me to join the club (!) through an accelerated process. He thought there must be a ‘visiting scholar’ status of some kind, since it usually takes years to become a member, and the University must have some mechanism for doing so.

I found the bathroom, where there were more paintings of golfers, and there in the secluded silence, I shared a good laugh at my good fortune with my reflection. I really am a lucky guy.

We then walked back to his house, where I returned his tie. Before I left he handed me an invitation to a jacket and tie dinner Sept 5th. Evidently there is a sub-group of the St Andrews Golf Club called The Literati. The invitation says, “Our numbers have increased and we now move to this club with its famous view of the Links from the upstairs dining room. After dinner we look forward to short contributions from members on projects or publications, personal or otherwise, worth sharing, from the world of golf literature, history or golfiana.” At the bottom is “RSVP to David Hamilton”, so it appears he’s running the affair. Sounds like fun: I hope my Washington College tie arrives by then, because I’m going.

Some day, huh?

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