Appeared in July/August 2006 LINKS
In 1983, George Peper hit a prodigious slice off the 18th tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews, onto the street that borders the hole. He never found the ball, but he discovered a home, buying a flat on the street after spotting a “For Sale” sign during his search. For 20 years, the Pepers were absentee owners, visiting intermittently during the summer and renting it out to University of St. Andrews students the rest of the year.
Then in late 2003, Peper and his wife, Libby, left their suburban New York home and moved into the flat full-time. While Two Years in St. Andrews deals with all aspects of the Pepers’ new lives, this excerpt focuses on George’s relationship with his famous neighbor across the joint 1st and 18th fairway, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, of which he is a member.
Early one morning, shortly after we’d arrived, I wandered over to the Old Course starter’s hut, and I joined three young Americans from the New York area. The four hours we spent swatting and chatting were about as good as golf blind dates get.
Feeling expansive as we walked up the stone steps behind the 18th green, I said, “Would you guys like to come into the R&A for a drink?”
“The R&A? Wow, yeah,” said one of them. “But are we dressed OK?”
“No problem, just follow me,” I said, stiff-arming the brass push plate on the clubhouse door. It didn’t budge. I pushed it again and still it didn’t move.
“Must be stuck—I’ll have to let the club manager know about that,” I said, leading my guests to a door on the other side of the portico. “Just leave your clubs here in the vestibule.”
We installed ourselves in the Trophy Room, a casual bar just off the main lobby, where I showed the lads some of the club’s artifacts before realizing no one had come in to take our drink orders.
“Bob!” I bellowed imperiously at the club porter. “Can you get someone to come in here and take our drink orders, please?”
“Yes, of course, sir,” he said, “But you do know you can do it easily yourself.”
“I don’t think so,” I said testily. “We’ve been sitting here rather visibly for 15 minutes and not a soul has appeared.”
“Did you ring the buzzer, sir?” he said.
“On the wall next to you, sir. It tells the kitchen staff you’re here.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I must have forgotten,” I said, looking at a switch, boldly imprinted with the word “BAR.” There were, in fact, several of them conveniently located around the room.
Although a member of the R&A for 16 years, I had entered the clubhouse only a handful of times. The truth was, the place sort of scared me and I hadn’t had the courage to walk in alone. The three young Yanks, by accompanying me that day, had done as much for me as I had for them.
If they had noticed my ineptitude, they were too polite to say anything, and they thanked me profusely as we left. Then panic struck—all four sets of clubs had vanished. I was mortified and angry.
“Uh, Bob,” I said, “our golf clubs are not here.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. “They’re all downstairs in the Bag Room. You see, they shouldn’t be left in the vestibule—not safe, you know, sir.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said lamely. “I’d forgotten.” Then hoping to salvage some face, I said, “By the way, I wanted to be sure you knew about the door on the golf course side of the entry. It wouldn’t budge.”
“Right you are, sir,” he said. “It’s shut tight. Has been since 1983.”
In my first six months at St. Andrews, I’d made some progress learning the secret handshakes and tribal rituals of the club. I’d discovered, for instance, that there was a “monthly medal”—a stroke-play competition among R&A members. I’d also learned, after a notably unballetic jeté, that the bottom step on the club’s main staircase was a bit steeper than the others. And after weeks of close observation I’d cracked the dress code: Jacket and tie were required on parts of the first floor, all of the second floor and none of the third floor. Most importantly, perhaps, I’d learned that if you wanted to enjoy several gin and tonics without being transformed into a blithering fool, you ordered a “club measure,” and when a chap was said to have gone to “the House of Lords,” it meant he was relieving himself.
Then I was awakened early one spring morning by the loud, repeating clank of metal on metal. I staggered to the window to see what was afoot. Overnight, two dozen trucks and a small battalion of workmen had encamped just north of the 1st tee of the Old Course, and an ambitious project had begun: construction of a 64,500-square-foot tent with a 50-foot ceiling, the focal point for the 16-day celebration of the R&A’s 250th anniversary, the most lavish party St. Andrews had ever seen.
At one of the black-tie dinners, I had the good fortune to be seated next to the fellow who, along with Johnny Miller, is in my view golf’s best TV commentator, Peter Alliss. We had a lovely chat (it’s difficult to have anything but a lovely chat with Alliss) and toward the end of the evening, I asked him to confirm a story.
As it went, Alliss and Henry Cotton were doing a live broadcast of the Women’s British Open at Sunningdale. Sitting in a production trailer, the two of them thought the viewers were watching an aerial view of a short par 4.
“Lovely little hole here,” said Alliss, to which the venerable three-time Open champion Cotton replied, “Yes, but it was a good deal tighter in my day.” The viewers, in fact, were watching a rear view of LPGA player Marlene Floyd as she was marking her ball.
It all seemed just too perfect, so having recounted my version, I asked Alliss, “Is that really true?”
He looked at me with a sly, omniscient smile. “Every word.”
50,000 People in Our Backyard
Libby and I had considered renting our place for the week of the 134th Open Championship. A real estate agent had advised us to ask $35,000 for the week. That kind of money was tempting, but in the end, we decided we hadn’t been living here for two years to not enjoy Open Week.
My 20-year-old son, Scott, was visiting for the summer and we both had jobs for the week. He was an intern for TNT, sitting inside the production trailer, watching the broadcast and making note of the exact moment and second of every significant shot, for later use by the replay and highlights producers.
I had volunteered as a marshal. Before the championship, we assembled to receive instructions from our chief, who closed by emphasizing the importance of keeping a low profile. “I know you’re all familiar with Peter Alliss,” he said. “Well, you know how during telecasts the camera sometimes pans to the gallery or to strange events outside the ropes, at which point Peter invariably offers a wittily scathing observation? Your primary mission this week is to be sure you do not become fodder for Peter Alliss.”
I was fortunate enough to get a plum job guarding the walkway that separates the bay window of the R&A from the 1st tee. Only players and caddies were allowed on my turf. Nameless faces and faceless names passed by, politely nodding at the all-but-superfluous marshal. The only ones who recognized me and stopped to say hello were my three more or less contemporaries in the field, Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
And my only real stress came during the first round, not from people but sounds—two of them. The first was a loud piercing bark from the southwest that I recognized immediately as my own West Highland White Terrier, Millie. For an animal with lungs the size of teabags she had astonishing projection, especially downwind. For a long 30 seconds, Millie Peper was the voice of the 134th Open. When she went quiet, I prayed that Libby had shut her inside the house—Tiger’s group was due on the tee in 20 minutes and the last thing I needed was for my mutt to let out a yelp just as The Striped One took the club back for his opening tee shot.
The other sonic event occurred just before 10 o’clock, when a man emerged from the starter’s hut with a panicked look. Since I was the human being closest to him, I became the recipient of his news: “An alarm is about to go off.“I’m with the BBC,” he said. “We have access to the hut to store equipment, but no one told me it had a burglar alarm. I had a key to open the door, but I don’t have the security code to—”
Then it began, a series of high-volume electronic honks. Suddenly, players, caddies, officials, R&A members and thousands in the grandstands turned and stared—at the hut, at the ashen-faced man and at me. Blessedly, Peter Alliss was on a comfort break.
It was nearly 15 minutes before a Links Trust ranger came to the rescue. When he disabled the alarm, the ovation was louder than the one that had greeted Tiger.
On Sunday morning, I was at my post, chatting with Peter Dawson, R&A chief executive. I pointed at the flagstick on the 18th green, just a few feet beyond the ridge that climbs out of the Valley of Sin.
“Isn’t that a bit more severe than in past championships?” I asked.
He looked at it for a moment, then, with a wry smile, said, “Yes, I believe it is.”
Tiger won by five, with a score of 14 under, five strokes higher than he’d shot on the same course in 2000. The hard ground and numerous challenging hole locations—like the one at the 18th—had enabled the Old Course to defend herself against the best players in the world—no tricking up required.
Once the presentation was over, people flooded across the course for hours. The wait for photos at the Swilken Bridge was close to 30 minutes. (I wished I’d had the foresight to create a life-sized cardboard blowup of Tiger holding the claret jug—I could have made a fortune charging people to pose with it.)
During the slow exodus of the crowds, friends and neighbors wandered through our back gate for drinks and postmortem conversation. As darkness fell, a solitary figure crouched on the 18th green, stroking putt after putt toward that elusive cup: Scott Peper.
From TWO YEARS IN ST. ANDREWS by George Peper. Copyright ©2006 by George Peper. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.