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Dogged Victim | Talk of the Toon

I’m just back from my Auld Grey stomping grounds, where things at the moment are livelier than ever

By: George Peper

Appeared in Summer 2014 LINKS

Having not made my home there for the last couple of years, I’d forgotten what a happening little city St. Andrews is. When my wife and I paid a wee visit a few weeks ago, it all came back. Things were hopping.

The one thing I was prepared for was the continued tweaking of the Old Course, where phase two of the renovations are now complete. They include some rebunkering at holes 3 and 4, a bit of recontouring to the right of the 6th green, a large new bunker about 50 yards short and left of the 9th green, and a bit of reshaping to the back-right of the 15th green. Frankly none of this struck me as outlandish: I almost wonder why they went to the trouble as I don’t think it will make much of a difference, either in the Open Championship next year or in day-to-day play.

In addition to the course changes, the putting green beside the first green has been stripped of the green cross-hatch fence that had surrounded it for decades and alongside it the caddie pavilion has been rechristened “The Old Pavilion” and converted into a long overdue welcome center for visiting golfers. Those who appear for the infamous early-morning queue for Old Course tee times will no longer have to shiver beside the starter’s hut. The ousted caddies have been given their own new sanctuary a few yards down the 1st fairway.

A true sign of the times, although nonetheless shocking for St. Andrews, was the announcement that Dr. Paul McCarthy has joined the Golf Academy (the practice area beside the Old Course 16th hole) as its first resident sports psychologist.

There’s plenty of non-golf related activity, too. I never thought I’d be glad to be out of my old home, but when I saw the street, I was. For the past several months, the road that runs alongside the 18th hole, known as The Links, has been intermittently closed to traffic, as have Gibson Place and Grannie Clark’s Wynd, as a new sewer system is installed. The resulting traffic has been chaotic but, believe me, this is something that should have been done decades ago.

On the same street, the Macdonald Rusacks Hotel has just applied for permission to radically expand, filling in its current parking area with a massive addition—four floors, 44 rooms, and a rooftop restaurant. If approved, it would be an enhancement to the streetscape. That said, my former neighbors are mounting a strong campaign against it and I can’t say as I blame them—the absence of parking will mean valet parkers racing around, adding to an already congested situation. But for most of the locals it’s all about the views. One poor chap bought a place three years ago that looks through the current parking lot to the Old Course and sea. He’s spent more than $1 million fixing it up, and now this. Sadly for him, Scottish law holds that a homeowner is not entitled to a view, only sunlight, and word around town is that some form of the Rusacks application will be approved.

Hamilton Grand, the big red building directly behind the 18th green, originally a hotel, then a university dorm, and now owned by plumbing-fixture-magnate-cum-golf-resort-developer Herb Kohler, continues to struggle to fill its 26 luxury residences. The word is, only a handful of the units have been sold. It’s not just the price tags—anywhere from two to 10 million dollars—but the yearly maintenance cost of $50,000. 

Around the corner, the former St. Andrews Golf Hotel has seen both a name change and a facelift. It’s now the Hotel du Vin, part of a boutique chain, and has been given a chic new look. Libby and I were among the first to try the restaurant, where cock-a-leekie soup and shepherd’s pie have been replaced on the menu by bouillabaisse and boeuf bourguignon. The hotel’s much loved basement bar, Ma Bells (a favorite hangout of Prince William and Kate), is also slated for renovation.

The British Golf Museum, sitting just in back of the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, will also be expanding upward with the addition of a rooftop, 80-seat café and outdoor sitting area that will instantly have one of the town’s most spectacular views over the Old Course and famed Chariots of Fire beach. The Museum closed down for the renovation on May 2 and won’t open until next summer, just in time for the return of the Open Championship.

And even in the R&A clubhouse things have been updated, with a complete redecoration of the three main rooms on the ground floor, including the Big Room where an enormous bespoke carpet was installed a couple of months ago. The one-piece carpet was so large it had to be brought into the room through one of the big bay windows that look out over the Old Course. Among the priceless oil paintings that line the walls of that room, a new one has been added—a larger-than-life portrait of five-time British Amateur Champion and past Captain and Secretary of the R&A, Sir Michael Bonallack.

Sir Michael, who lives a couple of miles out of town, still plays occasionally and walks his golden lab on the West Sands beach. Also still active is his wife Angela, an equally fine woman amateur in her day. In fact, while we were visiting she won a major stroke-play event at St. Rule, one of the ladies’ clubs in town.

Of course, the big R&A news of late has been the announcement by Peter Dawson, the man who succeeded Sir Michael as R&A Chief Executive, that he will retire next year after 16 years on the job.

During my stay, I played in an intra- club Pinehurst competition on the New Course, where I had the mixed fortune to be drawn against Peter—a lucky draw because I enjoy his company, an unlucky draw because his game was in fine form and mine was not. My partner and I lost to Peter and his partner, 2 & 1, partly because of my poor play—we’d teed off at 2 p.m. after a rather liquid lunch, and since the day I left St. Andrews my drinking game has never been the same. The other reason was Peter’s prodigious driving—several hits in the 300-yard range that left his alternate-shot partner with little more than chip shots to a few par fours.

Although still more than a year away, Peter is looking forward to his retirement and hopes to take it easy, at least initially, with plenty of golf on the agenda. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Maybe, in contrast to Michael, I’ll go ahead and win my five Amateur titles after retirement.” The way he played in our match, I wouldn’t put it past him. A committee to select his replacement has been formed, an ad has run in the Sunday (London) Times, and several applications have been received. His successor will be in the Dawson mode, a proven chief executive “likely to have played competitively.”

Meanwhile, a major issue faces the R&A (and in this case I mean the private club, not the organization that sets rules and conducts championships): the proposal to accept women members.

Essentially, the club’s leaders have concluded that this is the only way to go, and have told the members so. However, it’s all subject to a vote of the membership in September. My sense is that it will pass, partly because it’s the right thing to do, partly because those in opposition won’t go against the wishes of the leadership, and mostly because I don’t think the issue would ever have gotten this far if the leaders weren’t pretty sure they had the requisite votes in their pocket. But we shall see.

One thing that almost everyone seems to agree on is that if the R&A goes co-ed, it won’t mimic the token gesture of the Augusta National Golf Club, letting in just two women. The word is that we’ll see a first wave of at least a dozen, and they will likely be women of some accomplishment in the world of golf, whether as players, administrators, or both. Moreover, it’s expected that few if any members of that first group will be wives of current R&A members.

One thing is for sure: This September—September 18 to be exact—will be an exciting time in St. Andrews, not just for the R&A vote but because that is also the date of the vote on Scottish independence, the question of whether Scotland will break away from England and become a sovereign nation. At the moment, it’s almost a toss-up, one poll while we were there showing 48 percent in favor, 52 percent against.

In other golf matters, a reorganization of the Rules is said to be afoot under R&A Rules of Golf Chairman Chris Hilton, who believes we need a system that relates more directly to the hierarchy of bedrock principles as set forth by Richard Tufts, e.g. “play the ball as it lies,” “play the course as you find it,” etc. This will be a multi-year project with the USGA.

Also on the Rules, I found time to subject the R&A staff’s highly respected  Rules guru, David Rickman, to my rant on the need to leave the flagstick in the hole permanently—weld it to the bottom of the cup—and he seemed at least receptive to considering the idea, so I live in hope. 

The long-awaited Feddinch project, an on-again/off-again $40 million private golf club based around a Tom Weiskopf course on the outskirts of town, seems once again to have stalled. Six months ago, construction was ahead of schedule, but when I drove past it, everything was overgrown amid reports of funding problems. 

Meanwhile, an article in the St. Andrews Citizen revealed we may soon see the return of a whisky distillery to nearby Lindores Abbey, said to be the birthplace of Scotch whisky, the monks having brewed hooch for King James IV as early as 1494. A proposal to crank up the old still is pending.

The news of Donald Trump’s purchase of Turnberry shared space with his ongoing struggles up the road in Aberdeen, where his neighbor, David Milne, may be filing a lawsuit. Three years ago, Trump’s operatives  put up a fence and planted dozens of trees to screen Milne’s homestead from passing golfers. But a new Scottish law—the High Hedges Act—went into effect on April 1 and may enable Milne to trim or eliminate the trees in order to allow him his legal share of Scottish sunlight.

A one-day visit to England’s Lancashire Coast (for the purposes of an upcoming HotLINKS video) confirmed Hoylake is in fine nick and ready for the Open Championship—while a similar reconnaissance trip to Gleneagles saw much work being done in an effort to ease what will inevitably be a challenging Ryder Cup traffic situation. A huge area alongside the motorway that runs past the resort has been carved out as a staging area for the anticipated hundreds of busloads of spectators. 

And finally, in the center of the Auld Grey Toon a bronze statue has been erected in honor of Hamish McHamish. He’s neither a statesman, a war hero, nor a golfer but the town’s beloved cat, a fluffy tawny-coated fellow who has prowled the shops, streets, and university campus for more than a decade. Funds for the $8,000 monument, which stands in Church Square, were raised from contributions from the citizens, the Town Council, and the R&A’s Town Fund. Ah, only in blessed St. Andrews.  

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