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Letter from St. Andrews: A Day in the Life

How I played the Old Course, Winged Foot, and Pebble Beach in the same wacky day

By: George Peper

Appeared in May/June 2006 LINKS

When the pros return to Winged Foot for a fifth U.S. Open over the storied West Course, one or more of them may better the 276 total posted by Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman in 1984. Someone may collapse more colossally than Tom Watson did with his Sunday 79 in 1974, or take fewer than the 114 putts Billy Casper used in winning in 1959. And surely the entire field will drive the ball farther than Bobby Jones did en route to victory in 1929.

But I can assure this. No one will beat the Winged Foot record I hold. Okay, I’ll admit, it’s a mark I share with three other guys. Still, it won’t be touched, not U.S. Open week or any week. After all, it’s been on the books for 23 years.

On July 18, 1983, my foursome completed 18 holes on the West Course in precisely two hours and 16 minutes. If that doesn’t take your breath away, consider this: 1) on that morning we’d traveled more than 3,500 miles to get to the course; 2) it was our second round of the day; and 3) that afternoon we went another 18 holes—and another 2,500 miles. 

I was editor of GOLF Magazine back then and one of my core duties was to make noise for the magazine—do occasionally nutty things that attracted attention and thereby attracted readers and advertisers. In a moment of questionable inspiration I’d come up with the notion of playing St. Andrews, Winged Foot, and Pebble Beach in the same day. (I’d pulled a similar stunt a couple of years earlier, when Ben Crenshaw had joined me and two representatives of the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association for a tour of 18 holes on 18 different courses in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, starting at dawn on the 14th hole of Shinnecock and finishing at dusk on the fourth of Baltusrol.)

On that day our odyssey had been accomplished with the aid of a helicopter; this time we needed something a bit more formidable—the Concorde. Happily one of the supersonic’s captains, a fellow named Monty Burton, was an avid golfer only too happy to work with us. He was flying a charter of American players and officials to the British Open at Royal Birkdale with the return flight due to leave Manchester Airport at 8:30 a.m. on the Monday following the championship. If we could make that flight, he’d be happy to zip us across the pond.

This time, my lead partner for the expedition was a young fellow who had turned pro in 1980 after winning 32 amateur and collegiate titles. Today you know him as a member of the broadcast team for CBS Sports, Bobby Clampett. Bobby had entered the Open at Birkdale, having made a splash the year prior at Royal Troon where he’d shot the low round on each of the first two days—66–65—and taken a five-stoke lead, only to fritter it away on the weekend, finishing tied for 10th as Tom Watson won the last of his five Open titles. He was the perfect guy for this lunatic trip—a free spirit who needed a ride back to his home in Pebble Beach.

Completing the foursome were Bobby’s agent Hughes Norton and Scottish photographer Brian Morgan who would do his best to play golf while capturing all the idiocy on Kodachrome.

On Sunday afternoon, after Bobby finished his final round at Birkdale (this time he tied for 53rd) we drove to Liverpool, caught a flight to St. Andrews, and checked in at the Old Course Hotel. The next morning when the first ball was struck, the big clock on the side of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse said 4:04. It was still dark, but the BBC was covering us, and the floodlights from their cameras gave us enough visibility to see our tee shots take off.

Playing the first five holes by Braille, we went a collective 24 strokes over par. Then Clampett birdied six and seven, Norton began to strike the ball almost as well as Bobby, Morgan made a couple of unconscionably long putts, and I strung together six fours on the back nine, including fearsome number 17. Bobby ended up with a 75, Hughes 80, me 85 and Brian 88. More important, we walked off the Old Course at 6:35, having played it in two hours and 31 minutes.

“That’s about right for a St. Andrews four-ball,” trilled one of our caddies, “maybe a wee bit slow.”

Forty-five minutes later, we were in the air, having driven to nearby Leuchars airport and boarded a puddle jumper for Manchester where the Concorde awaited us. We taxied up next to it, scrambled out, ran up the jetway, and boarded just five minutes before departure.

Inside, the first four seats had been reserved for us. Waiting patiently in the half dozen rows behind us was pro golf’s Pantheon—Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Floyd, Trevino, Crenshaw, Kite, Strange, Irwin—and their wives.

“My God,” I whispered to Norton, “if it’s our fate to die in a plane crash let this be the one—we’d go down in history.”

“Are you kidding?” he said. “we’d be listed in paragraph 40 as ‘other victims’. Palmer and Nicklaus would go down in history, you and I would just go down in flames.”

Three hours and five courses of gourmet breakfast later we landed at JFK. It was 7:25 a.m.—we’d arrived an hour and five minutes before we’d left.

A private jet took us to the Westchester County Airport from whence a limousine rocketed us to Winged Foot. By just after nine o’clock we were on the tenth tee of the West Course. (We’d been sent off the back nine because the front nine was full of local professionals attempting  to qualify for the Westchester Open—about a dozen of them were about to have their rounds rudely interrupted.)

Clampett played very nicely, another 75, but the three amateurs struggled with the steamy July conditions, the torrid pace, and the big ballpark. (Bobby had insisted that we join him from the back tees of all three courses.) Norton posted an 85 and Morgan and I had 90s. Winged Foot was the only one of the three courses where there were holes none of us parred—the first, the 13th and the 14th—but we did finish strongly with three pars and a birdie by Hughes at the par-five ninth (the only one of the 54 holes where we averaged under par).

The two hours and 16 minutes we’d taken to hit our 340 shots worked out to 24 seconds per shot played. This year in the U.S. Open, the three-balls on Thursday and Friday will need about five hours to play about 215 shots. That’s 84 seconds per shot—a full minute-per-shot slower.

It was 11:26 a.m. New York time, 4:26 p.m. St. Andrews time—we’d been on the move for just over 12 hours. That was smack on the schedule I’d set, a schedule in which I’d had confidence, until the moment on The Concorde when a voice said “What kind of plane do you guys have to the coast?” It was Arnold Palmer.

“A Falcon jet,” I replied.

“Yeah, but what kind of Falcon,” asked Arnie the veteran pilot, “a 10, a 50?”

“I think it’s a 10,” I said.

“Then you’re not going straight to Pebble,” he said “you’re gonna have to make at least one pit stop, maybe two.”

“That’s right,” chimed in Ray Floyd. “You know what they say about Falcon 10’s—they’re fast, but they don’t last.”    

They were right. We would have to stop for refueling in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Fortunately, the weather across the country was perfect and we encountered no other delays. The stop in Cheyenne gave us all just enough time to change clothes.

At 12:04 p.m. Pacific Coast Time—precisely 20 hours after we’d teed off at St. Andrews, we teed off at Pebble Beach. With a comfortable four hours to go and a gorgeous California day, we lollygagged around Pebble in three hours and 11 minutes. Bobby, on home turf, fired an even-par 72 and Hughes remained in good form with an 82. Brian managed a 92 while taking almost that many photographs, and I brought up the rear with a 93 thanks to a nervous 8 at the first hole and a choking 8 at the last.

We’d done it—played 54 holes, walked 15 miles, flown 6,000 miles,  overworked 12 caddies, lost 6 golf balls, and taken 1,008 shots—in 23 hours and 11 minutes.

Inasmuch as The Concorde no longer exists, this is a record that won’t be broken for a long time, if ever—and certainly not by me. These days, trundling round the Old Course in three hours and fifteen supplies all the rush I can handle.

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