Monday, July 6, 2009

A Golfer's Pilgrimage

What's the perfect present for a golfer husband? A game on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where Mary Queen of Scots once played.

For my husband’s birthday one year, I arranged a week’s holiday in St. Andrew’s, Scotland, the mecca of golf; and a chance to play in the venerable 600 year-old Old Course. To ensure a complete golf experience, I even booked a set of rooms at the Old Course Hotel directly along the 17th hole and in full view of the 18th hole and the Royal & Ancient clubhouse. This enabled us to sit on our balcony at all hours of the day -- with a cup of coffee before breakfast or with a glass of wine before dinner since the sun sets very late during a Scottish summer -- and watch golfers from all over the world try their hand on the same set of greens that Mary Queen of Scots reportedly played in over four hundred years ago.

Getting to St. Andrew’s from our home in Tokyo and other logistics was easy enough. Booking play time for my husband was much harder – especially since this was before the Old Course actually went online. It was April, and we wanted to visit Scotland in September, as autumn arrived. However, when I called, I was told that all tee times were booked for the rest of the year and for early next! They offered to look for an available slot after spring.

It took some months to coordinate this tee-off opportunity. But finally in October, we were given a slot at 11:23 a.m. on the following July 28 with three strangers – and the fee was something like 90 pounds payable in advance and non-refundable, please.

Thankfully, all went as planned. 11 months later, we found ourselves driving up from Edinburgh along the coast of Fife on a beautiful day that allowed us a sparkling initial glimpse of the course set off by a cloudless sky. I am not a golfer, but even I experienced that rush of excitement that all players must feel when they first set foot in St. Andrew’s.

My husband was not scheduled to play on the Old Course until the fourth day, although he had bookings every day in other courses around town. But we excitedly visited the clubhouse upon arrival anyway to reconfirm arrangements.

“You’ll be wanting a caddy, I expect, sir,” said the man at the links office.

“I was actually thinking of going alone,” my husband replied.

“Oh, not on this course, you wouldn’t, sir,” the man advised. “This is a tricky set of greens and many a fine player has been thrown off by the unpredictability of the course and the winds. You’ll be wanting someone who knows the course by heart, and who can tell you how to avoid those bunkers and hazards.”

Of course we took his advice, and a friendly caddie named Darren was assigned to navigate my husband through the Old Course’s minefields. On the big day itself, we walked past the sightseeing crowds gathered around the starting point to join my husband’s flight, rather pleased to finally be on the ancient greens on official business. Interestingly, two players – a jolly Scot from Aberdeen and a rather serious-looking IT engineer from Denmark – were also on tee times arranged as birthday presents by their wives! The fourth player, a financier from Boston, scrambled to the rear at the last minute, breathless and eager to play.

I watched the group tee off and then spent the next few hours walking around town, intending to rejoin the group as they approached the 17th hole. I stumbled on a Scottish Highlands game in full progress in the outskirts of town, and spent the early afternoon watching very large men in kilts trying their prowess at all kinds of games. But at the appointed time, I was waiting for my husband's flight by the 17th tee-off. It was easy to coordinate meeting times as I simply asked other golfers passing under my balcony what time they had teed off, and calculated my husband's arrival at the 17th from there.

“I’ve been playing badly all the way,” my husband said by way of greeting, when they arrived at the 17th tee-off.

“This course has humbled its fair share of players, sir,” Darren remarked, trying to make him feel good about it.

Fortunately, and rather to Darren’s amazement, my husband’s game suddenly picked up then. He deftly managed the notoriously difficult 17th hole, with its Road Hole Bunker, earning applause from other players watching. Then he actually birdied the final, all-important and highly visible 18th hole -- prompting the entire rim of spectators to clap loudly just like in international tournaments! This was just like in the golf tournaments on TV -- seeing him being given a round of applause on the last hole of the Old Course.

To cap a triumphant day, we returned to our hotel and spied golfing legend Gary Player sitting in an adjacent function room. We introduced ourselves, and Mr. Player told us he was at St. Andrew’s for the start of a 72-hole charity tournament that involved playing at four of Scotland’s most famous golf courses in one long summer day. We marveled at his strength and dedication to a good cause.

The next morning at just past 5 a.m., I went out on the balcony to watch the sunrise. Some golfers were already on the 2nd tee followed by television crews. It was Mr. Player embarking on his noble golf adventure, on what looked like another beautiful Scottish summer day.

This originally appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of Travelife magazine.


1 comment:

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