Golf Heaven 

It's royal, it's ancient, and it's open to the public.

I rolled into Edinburgh years ago after a seriously hellish day of travel. I had started in Dublin, took a train from there to Belfast, rode in an armored bus through military checkpoints across town, took another train to the coast, rode a ferry to Scotland, rode a train to Glasgow, then had to walk a half-mile through a spring rain to catch a train to Edinburgh. And when I got there, the youth hostel was full.

At that point my life's aspirations were two words: bed and, at some point in the future, breakfast. But life threw me a pleasant curve that night.

I had mentioned that I was headed to Saint Andrews the next day, and as I was preparing for my high, arcing dive into bed, the proprietor of the B&B said, "So, will you be golfing, then?" Right, I thought. It was like I was going to the Vatican and he had told me to say howdy to the pope or like I was going to Alaska and he had asked me to pick up something he had dropped at the top of Denali. His tone was that casual, his proposal that patently absurd.

"You don't just go to Saint Andrews and play golf," I said, in a typically arrogant American outburst. I was speaking, you might recall, to a man who lived within a couple hours' drive of Saint Andrews. But, I mean, Saint Andrews is where golf was invented. There are records of the game being played there in the 15th century. They've played 26 British Opens there. Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer. Tiger Woods. Me? No.

"Sure you do," the man said. "They can rent you clubs if you haven't any."

So, in one of those exquisite moments of spontaneity which occur to the traveler, the next day I was on the train to Saint Andrews. When I got there, I made my way over to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and asked a man if I could actually play golf there. A sly grin passed over his face as he relished the moment then said, "I dunno -- can ye?" Still chuckling a long minute later, he pointed me toward a shed where he said I could rent clubs. Then he showed me the starter's booth.

It was, in some respects, like showing up at Galloway for an after-work nine, except that I was looking at the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, probably the most famous building in the golf world. The R&A was founded a few decades before the American Revolution "by 22 noblemen and gentlemen of the country of Fife to enjoy the sport and the conviviality which always followed." Today, it governs the rules of golf for the whole world outside the U.S. To my left was the 18th green of the Old Course, which is the oldest surviving golf course in the world. Beyond the green was the little bridge so many golfers have crossed. If you're a golfer, you probably know the bridge I mean, and if you aren't, don't worry about it.

The starter informed me that I would have to play the New Course, because the Old Course was booked. (I asked how "new" the New Course was, and he said it opened in 1895. That's like yesterday in Scotland.) There are five 18-hole courses at Saint Andrews, plus a nine-holer for kids and beginners, a practice facility, and two clubhouses for the public. Tee times at all five courses can be booked way ahead of time. I was there in March, when it's feasible to just show up and play.

Over the last 10 years, Saint Andrews has joined the modern world a bit, for better or worse. The two new clubhouses look nothing like the rest of the place. Sitting in the middle of a town founded in the 12th century, a gift shop and snack bar just don't seem right. And the practice center is floodlit when it seems it should be lit by gas lanterns, if anything. When I was there in the late 1980s, none of that stuff existed. So, while I can claim to have been there before the place went "all modern," it's also the case that I got my clubs from what amounted to a barn and, when the round was over, had nowhere to go for "the conviviality which always followed."

At any rate, such conviviality would have to wait. For now I stood on the verge of actually playing golf at Saint Andrews. A dream, or perhaps a nightmare, was about to come true.


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