Two Years in St. Andrews: At Home on the 18th Holeby George Peper
The Old Course at St. Andrews is to golfers what St. Peter's is to Catholics or the Western Wall is to Jews: hallowed ground, the course every golfer longs to play -- and master. In 1983 George Peper was playing the Old Course when he hit a slice so hideous that he never found the ball. But in looking for it, he came across a For Sale sign on a stone town house alongside the famed eighteenth hole. Two months later he and his wife, Libby, became the proud owners of 9A Gibson Place.
In 2003 Peper retired after twenty-five years as the editor in chief of Golf magazine. With the younger of their two sons off to college, the Pepers decided to sell their house in the United States and relocate temporarily to the town house in St. Andrews. And so they left for the land of golf -- and single malt scotch, haggis, bagpipes, television licenses, and accents thicker than a North Sea fog. While Libby struggled with renovating an apartment that for years had been rented to students at the local university, George began his quest to break par on the Old Course.
Their new neighbors were friendly, helpful, charmingly eccentric, and always serious about golf. In no time George was welcomed into the local golf crowd, joining the likes of Gordon Murray, the man who knows everyone; Sir Michael Bonallack, Britain's premier amateur golfer of the last century; and Wee Raymond Gatherum, a magnificent shotmaker whose diminutive stature belies his skills.
For anyone who has ever dreamed of playing the Old Course -- and what golfer hasn't? -- this book is the next best thing. And for those who have had that privilege, Two Years in St. Andrews will revive old memories and confirm Bobby Jones's tribute, "If I were to set down to play on one golf course for the remainder of my life, I should choose the Old Course at St. Andrews."
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It was a ghastly, careening push-slice the mongrel of all golf shots that changed the course of my life. Okay, maybe that's a bit breathless, but there's no question that the banana ball I perpetrated on July 16, 1983, was the finest shot I've ever missed.
The scene was the 18th tee of the most famous golf course in the world, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. As the editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine, I'd been invited, along with half a dozen or so colleagues from other American golf publications and newspapers, on a pre-British Open boondoggle, courtesy of a man named Frank Sheridan.
Sheridan had purchased the Old Course Hotel, the modern five-story monster that looms inharmoniously over the penultimate hole of the ancient links, the balconies of its sixty deluxe rooms jutting impudently outward from a chunky stucco frame. When the hotel first opened, back in 1968, Henry Longhurst aptly described it as "a dresser with its drawers pulled out," and despite its advantageous location, the place had never really caught on.
Sheridan, however, was determined to transform the hotel (which he'd rechristened the Old Course Golf & Country Club) into Scotland's premier hostelry, and to help make his point he'd drafted Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros to launch a weekend-long celebration with a head-to-head match on the Old Course, to be reported upon by us conscripted scribes.
But at the eleventh hour, there arose what the Scots refer to as a wee glitch. Commandeering a tee time on the Old Course is not a simple matter, even if your names are Nicklaus and Ballesteros. The St. AndrewsLinks Trust which controls play on all six of the town's courses had ruled that Sheridan's circus would not come to town it would create too much disruption to the regular Saturday morning play. And so, rather hastily, the battle of the titans had been relegated to Ladybank, a comparatively unknown parkland course in a nearby town of the same name.
"It's just down the road you'll see the sign," said the hotel porter on the appointed morning as I headed out the door to my rental car along with Golf Digest's Ross Goodner, Ron Coffman of Golf World, and Furman Bisher, the venerable and feisty sports columnist for the Atlanta Constitution.
Down the road Ladybank was, but a bit farther down the road than we'd expected. We'd driven roughly ten miles, all four of us craning our necks at every little sign, placard, and poster, when Bisher boomed from the back seat, "Aw hell, why don't we just forget about it and go play some golf."
It was an offer none of us could refuse. And so, approximately 300 yards short of the intersection I now know to be signposted "Ladybank," I U-turned my Vauxhall Viva and headed back to St. Andrews.
Up to the first tee of the Old Course we marched and lo and behold there was an open slot. Today this would never happen, and even back in July of 1983 it was relatively astounding. What was even more remarkable, however, was that upon learning of our good fortune, all four underpaid and overprivileged members of the golf media immediately reached into our pockets and not only paid to play but sprung for caddies. (My colleagues, I assumed, had the same intention I had to do some creative writing at expense account time.)
Four blissful hours later, we were tramping back into the lobby of the hotel, bags over our shoulders, when suddenly we found ourselves the focus of some highly unwanted attention. There, in the center of the lobby, standing in a semicircle and looking directly at us, were Nicklaus, Ballesteros, and Sheridan, in the middle of a press conference with our invited colleagues, including the BBC, with its klieg lights glaring and cameras rolling. Absolutely horror-struck, I moved into "perp walk" mode, shoulders hunched, head bowed, hand shading brow.
Old Furman had no such compunctions. Striding straight up to Nicklaus, he said, "Jack, we're awfully sorry we didn't come to watch you boys down at Ladybank, but you see, we were able to get a tee time on the Old Course!"
It was during that illicit round that I hit the fateful slice of my life. Understand now, the home hole at the Home of Golf lies seamlessly side by side with the opening hole, comprising a target the approximate breadth and contour of Nebraska. But as any devout golfer knows, the Old Course is not just a golf course, it's a shrine golf's version of the Vatican and number 18 is its culmination, its Sistine Chapel, the last place you want to demonstrate a proclivity to stray.
Moreover, running along the entire right edge of the hole is a sturdy, gleaming white fence, marking out of bounds, and just beyond that fence, across a narrow street, is a row of stately slate-roofed townhouses, their bulging bay-windowed facades adding considerably to the intimidation of the final tee shot. Yes, when a golfer puts his peg in the ground at number 18 on the Old, every fiber in his being tells him "Don't go right."
Which of course I did, with a swing so convulsive that, from the moment the ball left the clubface all four players and all four caddies knew it was gone, destined for not grass but glass or steel or granite or human flesh or some calamitous combination of them all.
Curiously, however, it just disappeared, diving without bounce or clank into the nether regions of the gray stone neighborhood. I never found that ball. But while searching for it I did find something else a For Sale sign. Incredibly, the bottom two floors of one of those townhouses 2,000 square feet of private residence was on the market, and fate had drawn me (actually sliced me) to it.
On Monday morning, instead of heading down to Birkdale with my cohorts, I phoned the listing broker and asked the price. When I heard it, my heart skipped a beat £45,000, or about $65,000 at the then prevailing exchange rate. The previous owner, an elderly woman, had died earlier that year and left everything in the hands of lawyers and accountants who had been instructed to accept the first offer to hit the asking price. In six weeks, no such offer had been received.
I took a quick walk through the place and that evening called home for permission. My wife, although a confirmed nongolfer, had been to St. Andrews and I knew she liked the town.
"The interior's not in great shape," I said, "but that's okay the layout is ideal, the rooms are big, the ceilings are high, and there are four working fireplaces. Besides, we're never going to actually live here it's an investment. We can rent it to students to help with the carrying costs, and in the summers it'll be free if we want to visit. I know it's a chunk out of our savings, honey, but wait until you see the view."
Happily, she didn't need much selling. And so, two months later in a solicitor's office in Dundee, George and Libby Peper became the proud owners of 9A Gibson Place, St. Andrews, Fife.
Copyright © 2006 by George Peper
Meet the Author
George Peper, currently editor at large for Links magazine, was editor in chief of Golf Magazine for twenty-five years and is the bestselling author of fifteen previous books. In 1999, his script for the documentary The Story of Golf was nominated for an Emmy Award. He lives in St. Andrews, Scotland.
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As a new golfer, I wasn't sure what to think of a golf book. What a wonderful surprise! I was truly entertained. George Peper showed me a more complete view of St Andrews - not just the amazing course for the Open. I laughed at his stories and adventures, as well as his interesting neighbors. Having lived in the UK for several years, I smiled when he had to take the dreaded driving test. And how I remember longing for a juicy filet mignon and delicious Jersey tomatoes. I can relate to his drive to conquer the course. Golf does that to you. I only hope to one day play all the courses at St. Andrews. I enjoyed the book so much, I purchased it for friends.