- A Fantastic Trip to St.Andrews

There is no doubt about it that St.Andrews is regarded as the home of golf. My first visit there was a one day trip in the autumn of 1996. I live in England but had been visiting some friends in Fife, Scotland and mentioned that at the ripe old age of 24 I had recently taken up the game of golf. They suggested I should drive over to St.Andrews the following day to see about getting a game. This sounded like an excellent idea to me so I arrived in St.Andrews about 9 o'clock in the morning on Friday 1st November 1996.

St.Andrews is not a big place and within a few moments I had spotted the golf course. Over the preceding six months since taking up the game I had played about twenty different golf courses in Essex, England where I lived at the time, on a pay-and-play basis; sometimes by myself, sometimes with others I had just met. These experiences indicated to me that my standard of golf was fairly reasonable and I could play along with most people without embarrassing myself too much. On arrival I sought out the professional shop with the intention of getting a game. Strangely there was no obvious professional shop, only a small wooden hut with a man confirming tee-times to the awaiting groups of golfers and handing out scorecards. After a few minutes I enquired of him what I needed to do to get a game. He asked me what group I was with; I said I was on my own. He asked me if I had a reserved tee-time; I said no. He asked me what my handicap was; I said I didn't have one as I'd only been playing a few months and wasn't a member of a club...but that I usually went round in about 95. I explained I'd be willing to join up with anyone as that is what I normally did back home even if it meant waiting around for some time. He explained I might have to wait all day...I felt he was being a tad pessimistic in his outlook as I'd never had to wait more than half-an-hour before at any course I'd previously visited. He must have thought of me as being "dumb but keen" as he said I'd be welcome to wait around and see what happened. No sooner had he said those words than the person behind me, an Australian gentlemen, tapped me on the shoulder, explained he was on his own, and invited me to join him in five minutes time when he was due to tee-off. I quickly paid the green fee of fifty pounds, which was twice as much as I'd ever paid before, then ran to the car to get my bag of clubs and change my shoes. I arrived on the tee, put down a ball and without time for one practice swing hit my drive down the historical first fairway of the Old Course.

Only in later years did I realise just how lucky I was to just turn up and without a handicap or tee-time get on the golf course; something that the majority of golfers would give their metaphorical left arm to play. During my round on the Old Course I did not make a single par but came close a number of times. From memory I think I went round in 107, but that is unofficial as the score card was lost some months later. I also remember looking at my watch as I came off the 18th and to my astonishment and somewhat disbelief calculating that the round had only taken 2 hours and 40 minutes. To this day I still wonder if I calculated the duration correctly. We had been chivvied along by marshals several times so maybe we took 3 hours and 40 minutes...who knows.

During this single day in 1996 I also visited the British Golf Museum situated just behind the clubhouse. I was not a golf collector at that time but I have always had an interest in historical events and artifacts and this place seemed to offer more information about my new found hobby of golf. So, I duly toured the museum and took a number of photos of the various exhibits including the oldest known set of clubs, the Troon Clubs.

With hindsight this must have been the first piquing of interest in the rich history of golf. About a year later I wondered into a junk shop in Dorset on the south coast of England and purchased my first hickory shafted antique golf club...here's a link to that story How I became a golf collector by Gavin Bottrell

My interest in collecting took off and grew exponentially in late 1997 and I became a member of the British Golf Collectors Society. In late 2011 I was excited to read that the BGCS were holding an event in St.Andrews in mid-2012 to celebrate their 25th anniversary since formation. My desire to attend was very strong and I sent off my application and crossed my fingers. When I got a letter in early 2012 saying I had been one of the lucky ones in the ticket ballot I was absolutely thrilled. The celebration event was to consist of several rounds of golf, a champagne reception at the British Golf Museum and a tour of the R&A clubhouse. To say I was looking forward to it would be perhaps the greatest understatement of my adult life.

And so on Tuesday 25th June 2012 I traveled by train from my home in Warwickshire, England to St.Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. My antique leather golf bag stuffed full with old hickory shafted clubs drew me into several interesting conversations with fellow travelers along the way. They were all completely fascinated when I explained that I was going to play golf in St.Andrews with antique clubs. A highlight was crossing the Firth of Forth on the train; a stretch of water I had crossed by car many times as a small child and some of my earliest memories are of looking up at the high towers and cables of the road bridge; but this was the first time I had crossed it by train on the old iconic orange coloured railway bridge. As the train entered the Kingdom of Fife I monitored the journey using a map on my mobile 'phone. Place names I had been familiar with as a "wee bairn" came back to my mind, as well as those associated with the golf links along that coast. Whilst my father is English and my mother was Irish, due to my father's job I spent the years aged 1 to 6 living in Fife and as a child spoke with a very strong Fife accent. When I moved to Staffordshire, England aged 7 my broad Fife accent dropped from my lips like a stone, but both friends and family have confirmed I can easily slip back into it well enough to sound like I never left.

My rail journey terminated at Leuchars and after a short taxi ride I arrived at the guest house I had booked in the centre of St.Andrews. Within minutes I had dropped off my bags and wondered down to take a look at the golf course. Although it was 8pm the evening was light enough for a few hours of golf to be played yet, although I decided not to play that evening as an early start the next day was planned. I was just content watching successive groups of golfers playing up to and putting out on the 18th.

Early the next day, Wednesday, I travelled by taxi to the Hill of Tarvit estate, about half an hour from St.Andrews. In the grounds of estate, surrounding the mansion house, a small 9-hole golf course has been recreated as it was in the early part of the 20th century, and what's more it is dedicated to playing "hickory golf". About 50 members of the BGCS from all parts of the world had gathered to play a round, some of them friends I have made on previous society gatherings. My performance in the stableford competition was pleasing and I was only narrowly pipped to first place; an auspicious start to the week. Yours truly on the left in the picture!

Afterwards, we were treated to a fascinating tour of the mansion house by the custodians, which was then followed by a meeting of a smaller group of BGCS members who call themselves The Literati of the Links. This was the first time I had been part of this ensemble and listened intently to presentations given by various members on their latest pieces of original research. One that gripped me was given by a distinctly academic gentlemen who presented copies of ship and customs records showing the export of golf clubs and balls to the American Carolinas in the early 18th century decades earlier than previously thought; re-writing accepted and often repeated "known" history can be quite fantastic stuff. I arrived back in St.Andrews mid-afternoon and went to keep a personal appointment at the British Golf Museum.

Prior to my visit I had contacted the museum to see if it was possible for me to inspect the historic Troon clubs at closer quarters than normally permitted because I had developed a keen interest in them. The assistant curator, Laurie, was happy to open the locked glass case and I was in seventh heaven inspecting what is acknowledged as the oldest known set of golf clubs in existence.

The couple of hours spent alone in the museum that afternoon were a golf collectors dream and rank very high in my golf related memories. In the early evening I heard an increasing amount of chatter coming from the museum reception and knew that the rest of the BGCS members had arrived for the official champagne reception. I joined them, not letting on that I had actually already had my very own ultra-exclusive tour! This was followed by us all having dinner in the New Clubhouse....and a great evening it was too!

The following morning, Thursday, we played an individual stableford competition over the New Course for prizes especially commissioned to celebrate the society's 25th anniversary. Lunch was held in Forgan House, so named as it was once the upper floor of the Forgan factory. During the afternoon we formed into small groups for tours of the R&A clubhouse. Whilst I was looking forward to this I wasn’t truly aware of the golfing treasures, ancient and modern that lie within. Just inside the foyer are the main trophy cabinets, including the Claret Jug and the Belt.

We moved into the first ante-room on the left to inspect the silver clubs, the first one dating to 1754. This club is of great interest to me as I believe it was modeled after clubs in use at the time which is relevant to my theory on the age of the Troon clubs.

Article about The Silver Golf Clubs of the R&A

When viewed it is clear the silver club is of similar size and proportions to the Troon woods, and this was confirmed to me several weeks later when Laurie from the British Golf Museum measured them and emailed me the dimensions.

Also, within this room are clubs and balls used by some of the famous early golfers. 

Next we headed into the Big Room. This is actually the main male locker room, and lockers line the room with members named. The large bay window provides an excellent vantage point for observing people teeing off on the Old Course; personally I wouldn’t like changing in there as people seem to be able to peer right in from the outside.

In the big room there are some very large portraits of various noteworthy persons.

The walls of the corridor leading to another ante-room are lined with glass cabinets, and within these are some very early clubs made by Cossar of Leith and James McEwan.

Article about Cossar of Leith Golf Club Maker

By this time I’d well and truly got into the mode of taking quite a number of photographs. I must state that the R&A were very gracious in allowing us access for the tour and thankfully there were few members in the clubhouse for us to disturb. At the time I did think that this might be the only time in my life that I would be on the inside of this grand building and viewing these early treasures so I was determined to make the most of it!

We next moved upstairs, viewing the life-size portrait of Old Willie Park along the way. Within our tour was actually one of his descendants and the resemblance in terms of facial likeness and physical stature was truly staggering. If he’d have donned a fake grey beard it would’ve been like the portrait had come to life.

Also on the stairs is the very famous portrait of the Triumvirate by Flowers. I was able to show-off a little here to my fellow tourists…I pointed out that Taylor is holding an iron whilst Braid and Vardon are both holding woods yet they are playing the same hole…why would that be? I related that I had previously learned that this was done on the purpose by the artist as a tribute to Taylor’s well-renowned skill with his mashie.

Upstairs there is a large dining room, with a long table, with many fine paintings on the walls. It was a real thrill to see the original of a favourite painting of mine. “A rainy day at St.Andrews” by J.Michael Brown. Should I have been given the choice of taking home one of the vast number of paintings in the clubhouse this would have been my choice.

After moving downstairs we found ourselves once again in the foyer. Here a fellow BGCS member Perry Somers spotted a familiar name. Perry is an Australian golf professional and in recent years has won the World Hickory Open competition. I was fortunate to play the New Course with Perry and his swing is a thing of beauty. Perry had spotted Kel Nagle’s locker just next to the Claret Jug cabinet. As Perry personally knows Kel he thought it a photo-opportunity not to be missed, and I was very happy to oblige.

As we left the R&A clubhouse, our heads still spinning from the treasures we had seen, a resident of St.Andrews, whos name I unfortunately cannot remember, invited us all to join him in the clubhouse of the St.Andrews Golf Club. This club was formed in 1843 very much as the club for the working men and professional golfers of St.Andrews.The current clubhouse, a very grand Victorian mansion alongside the 18th hole was occupied in 1933; before that it held it’s meetings in various rooms around the town. All of the famous old-time professionals and club and ball makers of St.Andrews including those of the Robertson, Morris and Anderson families belonged to this club. On the walls of the lounge are cabinets full of very early clubs, balls and trophies that once belonged to these early experts of the game. Again, I was extremely fortunate in being in the right place at the right time and so thankful for being able to view these treasures. Unfortunately, I did not take many photos inside the club. Having traced my family back to the 1700s and found that I have a distinct working-class pedigree myself there is no question that this would’ve been the club for me …which reminds me I must consider joining as a country member!

The gala dinner that evening was held upstairs in Forgan house, next door to the Tom Morris shop and it was a very special occasion. I was delighted to receive a prize for my golfing exploits….I actually came second in the stapleford competition and received a large picture of Bobby Jones shaking hands with Harry Vardon which is proudly displayed at home. In my mind I like to secretly claim a higher finishing position as the winner was a local person who knows the New Course extremely well and played off a handicap of 8 with modern steel shafted clubs, whilst this was my first round ever on that course, played off 14, and I had used genuine antique hickories! ‘Nuff said!

The following day I was considering trying to play the Old Course as a late entrant singleton. However, some friends in the BGCS invited me to join them in playing The Eden course, and so decided the chance to play another of the St.Andrews courses with friends was one I could not pass up. Built in 1914 The Eden is one of the lesser courses in St.Andrews but it is directly next to the Old Course and it is still a great challenge. We played a foursome match which was very enjoyable and by this time I must have been feeling the strain of my previous high level performances (!) and unfortunately hit my approach putt too hard on the last green causing my partner and I to lose the match. Oh well, it happens!

That morning, before our round I had a few hours to spare, and so took a walking tour of St.Andrews. Firstly I went down to take a few pictures of the sun rising on the Old Course.

Then I walked into town coming across the Morris family home and the Auchterlonie’s house.

I walked up North Street to the Ancient Cathedral grounds and found the headstones of Allan Robertson and Old and Young Tom Morris. Whilst these men we aware of their golfing celebrity during their lifetimes I’m sure even they would’ve been surprised how their names are now forever enshrined in golf history.

The following day I was due to travel back to England on the train; a journey of about 8 hours all told. I was again really looking forward to the journey, and it is surprising that when one is travelling for pleasure the experience of it differs greatly from that when travelling in connection to our livelihoods. My plans changed, however, when one of my playing partners said he was travelling back to my part of England that evening and there was space in his car. Now that I also had a very large picture to carry, and going home that evening would mean an extra day at home with the family over the weekend, I graciously accepted his offer of a door-to-door service.

Whilst this trip to St.Andrews took place in 2012 the memories from it are still shining very bright, and writing this piece has given me great pleasure.