A Few Thoughts on St. Andrews

I’m in Glasgow as of today, tired as hell and at a nice reflective distance, and because I just spent the most fun week I’ve ever had covering golf, I thought I’d write a little about the non-golf aspects of my time at St. Andrews. I won’t be editing or polishing this at all, just a quick (note: Inevitably not quick) ramble about my time.

I flew in Sunday morning, DC to Heathrow, to Edinburgh, and I didn’t realize it, but Patrick Reed and team were on my plane. We orbited awkwardly around one another at the baggage claim (baggage “reclaim” as the Brits hilariously and correctly call it), and I was set to head for the train station when I saw a driver holding up a sign in the terminal that said “Mike Ryan.” I know Mike, and after accidentally having a real-life spit take where I got a bit of beer on him later in the week, I think I can call him a friend, but at that moment I saw an opportunity to mooch a ride. As it turned out, Mike had caught a different ride, and the driver, Calvin, offered me a free lift to St. Andrews.

We drove out of Edinburgh, and I tried to stay awake since I hadn’t slept at all and Calvin was very interesting. He gave me the tour of St. Andrews when we arrived in town, and right away I could tell I would love the place. There’s no mistaking it as anything other than a European city, and the reason is the stone architecture of the buildings downtown, as well as the narrowness of the roads and alleyways. Every edifice looms onto its neighbor in a way that feels charming and very old, and what might be claustrophobic ordinarily is lightened by the fact that there are secret passageways all around you that lead to courtyards and gardens and greens. The only place I’ve ever seen in America that looks that way is the north end of Boston, where Little Italy is, and it’s no coincidence that it was settled in the 1630s. The sprawl of the American landmass is evident in the town and city planning on a micro level, and in fact from my brief stints in the UK, that’s what I miss, is a sense of openness. Or I don’t miss it so much as I get the sense that if I ever spent an extended time there, it might drive me crazy—it shows how much your home influences you without you really knowing it. You can feel history metaphorically weighing down on you in the literal construction of streets and buildings, but for a week at a time, it’s just very impressive and unique.

There are three main drags in St. Andrews that run parallel to each other, South, Market, and North, and the golf course is off North Street along the North Sea. In typical British fashion, the pubs are mostly excellent while the food is mostly terrible, but though I spotted a Domino’s and Subways, for the most part, at least, the town has retained its character. Granted, that character has adapted in the past 40 years, and there’s a huge industry geared around selling things to American tourists, but I never felt like it diminished the atmosphere at all.

My main takeaway here is the surprising humility of the place. You hear about the Old Course so often, and in such reverent tones, that you expect a certain stuffiness to prevail. But it’s not like that at all—the course is basic in an impressive way, if that makes sense, the way it’s integrated with the town is really beautiful. You do immediately get the idea that this is an actual public course where people can play for a reasonable rate, and dogs are walked along the 18th fairway on Sundays, and the people see it as their club.

The best way I can put it is that St. Andrews is the opposite of Augusta National. At the former, the history speaks for itself, and there’s a common theme of inclusion and genuine niceness. Nobody has anything to prove, or any agenda, and you have to think it stems from the perfect co-existence of town and course. Anyone who has been to Augusta National, on the other hand, knows that you encounter a sad American wasteland a block outside the gates. Maybe that, plus the relative newness of the tournament, accounts for the pomposity and paranoia and exclusivity, which stands in such stark contrast to St. Andrews. Or maybe the people are just assholes. Either way, I found it impossible not to compare the two in my mind…they’re perfect polar opposites, to the point that it’s uncanny. One of my least favorite stories I heard over the week was that a group of journalists visited the grave of Old Tom Morris on midnight on Saturday (that part is cool, and I don’t blame anyone for going along) and Jim Nantz gives a speech at his grave with the same mawkish tone he uses on CBS broadcasts, without even a hint of irony. St. Andrews is not the kind of place for that bullshit—the Masters is full of phonies, so phony moralizing works there. St. Andrews is of the people and by the people, and it’s straightforward and practical and beautiful for its simplicity and history. It doesn’t need Jim Nantz.

I didn’t stay in town. Stephanie Wei, Jon McCarthy of the Toronto Sun, and I all stayed about a 20-minute walk away on Tom Morris Drive in a pretty ordinary flat that smelled faintly of mold, but not in a way I found unpleasant. It was a constant shitshow. Stephanie would wake us up every morning, including on Monday while I was trying to recover from jet lag, by yelling “are you guys up?” If she got no response, she’d climb the stairs (she stayed downstairs, we were up) and repeat as needed until I cursed her out…Jon was too polite. It was futile—Stephanie is immune to being yelled at, and eventually you just have to do what she wants. It’s like screaming at a toddler…it feels justified in the moment, but it’s pointless and you just feel bad after a while. (I say this more with affection than exasperation, by the way…)

So we’d eat cereal and bananas that Jon inevitably bought from the store while we were being thoughtless, and then we’d go to the course all day. Everything went by very quickly during the actual working hours, because with our schedules on east coast time (and my computer’s clock remaining there too), we’d work what felt like a full day and then realize it was 10pm and we still had an hour left of work. So we’d walk home to finish, and I quickly came to understand that Jon is a very good writer, but one who takes about four hours to write an 800-word story, while I prefer to cover the same amount of space in 7-10 minutes. When he finished, we’d go to the Whey Pat pub just before the West Port Gate (beautiful stone archway dating back to the 1500s, if I’m remembering correctly), where we’d chat and have as many pints as we could in the hour or so before they shouted “last call” at 12:45 and made life miserable for us until we left.

I meant to say something about the weather earlier. I walked with Spieth the entire round Sunday, and was outdoors as much as humanly possible, and had a 40-minute walking round trip commute each day anyway. It was autumnal in temperature, and spring-like in precipitation. In other words, cold and wet, and windy too. But I absolutely loved it. I got the sense that my northern European ancestry was coming out, trying to tell me that at least in a climate sense, this was where I belonged. My idea of hell was last year’s final round at the PGA Championship in the Ohio River Valley of Kentucky, with its disgusting, soul-killing humidity. It turns me into a sweat factory, and I’ll take the wind and rain every day if it makes me slightly less disgusting to be around. I even got wind-burned, which made me feel like a real ruddy Scotsman, which I enjoyed.

As far as what I wrote…my favorites were a “Tiger is done” piece that really made a lot of people viscerally angry, a piece on the plant and animal wildlife on the course and the secret wars with mother nature that the greenkeepers fight (this all followed a two-and-a-half-hour tour with the environmental manager on Saturday that was one of the most fun parts of the trip, but ps, I don’t think anybody read it because my interest in flowers and birds is not matched by most of the Internet-reading world), a quick Ben Martin story about his wife that I stumbled and executed under possibly dubious means, a look at Spieth’s mental alchemy process, and the Spieth story at the end about how close he came, which was just a blast to follow and write. And, now that I’m looking, I also enjoyed writing a DJ press conference analysis piece that I think was born out in his results under pressure, a primer on why it’s BS for the Euros to chastise us about calling it the British Open, and one where I followed John Daly around for four holes. That should keep you busy, or at least annoyed.

The week itself had a hectic feeling about it, but I liked it. It helped that I was sitting next to Alex Myers, who is very funny and with whom I shared an aesthetic about certain key topics, such as Tom Watson’s farewell. We ruined many very special moments for each other with a deranged kind of glee, and then we ate Indian food.

Later in the week, on Saturday, Jon and Stephanie and Alex and I met up with a crowd of real jerks, like D.J. Piehowski of the PGA Tour, Chris Solomon of NoLayingUp, Chad Coleman of Calloway, and Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN, with Mike Ryan making a much-appreciated cameo. Jay Busbee of Yahoo joined us the next night. I don’t want to get obnoxious about this, but it ended up being a pretty perfect combination of people, and we spent both nights laughing like jackals. It was one of those happy circumstances where we were very much on the same wavelength, except for Solomon, who I was surprised to learn was a 700-pound, 57-year-old man who wore a muumuu for convenience and kept saying “I’m No Laying Up on Twitter” to complete strangers. The rest of us were like the Algonquin round table, if the Algonquin round table only ever talked about Brooks Koepka.

I can’t say much more about our exploits, but here’s a picture of the gang from very late on Sunday night, minus Jon and Stephanie who were engaged in their 12-hour writing sessions, and Alex and Van Valkenburg, who had planes to catch and didn’t stick around long enough to be sexually harassed by a Scottish man named Neil at a night club called the Lizard Lounge:

TheChatPackAnd now it’s on to Glasgow, and a two-week vacation with my wife around Scotland. Other than the constant misery and anxiety and shame, life has lately been a gem.

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One Response to A Few Thoughts on St. Andrews

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  1. Robbie Vogel says:

    Shane, finished slaying the tiger recently, read most of your stuff on GD so far, and tweeted at you during the Open a few times. Absolutely love your writing style/voice – you’re one of my favorite golf writers out there. Very inspiring to me. My writing is a bit like my golf game – too infrequent and rarely passable. Keep it up.

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