Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.
Chip Foye arrived at 4 a.m., just about on the dot, Monday morning at The Old Course starter's box. Foye, from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, wore a rain jacket and a baseball cap, prepared for the rain on an overcast morning. In his pocket, he held his handicap card, prepared to prove he was eligible to play the esteemed links in front of him.
But mostly the first golfer in queue on this day was prepared to wait.
Every day, golfers like Foye — he didn't have a tee time, but was looking to join up with whoever would let him — line up well before the starter opens his window at 6:30 a.m. Because daylight persists for almost 20 hours per day at this time of year in St. Andrews, Scotland, Foye didn't have to stand in the dark. The sky lightened well ahead of the supposed sunrise time of 4:25, and the rain held off.
And Foye didn't have to wait alone for long.
Charles Rolen, from Washington D.C., walked from his hotel room, just off the 18th fairway, to the starter's box and met Foye at a quarter past 4. Both were hoping to play The Old Course for the first time and both had a limited opportunity to do so. Foye would be leaving St. Andrews and continuing a European vacation with his wife that evening.
"I'm not much of a traveler," Foye said. "My wife's bucket list included seeing Paris and London. I said I'd do it, but my caveat was that we add Scotland, specifically here — St. Andrews — to the list."
Similarly, Rolen and his wife were celebrating their 20th anniversary with a tour of England, Ireland and Scotland. And like Foye, the thought of traveling near St. Andrews piqued Rolen's desire to tackle The Old Course.
"If I don't get on today, I'll try again tomorrow," Rolen said. "But that's it. I've got two chances."
I arrived at the starter's box about five minutes after Rolen, but with totally separate motivation. I had a ticket to see Willie Nelson in concert that evening in Dundee, about a 20-minute drive from my flat in St. Andrews. I intended to play The Old Course once a month in my April-to-August stay in St. Andrews. So why not June 7, thus experiencing two legends — The Old Lady and The Red-Headed Stranger — in the same day.
I thought I might be the first to arrive at the starter's box at 4:30, but I wasn't surprised to be third. Foye, Rolen and I passed an hour discussing our timing and our chances. Rumor had it that golfers began queueing at 2 the previous Friday. Then there's the story about the golfer who put a lawn chair in front of the starter's box at 12:30 one night and slept there to make sure he'd be first in line.
As for our chances of playing The Old Course, we agreed they were good. The evening before, I perused the ballot and saw that, though tee times were all taken, the number of two- and three-balls left plenty of open slots before 9 a.m. Rolen said the concierge at his hotel wouldn't guarantee a round, but put the percentage-chance at 99.9. That seemed about right to me. In April and May, I walked up to the starter's box at noon and had no trouble getting a time on either occasion.
Ed Allen, from Ottawa, Canada, joined us at 5:30. He had the distinct advantage of the most rest and the least time on his feet when our four-ball teed off at 7:10.
That's right, the group that had the 7:10 time cancelled, giving us early birds a round together. By the time the starter opened business, there were 12 hopeful golfers in the queue. I'm assuming the other eight got a time, but I didn't really look back after teeing off.
With only one group ahead of us, Foye, Rolen, Allen and I forged ahead as the clouds backed off and the threat of the rain let us play through. On the second hole, Al, the ranger, strongly encouraged us to keep pace with the group in front of us. An early time on The Old Course comes with the responsibility of not backing up play for the rest of the day. We held up our end quite well and we didn't have to worry about golfers on the 11th tee where the 7th and 11th fairways cross. (Sadly, the absence of this stress didn't keep me from putting a ball in the Shell Bunker). By the time we made the turn, Al told us we were doing well and, though we were about half a hole behind the group in front, we would certainly catch them from what he'd seen of our games.
Our round concluded a little after 11. It was easy to see the early wake-up time had taken its toll on Foye and me as we struggled in. He still claimed a moment of glory with a remarkable up-and-down from just beyond the road on the 17th, while I made a curling 12-foot putt for a satisfying 5.
With the golf-half of my mission accomplished, I crashed for an early afternoon nap and then headed to Dundee in hopes of scoring an interview with Mr. Nelson. Though I staked out the stage door for longer than I waited at the starter's box, I had to settle for an introduction and a handshake with the Texas legend.
Still, it was a successful day. Seeing the massive Texas flag draped behind the stage made me feel a little closer to home. While playing the The Old Course in the morning, I sang "Good Hearted Woman" to calm myself at times. Sitting in the balcony, I smiled as Willie sang it himself.
"She loves him in spite of his ways that she don't understand."
(Top Photo: The Old Course is quiet at 4:30 a.m. before the starter, the caddie master or
even the greenskeeping crew arrives.)
(Bottom Photo: Country music legend Willie Nelson signs an autograph just minutes
before going on stage at Caird Hall in Dundee, Scotland.)