Farewell to the Queue

On the Swilcan Bridge in 1994, after being first in The Queue.

I was sad to read on Twitter this morning that the legendary “Queue” at The Starter’s Hut at The Old Course has been discontinued. For decades, this was the route by which single golfers without a tee time at golf’s most hallowed course could wait in line for hours and almost always join up with a two or three ball game. For many golfers, playing The Old through the queue is of the highlights of their entire golfing life.  It was probably time for it to end, with golfers increasingly lining up earlier and earlier. I’m sure it was becoming difficult to manage.  It was very different in 1994.

When I started planning my first trip to Scotland in late 1993, my dad had only two requests: he wanted to play The Old Course and Carnoustie. Other than those two, he let me pick wherever I wanted to go. We could go to then unknown and remote places like Cruden Bay and Machrihanish, but we had to play at St. Andrews.

I have learned a lot about planning a golf trip to Scotland over the past 30 years. I booked Carnoustie easily, but soon found out that it was too late for us to secure a tee time at The Old for 1994. Michael Bamberger, then a young reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was kind enough to talk to me about my upcoming trip. I had recently read his masterpiece To The Linksland and found the number for the newspaper – and somehow easily got him on the phone. Michael mentioned that we should try the queue to get on to The Old Course.  I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like “just walk down to the Starter’s Hut about 5 or 5:30 and get in line. Tell the Starter you want to play. He will pair you up with somebody, no problem.”

On June 10th, 1994, we walked down North Street in St. Andrews at 5 am, carrying our clubs. The lovely host at our B&B had learned of our plans the night before and had graciously left out toast and cereal for our breakfast. Is there anything more important than toast in a Scottish breakfast?

It was almost dead silent in the orange/grey twilight, but I can still hear our metal spikes crunching on those ancient sidewalks. For those old enough to remember that iron melody, it is another reminder of a tradition of the game that has been lost. We turned the corner at Golf Place and suddenly there was the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, its grey granite and limestone walls standing timeless and eternal to greet the sunrise. Then there was The Old itself – grey-green in the mist like a frozen ocean. I don’t remember either of us saying a word until we reached the small starters hut by the 1st tee. We were the first two golfers to join The Queue.

Around 7 am the Starter arrived – saying hello as he unlocked the door. My Dad let him get settled at his post, then quickly told him at the window that we wanted to play, together if possible.  This drew a subtle rebuke from the guardian of the links. “It will be a wee bit tougher to get the two of you out together, but I’ll see what I can do,” I recall him saying – a bit sternly.  He took our names and told us to wait – other golfers had showed up in the interim and the line was probably up to about 10 hopeful players.

Around 8:30, we heard our name called. The Starter instructed us to ask the two men standing on the tee if we could join them. In those days, the game with the tee time had the right to refuse anyone. He told us to come back and pay our £90 green fee  – if they agreed to take us on. 

The two-ball game was a pair of lifelong friends from Los Angeles, California. This was their dream golf trip and two guys from Alabama had suddenly intervened.  I distinctly recall one of the men being very reluctant to let us join, but his friend stepped in. “Of course, you can join us. We’ll be glad to have you,” he said. We quickly played our green fees and teed it up. I have forgotten the man’s name, but I’m forever grateful for his generosity. I don’t know if this is still done at The Old Course, but they announced our names before our tee shots.

“Mr. Hartsell, now on the tee.”

That moment is a happy as I’ve ever seen my Dad, except for maybe when his grandson Jordan’s high school team won the state golf championship.  Everybody knows that the fairway is 300 yards wide, but it is one of the most nerve-wracking shots I’ve ever played. I choked down to the shaft on my three wood and somehow advanced a new Spalding Tour Edition towards the Swilcan Burn.

As can sometimes happen in golf, my Dad and I were inspired that morning by The Old. He shot 76 and I managed a 77, with a birdie on the last. He smiled the entire way around. The friendlier of the two gentlemen – the one who had pleaded our case on the 1st tee – offered to take our photo on the Swilcan Bridge. His friend had stormed ahead, not even stopping for a moment on the most famous bridge in golf. He had not played good at all, and I wondered if he blamed our intrusion. He had hardly spoken to us all day.

I am older now than my Dad was in that photo. You can see the man angrily walking to his ball. Time just slips away from us all.

I was a bit surprised when they asked us to meet them in town for a pint.  The surlier gentleman completely changed his demeanor after a pint of Tennent’s – telling us it had been the most enjoyable round of his life and he had loved watching us both play so well.  After a couple of drinks, we invited them to join us for our 9 am tee time at Carnoustie the following day. They drove over across the Tay Road Bridge the next morning and met us for another round. The apparent bad mood of the one gentleman was gone and I remember us laughing and smiling all the way around Carnoustie. I never saw or heard from either of them again. I’m sure their names are written down somewhere in one of my notebooks. You meet the best people through golf.

The Queue is gone now. Maybe the beauty of random pairings at The Old Course will remain.