Ron Maly (left) and Dave Stockdale after finishing their practice round at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. In the background is the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. Let me make the point right away that golf is not my favorite game, probably because I am terrible at it.
I am the ultimate hacker. I might play two or three times a year, and dig up dirt in the fairway with my 2-iron the way a gardener digs up the soil while planting radishes.
I often tell people that I like to play either nine holes or one shot. If my drive off the No. 1 tee goes into the road or the soybean field bordering the course, I know it's not going to be good day.
So I sometimes quit, go home, put my clubs in the garage and play with the computer instead. With the computer, I have half a chance.
But I also treasure history. I like tradition, whether it's visiting a castle in Edinburgh or the famous St. Andrews Links.
So, to make my visit to St. Andrews complete, I played 18 holes at the Old Course.
Well, not the real 18 holes. The practice 18.
But still right there in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse.
They weren't actual par-4 and par-5 holes. What I played was the putting green that the folks at the Old Course are kind enough to provide for dreamers like me.
For 70 pence (the equivalent of just over one American dollar), I used about 15 minutes to check out all the holes on the practice green.
For the 70 pence, I was rented a putter and a golf ball. The guy who rented it to me didn't know how poorly I play the game. For all he knew, I was another Arnold Palmer. So he was kind enough to figure one golf ball was enough.
You'd have to be a really bad golfer to lose the ball on the practice green. I'm awful, but not that awful.
Besides, putting is one thing I do fairly well on a golf course. I've always tried to compare it to shooting baskets from 15 feet. I was fairly proficient at that, especially when no one was guarding me.
Joining me in the twosome was Dave Stockdale of Des Moines, who takes golf much more seriously than I take it, and plays it much better than I play it.
He and I were part of a tiny group of travelers that wandered through London, the English countryside and Scotland for about 10 days.
Stockdale made a number of outstanding putts as he moved effortlessly around the practice green. I was putting for the first time all season, and embarrassed myself on only a couple of the holes.
The highlight for both of us, however, came on the 18th hole. Stockdale sank the putt on his first shot, and was feeling pretty good about himself. And I was happy for him.
Then I lined up the putt, and somehow made the shot, too.
I think both of us screamed for about 5 minutes, fantasizing that we had just tied for the British Open championship. St. Andrews, of course, is where Tiger Woods won the 2000 British Open, and both Stockdale and I were lying to ourselves (certainly to no one else) that we were in Tiger's class—even though it was for only one shot.
Hopefully, our loud behavior didn't cause any of the golfers winding up their round on the actual 18th green, which was nearby, to lose their concentration.
"I'd say those putts were 25 feet,'' Stockdale said.
I thought about that for a few seconds.
"I think they were 26 feet,'' I said.
Whatever, it was fun for both of us to sink long putts at the famous Old Course. I can now tell my grandchildren, without going into a lot of specifics, that I played 18 holes at St. Andrews and made a 26-foot putt to end my round.
Please understand that my six grandchildren are 8 years of age and under. So I can occasionally still fool them.
The actual Old Course is a challenging 6,566-yard, par-72 layout.
It is a place that oozes with tradition. Consider that St. Andrews calls itself the "Home of Golf with six centuries of golfing history.''
Six centuries? That's older than some countries.
But, true, people at St. Andrews say golf has been played there since 1400.
Now that I know that, I feel fairly confident I'm not the only hacker to putt at the Old Course. I can't help but think some guy wearing kilts polished off a Guinness Extra, then walked in off the road and asked to borrow a putter and ball in about 1444.
History tells us that a problem did arise in 1457. The St. Andrews website points out that, when golf was becoming popular in the middle ages, the game was banned by King James II of Scotland.
The ol' king figured golf was a distraction to young men he thought should be practicing their archery instead. St. Andrews history says the ban on golf was repeated by succeeding monarchs until James IV "threw in the towel and, in 1502, became a golfer himself.''
The British Open is played on various courses, and comes to St. Andrews every five or six years. In addition to Tiger Woods in 2000, recent Open champions at the Old Course have been John Daly in 1995 and Nick Faldo in 1990. Jack Nicklaus won the Open at St. Andrews in 1978 and 1970.
The legendary Bobby Jones won it at the Old Course in 1927, and the par-4 10th hole is named after him.
[I joke that they should name a hole at Ponderosa or Willow Creek after me because I've lost so many golf balls and spent so much time trying to make shots there].
For those who are wondering about their chances of playing the Old Course, it's possible. And your name doesn't have to be Woods, Palmer or Nicklaus to do it. We were told that a foursome of duffers—or non-duffers--could make reservations to play, but it might take a year to get a tee time.
However, there are exceptions. We were told that a golfer who's not part of a group might actually get an opportunity to play much earlier on certain occasions. The price per person for 18 holes is 90 pounds ($135 U.S. money).
By the way, this year's British Open will be played July 18-21 at Muirfield, Scotland.
I'm not on the entry list.
Our group made the trip to St. Andrews on a bus we boarded in downtown Edinburgh. The round-trip fare was 9 pounds (about $13.50 in U.S. money), and the journey included a number of stops to pick up and leave off passengers.
One middle-aged guy who boarded the bus halfway through the trip was wearing kilts. He sat down in the seat in front of mine, which enabled me to ask a question.
"Do you wear that outfit every day?'' I wondered.
"Aye!'' he responded in a way that didn't sound particularly friendly.
End of conversation.
Maybe it was the tone of my question that shortened his answer.
Hey, any 50-year-old guy who's comfortable wearing kilts and a cute little hat on a bus filled with adults and school-age children isn't going to get any snickers from me.
The Iowa wanderers had lunch at a pub across the street from the Old Course, and we all spent some time wandering through the shops not far from the 18th green that sell golf clubs, golf apparel and St. Andrews souvenirs.
It's a worthwhile trip whether you envision yourself as the next Tiger Woods or whether you're a hacker who is willing to part with 70 pence for 15 minutes of putts in a historic setting.
On the bus trip back to Edinburgh, we were still marveling at our Bobby Jones-type final putts. We were dropped off close to our Royal Over-Seas House Hotel, then headed for fish, chips and a cold something-or-other.
The next day, we took the 4-hour 45-minute train ride (82 pounds or about $120 U.S money per person round-trip) back to London.
While in that bustling city earlier in the trip, we had gotten a glimpse of Prince Charles as we were standing in front of Buckingham Palace and he was being driven onto the spacious grounds.
As far as I know, cardboard Charlie didn't wave at us or ask whether Don Baylor was still screwing things up with the Chicago Cubs.
Hey, I admit it. I'm not much of a Prince Charles fan. Princess Diana? Now that's a whole different story—and a whole different column. As far as I'm concerned, you can use that old line about cardboard Charlie that says, "An empty cab pulled up and Prince Charles got out.''
But, willing to give the poor guy a break on a sunny day in London, we asked the security guard where cardboard Charlie was going in such a hurry.
"To catch a helicopter,'' the guy answered.
Sure enough, a chopper took off within 10 minutes. On his way out, somebody said he held up a banner that said, "Good luck to the Cyclones and Hawkeyes next fall. I hope they both go to bowl games again!''
But that may have been a joke.
Before and after seeing cardboard Charlie, we checked out the time on Big Ben, took a (ho-hum) look at No.10 Downing Street, marveled at Westminster Abbey, walked for miles through beautiful Hyde Park, cruised the Thames, saw Kensington Palace, went to nearby Wimbledon to see if Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were warming up for anything (they weren't), saw a sensational performance of Lion King, and did the rest of the things you're supposed to do when you're in London.
Still there was something very special about St. Andrews.
It's not every day that a couple of guys whose only way of getting into the British Open would be to buy a ticket could sink 25-foot putts at the Old Course.
Or was mine 26 feet?