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Riding the Tiger

St. Andrews, Scotland

St. Andrews, Scotland, has a couple of claims to fame, though you wouldn’t necessarily think it if you arrived on a quiet day. This being Scotland – albeit not too far north – things can get pretty cold and rainy: the town is right on the North Sea coast, and is regularly subjected to vicious batterings by wind and water. The locals, although generally affluent and middle class, are therefore a tough lot – disinclined to be bothered by the sometimes persistent damp.

Claim to fame number one: Prince William. Ever since the second in line to the throne of the United Kingdom announced his intention to study at the University of St. Andrews the town has been the focus of intense media scrutiny. The University of St. Andrews is undoubtedly prestigious, though perhaps a little tarnished by its image as a bolthole for aristocrats who, in spite of their expensive educations, aren’t quite smart enough to make it to Oxford or Cambridge. William is studying the History of Art at the university – which, founded in 1413, is Scotland’s oldest - and has been doing so for a couple of years now: the media, if not exactly tired of ‘student prince’ stories, are relaxing their coverage somewhat. One of the positive effects of the university’s presence is the enlivening effect it has on a town that might otherwise be a little ‘dead’ in the off-season. During term time (September to June, with breaks for Christmas and Easter) the town is backed with boisterous but good-natured youngsters out for a good time. The pubs are always full, as the legal age at which men and women are allowed to drink in the UK is 18. One or two puritans in government have pondered that students might work harder if this limit were raised to 21: wiser heads, knowing that the Brits like their beer and that such a move as this would inevitably lead to bloody revolution, have consistently blocked the scheme.

Claim to fame number two: golf. Most of the tourists who visit St. Andrews do so because of the town’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club, home of the British Open. Golf was invented in Scotland. But don’t be taken in by St. Andrew’s claims: while the town is certainly ‘home’ to the Open, it is not its birthplace. That honor belongs to the town of Prestwick, where the first Open was held in 1860 with just eight competitors. The competition moved to the Royal and Ancient a few years later. The club itself is certainly entirely justified in calling itself both ‘royal’ and ‘ancient’. It has regularly been patronized by monarchs down the ages – and ‘ages’ best describes the length of time golf has been played in the town. The sport was so popular in medieval times that it had to be banned for a while in the fourteenth century because it was distracting local men from the more pressing business of archery practice.

More liberal attitudes eventually prevailed though, and the club that was to become the R&A was formed in 1754. The club, recognized as the oldest in the world, is considered the home of international golf and has spawned affiliated R&A clubs worldwide. It is also recognized as the source and arbiter of the game’s rules by all golfing nations – except the USA. Those visiting from the States are always warmly welcomed, but are likely to find themselves being ‘set right’ (as the Scots might say) about their homeland’s golfing heresies. Such things will, of course, be meant in jest: the R&A holds regular talks with its American counterpart, the USGA, to ensure that transatlantic competition remains straightforward.

But the R&A is no museum: it is a living, working, evolving golf organization. The layout of the Open course is changed regularly, and for the 2005 Open has been lengthened slightly – so it will be a rather different course from the one on which Tiger Woods so memorably won the Millennium Open with his record-breaking 19-under-par score of 269. A full 164 yards have been added, bringing the total distance to 7,279 yards.

If you’re a golfer yourself, you’ll be pleased to know that the St. Andrews courses (there are six of them) are all, at varying times, open to all who want to play. Bookings can be made online at www.linksnet.co.uk

If you’re a golf widow (or widower), forlornly standing in the rain as your loved one hacks from green to green, there are other delights open to you. Just down the road from St Andrews, in the small seaside town of Anstruther, is the world’s greatest fish and chip shop – and it’s got the documents to prove it. A much better way, some would say, of spending a Scottish afternoon.

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