July 14, 2005

To Jack Nicklaus: Don't hit the pigs

These next two weeks will bring the retirement from major competition of two sports legends, Lance Armstrong and Jack Nicklaus. While Lance eats up the Alps, Pyrenees and hopefully his competition (apologies to my European readers, but you gotta want a guy who is arguably the world’s greatest athlete to go out big), Jack Nicklaus will be driving the formidable hillocks of St. Andrews’ Royal and Ancient into quiet and dignified submission. Waves will crash onto the beach where the Old Course meets the sea, and the 66-year-old Golden Bear will end his stunning career with his final putt in Britain’s 134th Open Championship.

St. Andrews, in Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife, is more than just golf, although it’s pretty heady, even for non-golfers, to soak in the rarefied North Sea-infused air that surrounds the Royal and Ancient’s venerable links and clubhouse. The R&A dates from 1754, and it gave brick, mortar and permanent greens to the sport the Scots invented and have been playing since the 15th century, when sportsmen used sticks to hit pebbles around sand dunes and rabbit runs. Mary Queen of Scots golfed (maybe to unwind and retreat from the intrigues and perils of vying with Elizabeth I for the English throne).

St. Andrews is home to Scotland’s oldest university, and red-robed students stroll Market Street, the broad crescent beach and wooden dock beyond the Old Course, and Kirkhill promenade, a high seafront walkway connecting the ruins of St. Andrews Castle with the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral (above). (I could hit a golf ball through those holes.)

Back to the Old Course. As rolling and legendary as it is, it has an underbelly. Or a pork belly. As you drive out of St. Andrews, with the history-steeped links of the R&A on your right, there is (or was) a sudden switch from exclusive playground to pig farm. A curious and striking juxtaposition. The links end abruptly at a straight low fence on the other side of which lies the clod-filled black dirt of a potato farm. (It’s been a few years since our visit, and if there’s a strip mall, condo complex or some other horrific blight there now, I don’t want to know about it. In America, farms turn into places to eat, shop or sleep seemingly overnight, and if that potato farm were in the US, the potatoes would be wasting their time putting down roots. I think the Scots are smarter, and I hope the spuds are safe.)

As the kids and I drove past the potato farm, we feasted our eyes on the biggest, fattest hogs we’d ever seen. They poked and snorted their way through the black dirt just beyond the rows of tubers, and some lazed inside mini-Quonset huts built to shelter one huge porcine occupant.

Since pigs eat anything (one reason why I don't eat them), I found myself wondering how many golf balls get plucked from these boys when they get to the sausage factory. Or how many hogs have been hit -- perhaps maimed, causing early dispatch to the sausage factory -- by errant orbs. When Nicklaus recons the Old Course he must make note of all its challenges -- the humps and hillocks, the wind, the trees, the sand, the traps. And the pigs. The Golden Bear will leave it to some duffer to earn the title “Butcher of St. Andrews.”