“Please welcome your 2003 graduates!”
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I stumble back to my third-trumpet seat. Dr. Raymond Wheeler taps his baton and scowls at me to pay attention. Trumpet touches lips. We play “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4” and there is no doubt whatsoever that high school is ending.
I strain, unsuccessfully, to hit my high E-flat and catch Dr. Wheeler wincing as if his firstborn child has just been hit by a truck. It’s no good. I can’t concentrate; my immediate future’s playing out alongside Edward Elgar’s overture. Measure thirty-two arrives, giving me a nine-bar rest. While resting, I tear through coming-year options. After I rule out 1) waiting tables, 2) chopping wood, 3) chopping tables, an idea hits me: a year at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, where I’d also applied. I’ve been going to St. Andrews since I was a little kid, to play golf with my family and to visit my mother’s uncle Ken Hayward, who lives four hundred yards from the Old Course’s first tee.
As soon as I get home from graduation, I call the University of St. Andrews. I discover that they have a special freshman-year-abroad program. I call Harvard to see if I can do it. Harvard says it’s okay, if I don’t matriculate for transfer credit. I also discover that the University of St. Andrews has a 70/30 girl-to-boy ratio. I’m also a 1.8-handicap golf junkie. This is all sounding good.
• • •
“First place goes to Duncan Montgomery!”
Everyone around me applauds. Several bang on tables. Others scream, “Montayyyyyyy!” at inappropriate volumes. Duncan Montgomery, a third-year student from Edinburgh, waves cheerfully from his seat.
It’s a warm Wednesday night in mid-May, and I’m near the end of my gap year in St. Andrews, Scotland. I’m at the weekly meeting for the University of St. Andrews golf team. True to British university form, the team is entirely student run (no adults, no coaches) and meets once a week, at a pub called the Gin House. It also contains, this year, twenty-five students with handicaps of 2 or better. Results are being announced now from the weekly club medal on the Old Course, from which team standings are determined. The winning student this week (“Montayyyyyy!”), currently necking a pint of Tennent’s lager, has casually shot a 5-under 67. Last weekend, facing a match against Clark University (visiting from the States), the club captain, a party animal from Northern England, showed up on the first tee at nine a.m., sleepless, disheveled, and still in a tuxedo from the night before. He rubbed his eyes, hit his opening drive 280 down the middle, and won his match 6 and 5.
I’m sitting at the crowded team table in the back of the Gin House, beside Michael Choong, a posh Chinese-English third-year student from Wimbledon, and Richard Hooper, a six- foot-three Welsh fourth-year student who last week broke his putter in anger against a tree on the third hole of a match against the University of Stirling and had to subsequently putt with his 4-iron (he shot 68). I lean back in my chair, think about my own relatively puny score of 75, and roll up my sleeves for the ensuing drinking games. It’s going to be a messy night.
Thus far, my gap year in St. Andrews has been unthinkably wonderful. With my £105 student links ticket, I’ve been allowed unlimited play on St. Andrews’s six golf courses. I play a round virtually every day on the Old Course and have dinner at least once a week with my dapper, plaid-tie-wearing uncle Ken. My classes are superb. I read English with Robert Crawford, the good great poet, who has us imitating Wordsworth and Keats. I also study modern history and international relations, taught by brilliantly eccentric old Scottish guys with big ears and impenetrable brogues. I have my first serious girlfriend. I try haggis. I meet kids from all over the world, and together we discover St. Andrews’s thirty-one pubs (the highest per capita pub population in the UK).
Maybe because of its age (nearly six hundred years old), or maybe just because it’s in Scotland, ancient arcane traditions abound at the University of St. Andrews. And I’ve tried to take part in them all. There’s the bimonthly Pier Walk, for which hundreds of students don ceremonial red academic robes and walk down the harbor pier in pitch-darkness, every third student holding a candle for (totally inadequate) illumination. There’s the May Dip, held on May 1, when all seven thousand students stay up through the night attending various parties, then charge into the North Sea at five a.m., totally naked (while a choir sings hymns and bagpipers play from the rocks). And there’s Raisin Weekend, an Animal House–esque weekend in November “supervised” by every first-year student’s “academic parents” (all third- or fourth-year students), involving obscene levels of drinking and culminating in a nine a.m. sixteen-hundred-person shaving foam fight in St. Salvator’s Quad. There’s also the student charity fashion shows, at which ultracool European students dressed to the nines sit at tables stocked with champagne. And the notorious May Ball, held in a gigantic converted farmhouse outside St. Andrews. Here, the VIP “Gold Ticket” gets you a limo ride . . . to the helicopter, which sweeps you along the coast and touches down on the farm, where bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, and chocolate fountains await.
There’s another quirk to the University of St. Andrews. For the last three years, Prince William has been a student here—bringing fame, fortune, and gloriously high numbers of girl applicants to the university. Protecting its prized possession, the university has a special agreement with the royal family: Any student attempting to sell photographs of William to the British tabloids will find him or herself promptly expelled from school. Uncle Ken lives across the street from William’s flat, exchanges pleasantries with him daily, doesn’t ask for autographs or photo ops.
But my most important discovery—by far— is that everyone at the University of St. Andrews seems to play golf. Including very cute girls. For the first time in my life, my golf playing is an asset, as cool (perhaps) as being a quarterback on an American college football team. In St. Andrews, golf runs alongside life. This is not a small deal.
By this point in May, it has become clear to me: I do not want this gap year to end. As glasses clink and club captain Benny Kelly announces upcoming matches, I ask kids at my table what students do for paid work during vacation. Amazingly, I learn that many of my golf team friends stay on in St. Andrews over the summer to caddie on the Old Course. I’m told that caddies earn fifty pounds a round or more, and can, on a good day, loop two rounds a day. The exchange rate for the dollar is terrible, so fifty pounds translates to nearly $100— hell of a lot more than the $35 a round I’d been earning caddying at Bass Rocks Golf Club in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where my family lives during the summer months. Over pints of Belhaven Best, my friends also tell me hilarious stories of tourist golfers and famously gruff old Old Course caddies. It all sounds good.
I fill out the forms, buy official Old Course caddie rain gear, sign up for the official Old Course caddie training program, change the date of my flight home to America, and find cheap student digs for the summer.
I’m good to go—which is to say, I’m ready to stay.