OTL: Ghosts of St. Andrews

T. ANDREWS, Scotland -- We are the ghosts of St. Andrews. We were born here, yes, and we traveled distances great and small, searching. We are the living and the dead, anyone moved to leave something of themselves behind, from a beheaded queen to a golden-haired Bear. We won here as a young amateur and returned a crippled old man, washed in something that passing decades could not fade. We once walked with Jesus.

Different glimpses captivated each of us: a safe harbor, a medieval street, the Valley of Sin. Some opened a nighttime hotel window and heard the rumble and howl of the North Sea. Others saw the first moment of daybreak, a thin white line exploding into orange, and felt at home. We won Open Championships and watched them, in 1873, in 2005. We are beyond time. We are a thousand years of people changed by this place, who felt compelled to add a voice, to add a layer.

Our existence sustains the old gray town.

St. Andrews
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The town's first VIP

We are the bones of St. Andrew.

We arrived at this place, the legend goes, when St. Regulus the monk shipwrecked here. He held the box, for it held us: an arm bone, a tooth, part of a knee and a few fingers. He built a wooden church, and in 1158, the king decreed that a magnificent cathedral be constructed. The work would take 150 years, so the king gave something to the town for its trouble: a wide swath of linksland near the sea to graze sheep, raise rabbits.

There, to pass the time, the men invented a game.

Pilgrims came from all over England to see us, the relics. Those travelers and their money fed the town, nourished it for four centuries. Then, in the fury of the Reformation, John Knox and his followers burned the cathedral, smashed it to pieces. They destroyed us. The town collapsed. Most moved away, the economy shattered, the church and town bankrupt. It lay dormant for three centuries, until some townsmen decided there could be a future in this game of golf. New pilgrims arrived.

We saw it all. We saw them destroy the cathedral built to last a thousand years -- and even us, the bones of a man who walked with Jesus. We saw that the golf course remained.

It remains still.

St. Andrews
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Where the dead still walk aboveground

I am a dead man come to visit the grave of my dead son.

I'm Old Tom Morris, here at the cathedral cemetery to check on Young Tom, who died more than a century ago at 24. Some people call me the father of modern golf, but I'm really only the father of this sweet young lad here in the ground. Won the Open Championship four times, he did. Same as me. Next to him, that's my grave. A simple stone. That's all I wanted. I turn to the tourist who is standing over the body of my son. There is a story to tell, in a voice low and hoarse.

Tommy and I were playing a match. Sixth of September it was. 1875. Margaret, his wife, was heavy with his child. Unfortunately, a telegram arrived that Margaret was struggling, and we had to make our way back to St. Andrews.

The wind blows, and the tourist shivers. I am used to the cold. The ruins of the cathedral rise like bones. What once was a towering entrance is now two skeletal fingers. The light is dayglow, the flat kind that throws 40-foot shadows. My voice cracks. There's gravel in every word.

When we got to St. Andrews, we found both Margaret and the child dead. Tommy's grief was insurmountable. His heart just wasn't in anything. It was up in the cathedral ground with his wife. He started drinking. He never had a drink in his life. His drinking got steadily worse. Four months later, he too was dead. There he was in his bed, lying as peaceful as I'd seen him since Margaret left him. The doctors said he'd burst an artery in his lung. People said he died of a broken heart.

It wasn't just the sadness of his death. It was what he missed. How many times would he have won the Open Championship?

Aye, Tommy.

The tourist looks at me, sees the past has come to life here in the graveyard. A seed is planted. A flock of gulls shrieks and flies away.

St. Andrews
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Surviving failure, but maybe not success

I am a man named David Joy, a local citizen who dresses up like Old Tom Morris for tours and, once, a Titleist commercial. Golf is in my blood. My father saw Bobby Jones win the British Amateur when his dad was 9, and three decades later, when I was 9, Dad took me to the town's farewell to a sick, feeble Jones. A circle. That's what this town is.

It's a winter night, and I'm sipping pints in the back room of a local pub, looking at black-and-white pictures. I'm telling stories, about Old and Young Tom. I'm keeping warm. Every now and then, I slip into the Old Tom character without meaning to, like when I saw a tourist at Young Tom's grave and cried as I narrated his tragic death. The emotion in my words was real. This is serious to me. I refuse to make a mockery of Old Tom's memory.

Sometimes, it seems like make-believe characters will one day be the only thing left here. So much has been lost already. Ancient buildings torn down, replaced by the flats at West Port or the University's Gannochy House. Blue-collar folks are gone. Locals are getting priced out. Investment bankers buy up all the real estate. I used to apologize for being only the fourth generation of St. Andrean Joys. Now? I brag about it. That's happened only in the past 30 years. It's scary. If the bones of an apostle can be destroyed, how can a town and its golf course be immortal? The town survived the bloody Reformation and 300 dormant years. It survived failure, but can it survive success?

I look outside, see the wind rushing from the sea through the streets. It's November, and the town is empty this time of year. Thank God for the hostile winters, I think from the warm amber light of the pub, lest we become the Disneyland of golf.

I believe St. Andrews will continue. I believe the town will not lose its ability to change those who come here, and I believe as long as it keeps that spark safe, the town itself will not be changed. The walls and streets still pulse with ghosts and their stories, as they've done for a thousand years. I still play golf with my teenage son on the Old Course every year on his birthday, and I hope he will bring his son here, too, one more turn of an ancient circle.

St. Andrews
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A room like no other

We are the oil paintings on the wall of the Big Room in the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. We are Edward VIII, who chose love over his throne. We are Old Tom Morris, and we are the queen.

We see everything.

Tall bay windows look out onto the course at the end of the room. Binoculars wait, as do stacks of dictionaries and an atlas. There are tables for letter-writing, and deep couches and chairs for doing nothing at all. Wedding cake walls stretch up to the crown molding at the base of the high ceilings. The chandelier hangs like a royal jewelry box. Buzzers are spread throughout the room. A ring summons a bartender.

We keep watch over the lucky few who ever set foot in this place. They sit and have a drink, the only noise from quiet conversation and the rustling of newspaper pages. There are those who come once a year -- townsfolk call them "penguins" because of their formal attire -- and there are the local members. Look, there's Commodore Ronald Sandford, retired from the Royal Navy. He's brought a guest from the States today, a man who's never been inside the old stone clubhouse. The American keeps looking around, furtively, trying to take everything in. He even swipes a piece of club stationery. It's fun to watch first-timers. See them gawk at the real Claret Jug, or the oldest existing painting of golf, or the oil on canvas in the stairwell that was signed by Ike: "DE."

The lockers ringing the Big Room are blond wood, and the chairs are rich, brown leather. This could be 2009 -- or 1899. There is no time once you walk through the doors. The light is dim, the thick windowpanes dulling the sun, the chandelier's reflection throwing little orbs on the glass. They look out at the steep hills and ridges on the 18th green. You can't see the contours on television, but from these walls, we see every dip. We know these greens well. We know the men who come and go from this room, too, see them grow gray and die. Others will replace them, generation after generation, men with straight backs and hair still black like the sea.

St. Andrews
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Dead people on the bar

We are the locals at the pub, and we are the pub itself. We are friends crowded around the Dunvegan bar this evening, enjoying a few months before the crush of the Open crowd arrives, reeling off dos and don'ts. Our families own the Texas Rangers and Liverpool Football Club. We own this bar, a block from the Old Course. Two of us are from St. Andrews, and two of us are from Texas. We are all considered locals.

St. Andrews
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"You will never see a local wearing a St. Andrews logo," we say.

"The only people who wear tartan are American tourists," we say.

"No large cigars," we say.

We talk about the myopic legions who play 36 holes a day and never speak to a local not carrying their clubs or working at their hotel, who move so close to the ghosts of the town but leave empty-handed.

"They're missing it," we say. "If you stumble into a bar with locals, you'll learn a hell of a lot. They don't realize if they took two steps over here and asked a question or two, they'd enter a totally different country."

We point to the two urns above the bar. They were Americans, but St. Andreans, too. They got it. Every year, they came here. They loved this place, really understood it, and their families wanted some of their ashes to remain here forever. They are like us now. They are ghosts of St. Andrews.

"You have to be a special place if there are dead people on the bar," we say.

Can Little Boy Lost be redeemed?

St. Andrews
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We are the promise of his youth.

His mother waited for him then, outside the Old Course Hotel, making jokes about how he was such a kid he couldn't even boil water. A Sports Illustrated reporter waited, as did two golfers named David Duval and Stuart Appleby, grown men. At the nearby Royal Air Force base, a private jet sat ready to fly everyone back home. He was 24, and he came out of the hotel carrying the Claret Jug and a "South Park" backpack with Cartman on it. Before leaving, he stopped into a building to say thanks to the people of the town. He raised a glass of champagne and said, "I'd like to make a toast to St. Andrews." Then he took a sip, and when he tried to slip out, his girlfriend insisted he down the flute.

We were still with him then, when the world was spread out before him. We were with him five years later, walking up the first fairway as the great Nicklaus walked down the 18th for the last time, ending his professional career. Grown men wept at the sight of Jack's last walk, as they would surely one day weep for him. It all seemed predestined. Does he remember?

Now he's coming back for a third time, and this week, we will see him again, older and disgraced, fighting against something, fighting for something -- fighting to be reunited with us. We'll be there, in the air, a reminder of the things he was going to be and of the things he swore he never would become.

You can leave, but you can never leave St. Andrews behind

We are the people who watch the sunset, who long for it. We are the son of a man who loved St. Andrews, which means we love it, too, and we sit with a pint in the St. Andrews Golf Club, where the working men drink their post-round beer. We look out at the 18th fairway, as the sun falls behind the stone clubhouse and the black waters of the sea. Darkness tucks in the Old Course. Shadows move back and forth on the sidewalk outside. They are strangers. They remind us of old friends.

We will leave St. Andrews, but a part of us will remain. We imagine them playing Scottish hymns at our funeral, maybe 50 years from today, the old Episcopal church full of pipe and drums. They'll put us in the ground, as they put our father and our father's father before us, and across the ocean, in the land from where we came, a town will awaken the next morning with the North Sea's drone and the orange skies of dawn, and someone will drive a golf ball into the first light and go walking after it.

We'll be watching.

St. Andrews
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One last song of love and pain

I am the anonymous Scotsman who stood up to sing.

It was 1958. President Dwight Eisenhower asked Bobby Jones to captain the Americans in the World Amateur Team Championship. A terrible spinal cord disease had left the champion crippled. One night, the local elders invited Jones to the town hall to become a Freeman of the Burgh of St. Andrews, the first American so honored since Benjamin Franklin.

We are the townspeople who came to welcome him home.

Jones grabbed the table and struggled to rise, pushed and pulled by the love in the room. His son waited behind him in case he fell. Jones inched down to the podium, and we rose, cheering each awkward step, all of us one, feeling the pain of age and disease, remembering a time when he was young and invincible. Could this old man in braces really be the great Bobby Jones?

He didn't have notes. He spoke from the heart for about 12 minutes. He called all of us his friends and hoped we would call him ours. He spoke slowly, in his Georgia drawl, and his words rang true. "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews," he said, "and I would still have had a rich and full life."

He shuffled off the stage and slipped into a golf cart. He rode down the center aisle, leaving this place for the last time.

Overcome with the moment, I began to sing an old Scottish song.

The clear words gave us chills.

"Will ye no come back again?" I sang.

We joined in -- singing the song slow and sad, a funeral recessional, as the cart pulled slowly into the night, a living man turning into a ghost before our eyes. He became part of us, and we sang goodbye to a piece of ourselves.

"Will ye no come back again?

Better loved ye cannot be,

Will ye no come back again?"

He rode in the cart, never to return to the town he loved so much. We stayed in the town hall, grieving, unable to speak.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

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