Golf Graduation day at St. Andrews

July, 14, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The organist starts playing in Younger Hall, and the St. Andrews University choir sings in Latin. The students and faculty in the crowd join the song, too, a room of voices singing a long-dead language back to life, if only for a few moments. A gust of chilly air rushes through the room when the doors swing open and the academic procession begins. It's the Golf Graduation ceremony, a beloved tradition of Open week in St. Andrews.

Padraig Harrington walks in, then Arnold Palmer, then Tom Watson.

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Arnold Palmer
AP Photo/Peter MorrisonFormer Open champion Arnold Palmer, after being awarded an honorary degree by the University of St. Andrews on Tuesday. Former Open champions Padraig Harrington, unseen, and Tom Watson, partially seen at center, also received honorary degrees.

They wear black cassocks with red buttons down the front, marching to the stage. Palmer nods, taken, it seems, with the almost religious feeling cast over the room by the organ and the Latin and the anachronistic dress. Watson grins. He looks at his family in the front row, then up around the balconied room, the same place where Bobby Jones made his emotional farewell in 1958. The hall is packed, and the people are all on their feet, cheering. His wife gives him a thumbs up from the first row. He seems like an 18-year-old about to get his diploma. Schoolboys, all of them, three men craning their necks, leaning down to see the strange and fascinating procession come to an end. The organ holds the last note, then silence falls over Younger Hall.

The opening prayer is in Latin.

Watson grins again. He can't stop.

The principal, Louise Richardson, explains the tradition of graduating as a Doctor of Laws. She says that they will all be tapped with a 300-year-old cap, which, despite rumors, almost certainly does not contain cloth from John Knox's pants.

"If you wish to believe it is a piece of John Knox's trousers," she says, "you should feel free."

Harrington receives his first. He kneels before the chancellor, who reads a timeless script in Latin. Harrington then steps to the lectern and speaks from his heart, talking about what the game and the town have meant to him.

"It's a day I'll never forget," he says.

The choir comes back out and serenades the Irish champion with an a cappella "Danny Boy."

Watson and Palmer laugh a few lines into the song and lean down to look at Harrington. The voices sound clear and beautiful, the high end rising into the rafters. People in the audience cry.

Palmer's name is called next. He stands, and as the applause begins, he exhales hard. The clapping slows, waning, then comes back, stronger than before. Gulls squawk and scream outside. A professor presents Palmer to the chancellor with an introductory speech.

"Arnold Palmer was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1929," he begins.

Arnie kneels down, is tapped with the hat and makes his way to the microphone. He talks about his first trip to St. Andrews, remembering the town. He talks about looking out at the course that morning from his hotel and thinking how much it has changed. He seems to get choked up, and he stops speaking. It looks like his lip quivers.

"I'm pleased to be here," he says, finally.

When the ceremony is over, the graduates march back out into the street. Cops block traffic. Fans line the sidewalks, holding cameras. A bagpiper leads the procession down the street, the music filling the streets of St. Andrews. They walk toward the St. Salvator quad, passing over the spot where Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake, disappearing under the ancient stone arch.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.




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