The summer of '82 was the best summer of my life...so far. At
the tender age of 19 I embarked on my first trip overseas, a
two-month jaunt across England and Scotland. All I did was tee
it up on some of Great Britain's greatest courses, fall in love
with links golf, bask in the excitement of the British Open (the
original People's Open), hang out with Jack Nicklaus, ride in a
Rolls-Royce at speeds well into three digits and crash for a
week at a London flat so opulent I half-expected Robin Leach to
pop out of a closet. I also wore a kilt (not mine) to a wedding
(also not mine) and discovered how well golf mixes with mass
quantities of warm ale, wine, champagne and scotch. The answer,
I'm afraid, is not very well.
It was more than a golf trip, it was an adventure. It was also a
blur, thanks to all the drinking. Blame Paul Thomas, my roommate
when we were freshmen on the 1980 golf team at Texas. Paul, who
is from England, brought quite a golf pedigree with him to
Austin. His father was Dave Thomas, a four-time Ryder Cupper
and, with his Lee Trevino-type personality, a popular figure in
Europe. Dave was a big, barrel-chested man who could drive it
long and straight. He lost to Peter Thomson in a playoff at the
'58 British Open at Royal Lytham and tied for second behind
Nicklaus at Muirfield in '66. Paul wasn't as long as his father,
but had a terrific short game. He finished second at the '83
NCAA championship, losing in a playoff to Jim Carter.
Following our sophomore year, Paul invited me to spend a summer
with him playing golf in Britain. I knew the trip was going to
entail a lot more than golf. Paul was a dashing 6'5" with blond
hair and a defensive back's build, and with his accent, a babe
magnet. He'd ask for a "scawtch and woe-tuh" in a college bar in
Austin and invariably some good-looking girl would overhear and
ask where he was from. "Just east of Lubbock," Paul would say.
He used that line a hundred times, and it usually worked.
During the summers Paul lived with his parents in Manchester,
and I arrived there on a cold June day, having flown all night
from Dallas. Paul picked me up at the airport and immediately
took me to his favorite pub. It was 10:30 in the morning and I
wasn't much of a drinker, so after a couple of pints I was
hammered. We stumbled back to Paul's house for lunch, and his
parents brought up wine from their cellar and poured it like
water. By dessert I was dead-man-walking drunk. Then Paul said,
"Hurry up, we've got a big match at the club at 2:30." All I
remember is the crowd of people watching from the huge clubhouse
window as, bleary-eyed, I cold-topped my drive 25 yards on the
1st tee. I'm sure they were impressed. We won, I think, because
Paul could play great when he drank.
July 14, 2002
Following this home game, our road trip commenced. Our
transportation was Paul's tiny red Ford Escort. He had exactly
one tape for his cassette, Neil Diamond's greatest hits. (To
this day I will hurdle end tables to turn off the radio whenever
Sweet Caroline comes on.) We started near London (Wentworth and
Sunningdale), then drove to the northwest coast of England,
enduring repeated playings of Kentucky Woman, and there we
tackled Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Playing
between the dunes at Birkdale with the wind whistling past was
exhilarating. At Lytham I found the plaque on the 17th hole
where Bobby Jones hit a mashie across the heather and won the
1926 Open. Fifty-six years later, it was still a nasty shot (or
maybe I'm just no Bobby Jones, Senator). You simply can't play
those links without thinking about all the history. Of course
Paul and I were making our own history. He had purchased a small
silver cup and had it engraved with a four-letter obscenity
that's best left to the imagination. Whoever had the best total
score for the dozens of rounds we planned to play that summer
would claim the coveted [Bleep] Cup.
It was following our round at Lytham that our summer began to
sizzle. Having donned coats and ties so we could get served in
the clubhouse, we made the acquaintance of a group of
champagne-sipping businessmen who called themselves the
Piccadilly Society. (Paul's father was their unofficial pro.)
Nobody under 40 was allowed to join the club, a rule that was
abandoned after several bottles of champagne and Paul's
never-miss charm. The Piccadilly lads made us honorary members
on the spot, fetching a couple of official club neckties that we
donned in an impromptu ceremony. One member, Raymond Slater, was
one of the wealthiest builders in Great Britain, and he invited
us to visit his castle--he'd give us a ride over in his new
Rolls-Royce that very evening--and play the 18-hole course on
the grounds. "Well, that's the best offer we've had today," I
So we left Paul's car at Lytham and climbed into Raymond's
gleaming white Corniche convertible. He flicked on some
classical music--probably Beethoven or Mozart, but since it
wasn't Willie or Waylon, I didn't know or care--and cranked it
up loud. I was in the backseat, it was dark, and Raymond was
driving fast. I knew he'd been drinking all evening and couldn't
possibly be sober. I was too sloshed to read the speedometer,
but we must've been doing over 100, and I'm not talking
kilometers per hour. This is it, I thought, I'm going to die.
Since we didn't die, the next day we played Raymond's course, a
nice parkland track. After lunch, one of his drivers took us
back to Lytham, where we reclaimed our Escort, cranked up
Cracklin' Rosie and headed for Edinburgh and a tee time at
Muirfield. I wasn't familiar with Muirfield's history of
snobbery but soon would be. It was rainy and cold and no one was
on the course, but the secretary still made us play alternate
shot, which I'd never heard of, and he checked during the round
to make sure that we did. Unfortunately Paul didn't have his
father's accuracy off the tee, so on every other hole I was up
to my waist in wet heather trying to pitch back to the fairway.
That's links golf--it's not about making the perfect swing, it's
about trying to play the right shot as dictated by the
conditions. During that round at Muirfield I finally got it. I
was so enamored of the course that when the British Open was
held there five years later, in 1987, I came back to try to
qualify. I squeaked through, and during the second round of the
Open hit a two-iron to 20 feet on the 18th hole and made the
birdie putt to make the cut on the number, one of my career
After that momentous round at Muirfield we drove to Glasgow for
a two-day tournament that turned into a two-day drunk with
Calcutta wagering. Various wines were served on every tee. "I
believe we should drink the white on the front side," Paul
declared, "and the red on the back." By the time I came up the
18th I could barely walk. We didn't win any cash, but I'm pretty
sure we drank our entry fee's worth.
Turnberry was the next stop. Paul decided that whoever shot the
worst score would have to wear a kilt to his cousin's wedding,
which we would be attending a few days later in eastern
Scotland. Turnberry is Scotland's most scenic links, or so I'd
heard, but all I saw were dreary skies and sheets of rain. I
couldn't even see the Ailsa Craig, the rocky island that looms
offshore. I lost the match, of course, and arrived at the
wedding in a tartan kilt. At least I had company. Paul's brother
Philip was also showing his knees for the occasion. A kilt, I
discovered, was exactly what I had imagined: lots of freedom
underneath. After Philip slipped away with one of the
bridesmaids for an hour or so, he explained another advantage of
the kilt to this naive American.
After the wedding we drove south for British Open qualifying.
Paul played Prestwick while I played next door, at Prestwick St.
Nicholas. We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast run by a woman whose
brogue was so thick I never understood a word she said, and
whose hair, inexplicably, was Crayola blue. We couldn't keep a
straight face each morning when she served breakfast, which is
easily the best meal of the day in Scotland. After breakfast,
well, that's why they make Scotch.
During qualifying I played with Gordon Brand Jr., a veteran
European pro. Paul and I thought we were pretty damn good, but
Brand blew me away. I'd never seen anybody strike irons so
purely. He was very serious and playing for his livelihood. That
was an eye-opener for me, the beginning of the end of my golfing
innocence. Paul and I both missed qualifying by a couple of
shots--I botched the finishing par-3, leaving a shot in a bunker
and making a double--but another Texas teammate of ours, Andy
Rose, advanced to the Open proper, at Troon. He asked if we'd
like to caddie, but Paul pulled me aside and said, "We're going
to have so much fun hanging out at the Open, don't mess it up by
On Tuesday of Open week Paul took me to the Bollinger tent next
to the course. Don't worry, he said, we won't have to buy a
thing. Sure enough, we walked in and ran into Peter Allis, a
former Ryder Cupper. "Paul! How are you?" he said, and bought us
a bottle. That was just the start, so two young college kids
shared the good stuff for three hours with Britain's golfing
legends. We stumbled out of the tent at seven o'clock that
evening and almost ran over Jack Nicklaus. "Paul, how are you
doing?" Jack said.
I was stunned. I didn't know Paul knew Jack so well. And now I
knew Jack. I couldn't believe I was shaking the great man's hand
...while totally hammered. Then things got surreal. Jack said to
Paul, "Would you like to come over to the range and watch me hit
some balls?" Are you kidding me? Jack Nicklaus wants my
roommate--excuse me, my drunken roommate--to watch him hit
balls? Of course! Paul found a crate, turned it over behind Jack
and stood on it with his arms folded, as if he were inventing
David Leadbetter. I was hawking Jack's every move, not only
trying to learn something but also trying to remain upright
after our champagne bender. The range was empty when we arrived,
but a crowd slowly gathered once Jack started hitting. Using his
driver, Nicklaus pounded one towering fade after another,
telling Paul after a particularly good one, "I'm not leaving
until I hit six in a row like that." He needed only five more
tries. Turning around, Jack said, "Is that about how you hit
'em, Paul?" knowing full well that Paul had never hit a shot
like that in his life.
"A bit farther," Paul said without smiling, "but not quite as
Jack stared. "A bit farther?" he finally said. "You can hit it
farther than that?"
When Paul started laughing, so did Jack.
The rest of the Open was a blur, spent mostly in the hospitality
tents. Our pal Raymond Slater had his own swank setup--smoked
salmon, caviar, the works--and as members of the Piccadilly
Society, we were in. We ventured outside only briefly, just long
enough to catch part of Bobby Clampett's collapse, which
ultimately helped the championship fall into Tom Watson's hands.
Before we left Troon, Raymond invited us to use his flat in
London for a week. How could we say no?
The flat was actually a palatial suite down the street from
Buckingham Palace. Paul and I did the London tourist thing--the
Palace, Big Ben, etc.--and tried to pick up women. We figured
we'd have no trouble scoring if we could get them back to our
fabulous flat, but it never panned out. Nobody believed that two
guys in a red Escort with one Neil Diamond tape lived in opulence.
Finally it came time to decide the ownership of the [Bleep] Cup.
Paul and I had kept score all summer and, remarkably, were dead
even after more than 20 rounds. There was only one place to
settle the matter--the Old Course, of course. We drove to St.
Andrews (Neil Diamond's Play Me goading us on) on a dark, cold
day. I hadn't even warmed up when we got on the 1st tee at the
Home of Golf, and I flared my tee shot out of bounds to the
right. I fought hard to get the strokes back, and by the time we
arrived at the 18th tee, Paul and I were tied again. I drove
safely to the left, then Paul blocked his tee shot onto the
street, where his ball cracked the window of a milk truck. He
played a second ball, then bravely went to retrieve the first. I
hit onto the green at about the same time that Paul and the
irate milkman got into a shouting match in the middle of the
street. Behind me, two punk rockers with purple-and-green
Mohawks sat on the white fence bordering the green. It was a
bizarre scene, and I couldn't help thinking that this was not
how I envisioned my first round at the Old Course. By the way, I
made par, Paul made a double, and the cup was mine. It was a
hell of a summer.
All these years later Paul and I still laugh about our
misadventures. He's doing very well in the course design
business, same as his dad. Paul had tried to make a go of it as
a pro and was rookie of the year on the European tour in 1985,
but his heart wasn't in it. The guy is simply too fun-loving to
survive that kind of a grind. Nathaniel Crosby, who played in
Europe for a while and is also a friend of Paul's, remembers
standing in the lobby of a Monte Carlo hotel when two scantily
clad women darted past him, followed closely by Paul, dressed in
a bikini brief and holding a small dog under each arm. "Oh,
hello, Nathaniel," Paul said, stopping. "Sorry I can't chat, I'm
in a bit of a hurry." Then he rushed off.
Two years after our lost summer I was a groomsman in Paul's
wedding in Houston. Typically, he spent all afternoon drinking,
arrived late and could barely stand up at the start of the
ceremony. When the couple knelt at the altar, Paul threw up all
over the priest. The bride ran from the church screaming. Once
Paul finished vomiting, he stood up straight, then fell over
backward, out cold. Another groomsman tried to wrestle the
videotape from the guy filming the ceremony, and their comical
tug-of-war would've been funnier if the video guy hadn't won.
Years later, that tape made the rounds on a number of TV shows.
Old high school friends called up to tell me, "Hey, I just saw
you on TV in the worst wedding ever."
When Paul finally came to, his first question was, "Am I
married?" I told him, "You made it three whole minutes into the
ceremony before you puked."
"So," he asked again, "I'm not married?"
No, Paul. But you sure know how to show a guy a good time.
"Is that about how you hit 'em, Paul?" Nicklaus asked. "A bit
farther," Paul replied, "but not quite as straight."
Paul was a dashing 6'5" with blond hair and the build of a
defensive back, and with that accent, a babe magnet.
The time had come to decide the [Bleep] Cup, and there was only
one place to settle the matter--the Old Course.