Former St Andrews Director of Greenkeeping Recalls Life On World’s Most Famous Links
Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the Feb. 25 edition of Global Golf Post.
Gordon Moir retired as the director of greenkeeping at St Andrews in December after 27 years, which took in five Open championships, two Women’s Opens, 26 Dunhill Links championships, one Curtis Cup, one Amateur Championship and last year’s Senior Open.
Of that little lot, he had an out-and-out favourite: the Open of 2007. Before anyone dispatches an e-mail to say that the Open was in 2005 rather than 2007, Moir was talking about the Women’s Open, the one which Lorena Ochoa won by four from Jee Young Lee and Maria Hjorth. Moir has first-hand knowledge of how that day ended with the Mexican sprite standing on a table in the Dunvegan Arms Hotel and giving her fans and family a song.
“It was the first of the Women’s Opens at St Andrews and the players were all so incredibly appreciative,” Moir said. Few will forget how the mood of the moment was captured by Paula Creamer when she turned a cartwheel over the Swilcan Bridge – a feat which has yet to be reproduced by one of the venerable members of the R&A.
Ochoa had always made a point of thanking greenkeepers. That week was no exception. She insisted that Gordon and fellow members of the grounds staff should come along to her party and, suffice to say, they reveled in the occasion.
When, in 1991, Moir started to work with the St Andrews Links Trust following a spell at Fraserburgh GC, he began on the Eden Course. He was one of seven greenkeepers working on that links, while there were some 36 full-timers covering all four of the Old Course, the New, the Eden and the Jubilee.
Today, there are as many as 23 people working full-time on the Old Course alone and 88 across the present tally of seven links.
Moir is forever answering questions about staffing levels, with much the same applying to the number of rounds played over the Old Course per year. The answer to the latter is 50,000. “People want to know how we manage it,” said Moir, “but it’s simple. We’ve always been fortunate to have a great staff coupled with the best in machinery. It helps, too, that we play off mats in the winter.”
Everyone who has ever stayed in a hotel bordering the links will know what it is to peep through the curtains at the first sound of the morning mowers. Moir could have stayed in bed for longer as he rose through the ranks but, even when he was at the top, he was always at the links before 6 a.m. To him, the silence of the early morning is the best part of a St Andrews day: “All you can hear are the birds and the waves.”
For the finest experience of all, he picked out August and September on account of the heavy dewfall. “The dew,” he said, “is a nightmare because the mowing isn’t so effective when everything’s so damp, but there’s nothing more magical than seeing it glisten on the spiders’ webs and the gorse.”
He would see hares, deer and rabbits on those early-morning forays and, at around 6 o’clock on the Wednesday morning of the 2000 Open, he met Tiger on the third fairway. Woods, at that stage of his career, was allowed to go out ahead of everyone else in order that he could have a bit of peace and quiet. “I was raking a bunker at the time and risked a bit of trouble from my superiors by asking Tiger’s security people if I could ask Tiger for his autograph.
“They said, ‘Yes,’ but they told me that he would want to keep walking, which he did.”
Tiger won that year and in 2005, when he came back and won again, he added his signature to the flag Moir had collected from the 18th green in 2000.
Would you believe that Moir has the signed flags from the winners of every one of the championships where he did duty?
Jack Nicklaus’s last year of competing at St Andrews was 2005 and Moir was mighty touched to receive an invitation for himself and Euan Grant, his predecessor, to come along to the Links clubhouse while the Nicklauses were having dinner. Nicklaus wanted to thank them for all their hard work across the years. No doubt Moir and Grant would have had a longer audience with the great man had they not made the unwitting mistake of arriving bang in the middle of the family’s main course.
Moir, in his retirement, will still rise early to wonder at the dew and the spiders’ webs while, when the clock strikes 8 in the week of a championship, he will revel in the whiff of barbecued sausages and bacon coming from beside the greenkeepers’ sheds.
No Open competitor has ever complained about the Old Course other than to suggest that the greens could have been a tad faster. On the other side of the coin, Moir reckons he usually fielded around 20 e-mails a year from people looking for a free round after claiming that a passing tractor, or some such maintenance machinery, had spoilt their day. As for the locals, they tended to fuss when they saw the gorse being cut back. Presumably, they liked to see visitors suffer.
Competitors in the Dunhill Links Championship will often make their mark, with Moir recalling a cluster of celebrities who arrived on the 18th tee one evening and took aim on Rusacks Hotel with a view to curling the ball over the hostelry’s roof in the hope of landing their shots on the fairway. On that occasion at least, the show did not go on.
You ask Moir, a 3-handicap at his best but now 4 or 5, to name his top three courses away from St Andrews and he opts for Pine Valley, Birkdale and County Down. “All three feature so many good holes,” he says.
“They’re difficult but fair.” He was “blown away” by Augusta when he was there for the 1998 Masters and, on a slightly different tack, he learned a lot from the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black. “I was staggered by the number of volunteers involved. Over a hundred, I think. Up until then, we’d always worked with our own employees and maybe six or seven volunteers.”
Moir, in his retirement, will still rise early to wonder at the dew and the spiders’ webs while, when the clock strikes 8 in the week of a championship, he will revel in the whiff of barbecued sausages and bacon coming from beside the greenkeepers’ sheds. It marks the end of the greenkeepers’ first stint on the course. And, simultaneously, captures the camaraderie of a group of workers who reckon that they, no less than the Tigers and Jordan Spieths of the world, have one of the best jobs in golf.
Greenkeepers sweep water into the Swilcan Burn from the first fairway during the 2015 British Open Golf Championship on The Old Course at St Andrews. Photo: Adrian Dennis, AFP via Getty Images
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