There is no need for an excuse to visit St Andrews when the sun is shining on a brisk spring day, the gorse is in bloom, and the saltire stands out stiff, as if starched, in the breeze. But those knots of soberly dressed people outside the Holy Trinity Church in St Andrews at 12.30 on Monday, 25th April did have a reason to be in the home of golf. They were there for the service to celebrate the life of Renton Laidlaw, the golf correspondent turned broadcaster who had died in October last year.
Renton’s first and last names could have been interchanged without difficulty. Remember Laidlaw Purves, the Scottish-born surgeon who was the founder and first captain of Royal St George’s golf club in Sandwich, Kent. He could just as easily have been Purves Laidlaw. Laidlaw Renton would have worked though not so well as Renton Laidlaw did. Few people in golf are known only by their first name. Tiger, obviously; Arnold, obviously. But it tells you a lot about the esteem, indeed love, in which Renton Laidlaw was held that throughout golf you had only to mention his first name and everyone knew whom you were talking about and nearly everyone would smile at the mention of his name. He was one of the most-loved men in golf.
The Holy Trinity Church is one of nearly 50 churches in Fife under threat of closure on account of a shortage of clergy as well as a congregation. If so, those who attended Renton’s service will remember it for its magnificent nave, its soaring barrel roof and its transepts. It may be a church, but to many it resembled a cathedral. It would be a stretch to say that on this April afternoon the rafters vibrated with the strength of the singing of the 275 gathered because that was rather muted, but those rafters certainly heard some good reminiscences, and laughter rang out again and again.
The service and the reception later at the Old Course Hotel were initiated by Jennifer Laidlaw, Renton’s sister, and organised by Mitchell Platts, a former golf correspondent of The Times. Stories were the common theme. And the common theme of the stories was Renton’s kindness. Person after person spoke of how welcoming he was, of how he always had a smile on his face, just as he was a masterful storyteller who had that rare gift of sounding as though he had a chuckle in his voice. The stories about him were many and funny.
“What the service did very well was illustrate the various facets of Renton’s life. It gave a very good picture of who Renton was, how he took an interest in people and liked to help others.” – Robin Lawson
One was the time a front tooth of his popped out moments before he was due to speak at a dinner, and as he bent down to retrieve it he split his trousers. Another was of the time he interviewed David Huish, the 36-hole leader of the 1975 Open as if it were lunchtime on the third day. Laidlaw asked Huish how he had slept, what he had had for breakfast and how he had spent Saturday morning. No one knew for a long time that the interview was recorded on Friday night.
Or the time he ordered an Association of Golf Writers’ trophy to be inscribed with the name of Seve Ballesteros, only to discover hours before the dinner that it was Sandy Lyle who had won it. Or the story Ken Brown, the player and commentator, told of the way he could always make Renton get the giggles by introducing the bird, the cockatoo, into a live-broadcast conversation between the two of them. “You must have seen a few cockatoos in your time, Renton,” Brown would say.
Hymns can almost make or break a memorial service. Though the singing was feeble, the hymns at this 90-minute service were not. “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” is a good one to get a congregation going. “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” is a bit harder to get one’s voice around, but “I Vow to Thee My Country” by Gustav Holst is made for hearty singing and often, as here, is a good one to send a congregation out with smiles on their faces.
Between the three hymns came the tributes beginning with a well-turned eulogy by Ken Schofield, the former executive director of the European Tour and one of Laidlaw’s oldest friends. There followed a reading of St John 11 verses 18-29 by Jimmy Spankie, one of Laidlaw’s earliest colleagues, a memory of Renton’s time as golf correspondent on the Evening Standard by Tom Clarke, his sports editor at the time. Lewine Mair, of this parish, on behalf of the Association of Golf Writers of which she is currently president, told the David Huish story. Alistair Low read “The Golfer’s Creed,” written by David Forgan in 1899, and Rupert Hampel, formerly managing director of European Tour Productions for which Renton worked for 25 years, told more stories of Renton’s broadcasting.
Yet Renton himself arguably stole the show when Michael Tate, formerly the R&A’s executive director – business affairs, showed a video for the R&A’s heritage project that Laidlaw had recorded only a few months before his death. For perhaps 10 minutes the entire congregation sat stock still, riveted by the sight and sound of a master storyteller giving a peerless demonstration of his craft.
Later, in the surroundings of the Old Course Hotel, George O’Grady, Schofield’s successor as chief executive of the European Tour, led more reminiscences. A specially made video included contributions from Rich Lerner of Golf Channel to remind those present that Renton was arguably better known in the U.S. and Australia than in the UK because of his work for Golf Channel. Sam Torrance and Ken Brown spoke of Laidlaw from the days when they were players, and he was a constant figure at tournaments in which they were playing, and Ewen Murray, Renton’s television colleague, told of a friendship that had begun in Edinburgh 60 years ago. There were stories told by representatives from the various strands of Renton’s business life, his television work, his radio work, his journalism. Again and again, one theme was hammered home: What a nice man Renton had been.
“What the service did very well was illustrate the various facets of Renton’s life,” Robin Lawson, a Scottish businessman who lives in St Andrews, and had known Laidlaw and had been in the congregation at Holy Trinity, said. “It gave a very good picture of who Renton was, how he took an interest in people and liked to help others. He touched the consciences of a lot of people. There was something of the prophet without honour in his own country about him, because he was not on television here anything like so much as he was in the U.S. and Australia. He was well-known, but he could have been better known.”
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