ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | The Dunvegan Hotel, which sits just 100 yards up the road from the Old Course, has been spilling over with Walker Cup fans in the lead-up to this weekend’s match between the Americans and Great Britain & Ireland.
It is a scene which Sheena and Jack Willoughby knew on a regular basis during their 24 years (1994-2017) as the hotel’s co-owners. As many as five Open Championships were played under their watch. Last Sunday was like old times as Sheena, who has stayed on as the hotel’s ambassador, oversaw a dinner for U.S. Walker Cup captain Mike McCoy and his team. Sheena and Jack had met McCoy at last year’s Open and, in the knowledge that he would be back in his captaincy capacity, she wasted no time in suggesting that he bring his players to the Dunvegan.
The above captures to perfection how Sheena and Jack showed all the initiative in the world when it came to making friends with their stream of famous guests. And that in spite of the fact that they had come from an entirely different world, with Jack an oil executive from Texas who had joined Hughes Offshore in Aberdeen, the company to which Sheena had arrived via Glaxo pharmaceuticals.
For another illustration of the Willoughbys’ way with their clients, what of the day Sean Connery walked into the bar and asked Sheena for a table for one. Sheena studied the evening’s bookings and, when she realised that no such table was available, she returned to 007 with a couple of options.
On the one hand, there was a party of golfers from Aberdeen who would be delighted if he wanted to join them. On the other, he could go and sit in her office where there was a chair, a TV and a table to which she would deliver his meal. He opted for the latter, and Sheena duly took him a bottle of red wine and a steak. “Just what I wanted,” declared the star.
Sheena will never forget the day when the business took off. They always wanted it to be a Scottish-American-themed enterprise. During the week of the ’94 Alfred Dunhill Cup, the caddies belonging to Australia’s Steve Elkington and the American team of Tom Kite, Fred Couples and Curtis Strange hurried to tell their bosses that “some American guy” had taken over the Dunvegan.
“That’s great,” said Kite, or words to that effect. “He’ll have good burgers.” The four had their pictures taken with the Willoughbys – something which continued to apply with all celebrities who came through the door.
It was in 1995 that the Willoughbys met Tiger Woods at what was their first Open. At that stage, for it was two years before Woods won his first Masters, he still was able to go about his golfing business without too much hassle.
“He was young, he was quiet and I liked him straightaway,” Sheena said. “When he asked for fajitas, we made them specially for him.”
Just in case you are wondering, the ’23 U.S. Walker Cup men, when they were ordering their dinner on Sunday, did not do as their U.S. Ryder Cup counterparts when they were staying at the finest of five-star hotels for the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. To recap, they upset the cook by calling for pizzas from the nearest pizzeria.
“All of the Walker Cup party chose chargrilled steaks, chicken, lamb or cod straight from the menu,” Sheena said. The meal over, they proceeded to sign some Walker Cup flags, one of which was set aside for Sheena’s friend, Nancy Lopez, who arrived in the bar one day with a group of golfers on a Nancy Lopez Golf Adventure. Sheena thought a signed flag would be the best of auction items for the Nancy Lopez/AIM tournament in November in The Villages, Florida (AIM is a charity devoted to children with health impairments).
Sheena, who is nowadays a member of all three of St Rule, St Regulus and Crail, will be attending the Lopez event herself, for that is just one of the perks this 10-handicap golfer has permitted herself since she and Jack retired after devoting so many years to their thriving business.
She becomes a better golfer by the day, and Lopez no doubt will smile delightedly when she hears how she returned a 75 net 63 over Crail’s Balcomie course a few days ago.
The most telling golfing tip to have come Sheena’s way, apart from Lopez’s “play happy” mantra, was delivered by Mickey Walker, who captained Europe’s Solheim Cup sides of 1990, ’92, ’94 and ’96.
“We’ve always had a lot of support from American teams, though the home sides would seem to be catching up a bit.” — Sheena Willoughby
“Long ago,” Sheena said, “I arranged with one of my old friends from Aberdeen to attend a Mickey Walker Golf School at Dalmahoy. I didn’t have a clue who Mickey Walker was at the time, but we remain friends to this day.
“One time when we played, Mickey was clearly concerned about my frenzied putting. She asked me if I had a pet, and when I told her I had a cat, she told me to think ‘stroke the cat’ by way of finding myself a more gentle putting action.”
Sheena has had a quandary on her hands this week. For the life of her, she cannot decide which of Mike McCoy’s and Stuart Wilson’s teams she wants to win.
“Stuart, like me, was brought up in Forfar,” she said. “I’ve known him for many years, and I remember when he won the Amateur [Championship] here in 2004. Against that, we’ve always had a lot of support from American teams, though the home sides would seem to be catching up a bit.”
For something which has changed dramatically since Sheena’s and Jack’s days at what has become known as the most famous 19th hole in the world, Sheena hit on social media. “Pre-social media,” she said, “golfers and sundry other stars did not have to think about their every move.”
Take, for instance, the day when Arnold Palmer turned up at the Dunvegan by way of remembering his much loved old caddie, Tip Anderson, who had been a regular in the bar.
Palmer had walked into the hotel, ordered himself half a pint of beer – he insisted on paying for it himself – before heading for a bench on the front patio. Within minutes, word of his arrival had reached every nook and cranny in St Andrews. All the townsfolk hurried down the road to see their great hero.
None of that ever went viral, any more than was the case with a never-to-be-forgotten demonstration of highland dancing by a former U.S. Ryder Cup captain.
The captain in question was none other than that lovely man Tom Lehman, who was once hailed as the only beaten U.S. captain (2006) who never got bad press.
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