Most mornings each week, a middle-aged man slight of height and academic mien walks into his study in the pair of early 20th century cottages he and his wife have knocked into one in a village a few miles outside St Andrews. It is a big, welcoming room and the thick walls are lined with books, many dating back two centuries. Outside the window, deer roam while pheasants and foxes dart into the adjoining woodland. The scene is bucolic.
Before settling himself at his desk, this man takes the chocolate brown cardigan that once belonged to his father from the back of his chair and puts it round his shoulders. With the first of a day’s two or three mugs of decaffeinated coffee to hand, he confronts his computer and its 27-inch screen and starts writing. He continues until 2.30 when he has to leave to collect his two children from school.
Meet Roger McStravick, a man who is in heaven on earth, doing what interests him most from his own home in his own time. Writing may be a penance for some but it is a pleasure for McStravick, 49, the author of St Andrews: The Road War Papers, which recently won the 2020 Herbert Warren Wind book award from the United States Golf Association. It was McStravick’s second such award. In 2015 his book St Andrews: In the Footsteps of Old Tom Morris won the same USGA award as well as the Murdoch Medal from the British Golf Collectors Society.
“I love to write,” McStravick said. “And because I want to write it has never felt like a chore. Sometimes I get up at 5 a.m. and I do so because I want to write. I feel physically better if I am writing. If I am not, I tend to get irritable.”
A well-known author once said that easy writing makes hard reading and hard writing makes easy reading. The way McStravick works bears this out. He is meticulous and while he puts the words down quickly he does not settle on them, constantly changing, editing, rewriting until he is as happy with what is on the screen in front of him as he can possibly be.
“I work much as a painter would,” McStravick said. “A painter begins by making pencil sketches and my equivalent is to put down the bare bones of what I want to say. Then a painter would slowly add to it, layer by layer, so I edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite. Finally, the artist paints so I finally settle on the words I want in the order I want and giving the meaning I want.”
Then comes the final assessment. He imagines himself to be in the Dunvegan (a bar in St Andrews) talking to friends. “I try and make my writing like a conversation. If I sense the people I am talking to are bored then I am not doing it very well,” he said. “The thing is, I love writing and I always have. When I was doing my Masters (in golf course architecture at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh) I used to enjoy the essay writing more than I did standing in a field trying to work out where a bunker should go. My English teacher once said to me: ‘You’re born to write.’ He encouraged me by saying that writing was a noble career like being a doctor or a lawyer. I have never forgotten that and have been grateful to him ever since.”
It took McStravick some time to become the full-time writer he now is. He was born in Lurgan in Northern Ireland on 16th June 1971 and likes to point out that not only does he share his birthday with Stan Laurel, the comedian, but that he will be 50 on the same day as Old Tom Morris would turn 200. “I say that I play golf like Stan Laurel and tell jokes like Old Tom.”
Actually, he is a decent golfer who was once a 4 handicap and is now a 5.2. He worked for a theatrical agency, got a master’s degree in estate management before securing a place on a golf course architecture course at Heriot-Watt. “There were 10 of us in the class, Americans, Scots, Norwegians, Swedes, a Dutchman and a dodgy northern Irishman,” he said. “It was phenomenal. At the end we had to give our final presentation drawings to Martin Hawtree (the well-known course designer, son of Fred). I was terrified.”
(McStravick) does research that is meticulous by any standards and then deftly weaves what in other hands might be dust-dry material into a narrative that is historically dense and accurate as well as being as easy to read as such a text could be.
McStravick was 30 at this time and suddenly realised that what he wanted to do was to write. He has done it from that day to this. As he has got into his stride as the golf historian that he clearly is, it turned out that the golf books he was writing were very well received. This is what the USGA said in announcing their latest award to him. “The Road to St Andrews recreates the dispute in 1879 after the St Andrews town council encouraged residents whose homes faced the Old Course to build a road from Golf Place to Granny Clark’s Wynd, running over a portion of the ancient links. Local resident John Paterson emerged as a staunch and vocal critic of the plan, fighting in the court for preservation of the historic grounds. The case eventually made its way to the House of Lords.
“McStravick gathers, transcribes and analyses original archival documents from St Andrews institutions to construct a vivid account of the legal conflict while telling the story of the town’s evolution and development around the Old Course. This research, compiled in the book for the first time, includes court testimony of local residents, including Old Tom Morris and three-times Open champion Jamie Anderson.”
Even though Golf Place and Granny Clark’s Wynd are among two of the most famous places and names in golf, and the setting for this row has come to be regarded, whether rightly or wrongly, as the home of golf, a book as lengthy as this detailing a dispute that took place 175 years ago hardly sounds like a page turner in the 21st century. It’s not quite JK Rowling is it?
But this is McStravick’s particular skill. He does research that is meticulous by any standards and then deftly weaves what in other hands might be dust-dry material into a narrative that is historically dense and accurate as well as being as easy to read as such a text could be.
Here, for example is the opening of chapter two, titled The Genius of the Place:
“Historians talk about the evolution of St Andrews but that largely ignores a fundamental point – the land on and around the Links from 1764 (altering of a 22-hole course to 18) did not just evolve naturally. It was the multitude of conscious deliberate decisions by the leading figures in the 18th and 19th century that gave us St Andrews – the Home of Golf. No longer was it to be weighed down by the shadows of a bygone glory. With people like Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, the future of the town was again exciting. His generation had visions of middle-class housing akin to the New Town in Edinburgh and a vibrant St Andrews that was a choice place to visit. It was nothing less than a revolution.”
That’s not boring writing is it? Nor is it hard reading.
“This book will serve as an invaluable resource for future researchers on the history of the game as well as any golf fan who wants to learn more about one of golf’s most historic towns” said Hilary Cronheim, director of the USGA Golf Museum and Library.
Peter Lewis, a past director of the British Golf Museum and the R&A’s historian from 2001-2009, describes McStravick’s book as the definitive work on the Road War. “He has uncovered a treasure trove of new information about the Road War and aspects of the history of the Links,” Lewis wrote in a text. “As always, his picture research is first rate. In addition to learning about the Road Wars, it is a very important book with regard to understanding how the links and the townscape around it developed between 1820 and 1881.”
“I try and make my writing like a conversation. If I sense the people I am talking to are bored then I am not doing it very well.” – Roger McStravick
The text is laid out and sub-edited by another St Andrews resident, Chic Harper, an award-winning graphic designer who lavishes as much care on his share of the book as McStravick does on his. “I take Roger’s text, read and edit it, check his spelling, lay it out with the photos,” Harper said. “I photoshop some of the old photos and retouch some of them so that they can be seen as they should be. I put a lot of time into it, maybe 400 hours, and if the book is 380 pages that’s an hour on each page. The average publisher would not spend that sort of time on a book.”
There are currently two versions of the book with a third expected next year. The more expensive is the St Andrews edition, half bound in brown calf leather, numbered and signed by McStravick and printed on silk art paper. These are a limited edition of 50 and cost £499. This edition was sold out within days. Subscribers also receive an author’s proof copy of the 1879 laminate edition. The second version is the laminate edition and there are 300 copies of this that cost £99 each. The book is published by the St Andrews Golf Press.
To raise money for his first book, McStravick tried crowdfunding to finance the printing. “The print was going to cost £20k. On the last night of the crowdfunding, the total was not enough, around £8k. I was feeling pretty despondent but then I received an e-mail from a well-known American journalist who said that I was about to receive an e-mail from someone important in the golf industry and not to ignore it.
“Sure enough within an hour, I had an email from this giant of the game. I couldn’t believe he knew me. Furthermore, he had been following my articles. He said that the golf world had been kind to him and he wanted to give back. The only caveat was that he wanted to remain anonymous. I literally cried that night. It was such a kind, wonderful thing to do. Within a few days the print money was in my account. I owe everything to this great man.”
The golf historian David Hamilton, who was a well-known organ transplant surgeon, has written one of the book’s two forewords. “It is so thorough,” Hamilton said with a clear degree of approval. “I haven’t got the stamina to have done something like this. Roger has done massive research, scholarly almost, and it is uncompromising. No corners were cut. He has got original content from key sources. As a golf historian it is terrific to the reverence he has for previous historians. He is just a boy. It is lovely to see another generation of historians coming along.”
St Andrews: The Road War Papers is published by St Andrews Golf Press, St Andrews, Scotland.
Top photo: Roger McStravick with his first book (Courtesy USGA)
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?