Renton Laidlaw, a legendary media man who died on 12 October at age 82, was a beacon of old-world courtesy in our changing game. Players of his vintage had the same respect for him as he for them, and their friendships soon became the real thing as opposed to merely journalist–player associations. He had a special bond with Jack Nicklaus, born of the fact that they were much the same age; he felt honoured to have sat next to Arnold Palmer’s father, Deacon – “an older edition of Arnold” – at a Ryder Cup dinner; and he and Gary Player saw each other as fellow Scots.
Player, who had a Scottish grandmother, would often greet him with the line, “I love Scots!” and Laidlaw delighted in hearing as much until there came a day in Italy when the so-called Black Knight was cheerfully advising his fans, “I love Italians!”
Renton was good at his job. In fact, he was good at all his jobs, some of which he tackled two at a time whilst still finding space for leisurely dinners with his many friends. More often than not, he would slip quietly away to pay the bill.
Shades of Bernhard Langer who, on telling his school’s career advisor that he wanted to be a golfer and was advised that there was no such thing as a career as a golfer, Renton told his headmaster at Edinburgh’s Stewart’s Melville College that he wanted to be a journalist. “Why don’t you go away and think about that,” suggested the head. “It would be safer to become a banker or work for an insurance company.”
Like Langer, Laidlaw made a pretty good fist of proving the headmaster wrong. At age 13 he was revelling in shifts as a copytaker at the Edinburgh Evening News before becoming that paper’s golf writer. Next, there was a post with Grampian Television and from there he joined the BBC as news anchorman for the Edinburgh Region. In that role, he was seen as what they might now call a “go-to” man for everything from religion to gardening.
Before too long, he was signed up by the London Evening Standard, which in turn led to 15 years as the BBC’s radio golf correspondent. Across this incredible career, he would cover 165 majors including 58 Opens. He also attended 45 Masters.
Even today, the Scottish media and the Scottish players enjoy the best of relationships but, back in the 1960s and 1970s Laidlaw pulled off the deliciously improbable.
Laidlaw admitted to an occasion when he had his knuckles well and truly rapped. It was at the 1976 Curtis Cup at Lytham where he was guilty of keeping the Curtis Cup player he was dating from her bed for rather longer than the captain would have wished.
In 1975, David Huish, a club professional at North Berwick, performed the signal feat of leading the Open at Carnoustie at the halfway stage with rounds of 69 and 67, which saw him two ahead of Tom Watson, Peter Oosterhuis and Bernard Gallacher. Huish, who re-lived this tale for me last Wednesday, had finished his second round at 2:30. From then until 7 o’clock and without so much as a break for lunch, he was called upon to go through the length of every shot and putt in an endless series of interviews. Finally, he was about to step in his car and drive back to his hotel in St Andrews when Renton approached with a request for him to come back at 7 in the morning to do the Good Morning Scotland show.
“Much as I love you,” replied an apologetic Huish, “I’m going to have to say no. I’m not out till the middle of the afternoon and I’ll be having a bit of a lie in.”
“Not to worry,” returned Renton, “we’ll just do it now if that’s all right.”
Huish, who would become PGA chairman, dutifully followed him into a studio and, after listening open-mouthed to the host’s opening spiel about how he was lucky enough to be speaking to the championship leader on the morning of the third day, he was thrown the following question, “So how did you sleep last night, David?”
The second question had to do with what he had eaten for breakfast, and the third, “What will you be doing between now and your starting time?” As Huish remembers it, he coped pretty well with this switch to the future. He said had he slept well, he had eaten a handsome breakfast, and that he planned to have a walk along the beach before leaving for Carnoustie.
To this day, Huish can recall lying in bed on the Saturday morning and listening disbelievingly to what he had said.
In an excellent interview with Golf Digest’s John Huggan just two months before he died, Laidlaw admitted to an occasion when he had his knuckles well and truly rapped. It was at the 1976 Curtis Cup at Lytham where he was guilty of keeping the Curtis Cup player he was dating from her bed for rather longer than the captain would have wished.
It was in fact no later than 10 p.m. when Renton, who had a series of romances without ever tying the proverbial knot, was saying goodnight to the woman in question on the pavement outside the Grand Hotel. By UK standards at least, the hotel lived up to its name at that stage in its history and, in contrast to what many of the American visitors anticipated, the rooms had bathrooms. In truth, you doubt whether any US hotel had a drainage system quite like it because the “sweet nothings” Renton was uttering on the pavement three floors down, were coming up loud and clear via the plug hole in my bath.
While proud of what he had achieved in golf and beyond, Renton was never less than self-deprecating. In talking about his first job in TV, with Grampian TV, he added to Michael McDonnell’s book of Classic Golf Quotes with the tale of how the station’s first request was that he should think about wearing a wig. Next, would you believe, they suggested he could do with changing his name, a name which had as good a ring to it as Tiger Woods.
Renton’s lowest handicap was 12, and he once played with Seve Ballesteros among many other leading players. However, you did not need to be in the same group as he was to recognise a day when not too much was going well. His every shot, be it right, left or along the ground, came as a glorious surprise and would be accompanied by peals of laughter.
With his commentary hat on, he did not attempt to describe a player’s swing, feeling as he did that his job had more to do with watching out for what can best be described as little gems of news. In keeping with which, it was typical of him that, while watching the 2021 Open from his home in Drumoig near St Andrews, he found nothing so satisfying as the courtesy Collin Morikawa extended to Germany’s Matthias Schmid, winner of the Amateur silver medal.
Though he retired in 2015, Laidlaw never lost touch with what was happening in the lives of all his friends, of which he had so many around the world you often wondered why he was even vaguely concerned at forgetting the odd name.
I had a couple of calls from him recently; one to say how much he had enjoyed an article on Welshman Stephen Dodd in GGP; and another congratulating me on being the first woman president of the Association of Golf Writers. I thanked him warmly before saying I would be happy if I could do the job even half as well as he had. On each of those calls, my inquiries after his health prompted a chuckle and an “I’m OK, thanks!”
Both in his role as president, which he held from 2004 to 2015, and in his earlier stint as chairman, Renton never failed to do what was required of him – and so much more.
At every Open, when he was president, he would deliver what was thought to be Rabbie Burns’ ancient Selkirk Grace at the Golf Writers’ dinner in that lovely Scottish tongue of his, a voice which was unarguably the strongest club in his bag.
“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!”
Renton always counted himself lucky – from his career to his wonderful sister, Jennifer, who saw him through one health crisis after another until COVID-19 helped contribute to his end.
In one sense at least, the timing was never going to be right for a truly fascinating man who would always have had so much left to say.
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