Tracing family footsteps

On a recent trip to Scotland, Neville Holter had a brief window to visit St Andrews. She took the opportunity to retrace her father’s footsteps who fulfilled his dream of playing the Old Course before being deployed to France to fight in WWII. This is her story about her dad’s once in a lifetime experience. 

I didn’t remember this story about my father playing golf at St Andrews until I shared with my sister that a visit to the historic Old Course was on the itinerary of my next trip to Scotland. Until we spoke, I wasn’t interested about seeing the Links. I don’t play golf but would go out of respect for my father who was a three-handicap golfer and loved the game. Her story inspired me.

Dad had to quit school to help his family when he was 9 years old after his father was killed in a stalled car on a railroad track. Newly made ‘man-of-the house’ in 1930, Dad worked several jobs and in his spare time studied his sister’s school books. His favourite job in his teenage years was to caddie for the leaders of his community at Lake Wissota Park,  where his mother and four siblings lived. Being a strong Norwegian-American boy, he was able to carry two bags for the price of one caddie – a good deal for the golfers!

Over the years, Dad watched, listened and learned what the different clubs were used for, how wind could change the arc of a ball’s flight or the shape of a green change the path of a putt. The lawyers and doctors who hired him were happy to answer his questions. At some point he acquired a used club and practiced on his own minimal, homemade putting green.

Dad in his early army days; William Clinton Holter 

My dad achieved the support of golfing sponsors who encouraged him to apply and attend college. They arranged for a loan to help pay for part of Dad’s classes at Ripon College. He continued to work to make up any difference. He joined the R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers Training Corps). Sophomore year when he was allowed to participate on a varsity team, he played football in the fall and golf during the brief days in spring when the weather became warm enough. Leaving college after two years, he joined the army as an officer candidate. This was the summer of 1944.

He was assigned as a replacement to the General George Patton’s Third Army, on October 23, 1944. Just over a month after his 24th birthday, Dad’s transport ship landed at Gourock, Scotland, near Glasgow. Quickly, troops were transported to the town of Leek in England on the western border of the Peak District National Park where they remained while making final preparations for sailing to Le Harve, France, and the war on November 26th.

During the month in England, his immediate commander was ordered to give as many men as possible leave and provide them with whatever pay they earned to enjoy time off in a new country before they went to war. Like my father, most of these young soldiers never had discretionary funds to spend or a vacation, even in their own country. The only place in Great Britain Dad knew about and wanted to see was the Old Course at St Andrews. Perhaps his sponsors in Wisconsin or his college coach taught his team the history of golf’s beginnings in Scotland in the 1400’s. Dad was anxious to visit the famous course as he knew this might be the only opportunity in his lifetime.

When he arrived, he stood looking at the course, but turned when he heard a car drive up. He saw an elderly Scot, a gentleman with a driver to open his door, splendidly dressed in ‘plus fours’ with stylish Argyll socks to cover his legs and a tam on his head.

The older man noticed the tall, uniformed young man standing there and approached him. He must have recognised the American Army uniform and assumed that this young man, an ally, was headed for battle. He asked in his Scottish brogue if the soldier had heard of St Andrews. When Dad said, “yes, sir!”, he asked if he played the game. Dad said he did. “Well, young man, I would like to invite you to play a round with me. I will make sure you have clubs to fit your tall height. My driver will caddie.”

Old Course circa 1940’s

Later, Dad told my sister that the course differs from American courses in that it’s a much more natural terrain; the greens aren’t clipped as short and yellow gorse bushes grow around the course. Wind from the North Sea across St Andrews Bay can be steady and powerful or variable. During the time spent playing 18 holes, perhaps Dad told the gentleman how he learned the game, that he played for his college team and even about his sponsors at Lake Wissota Park in Wisconsin. Perhaps the kind Scot with bushy white hair told my father the history of the sport. Perhaps Dad lost a ball in one of the infamous deep bunkers…

When the round ended, Dad felt he hadn’t played his best game but hadn’t disgraced himself either.

For the rest of his life, Dad played golf as often as possible. He attributed most of the best opportunities in his life to the game. When he watched a tournament played at St Andrews on television while mentally tipping his hat in grateful appreciation to the gentleman Scot, Dad felt the satisfaction of knowing he had played the course where so many others only dream of having a round.

Walking in my father’s footsteps

I’m thrilled to have retraced my father’s footsteps. To have visited St Andrews and the Old Course where my father once stood fills me with a sense of great joy and wonder.

Words by Neville Holter

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