One of the greatest heroes in the history of golf is a man named Jack Willoughby. Because Jack Willoughby actually did what every golfer who makes a pilgrimage to St. Andrews eventually boasts. Many of them, I’m sure, say it in the dim, warm light of the pub at the Dunvegan Hotel.
“I could live here,” it usually goes, with every buzzed, suddenly introspective traveler briefly contemplating—either out loud or privately—living the dream. It’s the byproduct of checking off a bucket-list golf course while gaining both a real and an emotional distance from the demands of everyday life back home. The golfer is left with a vision of their best life, where they live as the locals do: playing golf the way it’s supposed to be played and drinking beer the way it’s supposed to be drunk.
All golfers feel this at St. Andrews, and particularly at “the Dunny,” because on some cosmic level we’re pretty much the same. Yes, we come from different places and speak different languages and vote for different people. But for sacred blocks of four and a half hours (it had better be three and a half around here), we share a frequency typically reserved for identical twins.
Alas, this golf fever dream fades away. The airline ticket never gets ripped up. Real life beckons, and golfers trudge back home.
Except for Jack Willoughby. In 1994, Willoughby and his wife, Sheena, were living in Aberdeen, Scotland, and soaking up another visit to the Dunvegan. On the corner of Golf Place and North Street, roughly 120 yards from the 18th green of one of Earth’s greatest golf courses, the pub at this five-room hotel was a bit rougher around the edges then, but the magic was still undeniable.
This time, the conversation every golfer has didn’t end quickly. It turned into a serious meeting with the bar manager, and suddenly Jack, a fourth-generation Texan and a vice president at GlaxoSmithKline, and Sheena, his Scottish wife, who also had a stable job at Glaxo, owned the place.
In the coming decades, they turned the Dunny into something of a holy ground for golf travelers. Success, however, was hardly immediate.
“The first two years were awful,” Willoughby told ESPN in 2015. “Sheena cried herself to sleep most nights.”
Anyone who has been to the Dunvegan will understand why that’s a shocking visual, because they have seen what feels like nine million photos of a beaming Sheena posted all over the walls and ceiling of the bar. The tradition started small, but became the place’s calling card: If you’re famous, and if you want a pint, you take a picture with Sheena.
Tiger Woods, Neil Armstrong, Arnold Palmer, Bill Clinton and seemingly countless others have indulged, and the proof hangs proudly. The rich and famous have breathed an aura into the place, starting at the 1994 Dunhill Cup when Tom Kite, Fred Couples and Curtis Strange made it their watering hole of choice. More fans followed. More pros and celebrities followed. There was an impromptu midnight golf session with Ernie Els. Stacy Lewis and Lorena Ochoa both stayed in the Dunvegan the weeks they won the Women’s British Open. Countless buddies’ trips have started and ended there. Sheena tells stories of golfers carrying urns filled with the ashes of loved ones into the Dunny for one final toast.
After 22 years of ownership, Jack and Sheena decided in 2016 to sell the Dunvegan. It was bought by a group called Forth Bridge Capital, LLC, and by all accounts things have mostly remained the same. Of course, they’d be foolish to change much, because visiting the Dunvegan has nothing to do with a logo or what’s on the menu. It’s about bringing together people who would otherwise seemingly have no business colliding. And some of the best collisions in the game take place in the wee hours of the morning at the Dunvegan.
“This is my second time here; it’s a very special place. The first time, I came with my father, 15 years ago. So, for me, it’s a very personal place, since he taught me how to play golf. Now to come with a bunch of friends, the camaraderie is terrific. When we came 15 years ago, we had a beer in this exact same spot. I did him proud on the course today with a 78.”
— Bill. Fairfax, Virginia
“It means a whole lot to play here, to walk the same course that all the greats walked. After watching Open after Open after Open here, I don’t know how to explain the feeling. Especially the bridge on 18—it brought tears to my eyes, honestly. I took some grass from right by the bridge, and it’s going into my memorabilia. This is my first time in Scotland, and my first time playing any of the courses. On the first tee, I hit my shot a little right. I had 130 yards to the pin and hit it to about 10 feet. Rolled it in for birdie and I immediately wanted to go back home.”
— Ashwin. Washington, D.C.
“It’s a lot of fun to be out here with my dad before I go off to [University of Maryland]. To play on such an iconic course that you’ve seen on TV and has been around for so many years, it’s a privilege. I shot 68. Bogey-free round on the Old Course—hard to get much better than that.”
— Thomas. Charlotte, North Carolina
“Playing here is something unique and special. I’ve played the Old Course five times now, and each time it has gotten better and better. My favorite moment was teeing off on the first while Barack Obama was playing his second shot into 18. There were 2,000 people on my back. And my lowest moment is probably hitting the hotel on 17. No broken windows, just a lost ball.”
— Rodrigo. Spain
“It’s important [for me] to play golf, because I work here and I want to understand what it’s all about.…I have hit a ball [on the Old Course]. I made contact. It went…it went somewhere. I feel like that’s the important thing. It went somewhere towards the hole.”
— Nell. Yorkshire, England
“I’m a member of St. Andrews Golf Club. Jack Willoughby, who used to own this place, actually sponsored me. We come here every other year. Our group of golfers is called “The Wild Colonial Boys.” Sheena calls us “The Mild Colonial Boys” because we’ve gotten older. We just got here. We landed and came straight here. First place we go.”
— Tom. Boston, Massachusetts
“This has been on my bucket list for a very long time. I had so much fun. The starter was cracking so many jokes, I didn’t even feel like I was teeing off at St. Andrews, so I hit the middle of the fairway. The group in front of us were friends of ours, and as soon as they teed off I asked if we could play through. I just couldn’t wait.”
— Ram. Washington, D.C.
“It’s special to be here. I played the Old Course yesterday and had a great finish on 18. Memory of a lifetime. This is my first time here. I pulled my tee shot a little left on No. 1. I still had an easy 8-iron into the green, but rolled it right into the burn. Only uphill from there.”
— Dan. Fairfax, VA
“It’s the second time I’ve been here and I had the time of my life. I shot in the mid-90s, a little higher than in the States. That’s probably due to how penal the bunkers are, and the weather conditions. But if you accept the weather as part of golf, you’ll have a good time.”
— Allan. San Diego, California
“This is my third time here. The first time was my 20-year anniversary with my wife. Second time, I played with the group I’m here with today on the Old Course. And now the third time. It’s very emotional.”
—James. Washington, D.C. by way of Argentina
“I just had the time of my life. I got to play with my father (pictured below), which is a life bucket-list item checked off. As for the course, I’m still speechless. Five birdies today, including 18. Couple of doubles as well, though. [Laughs.]”
— Daniel. New York, New York
“Great experience. I waited 62 years and it was worth every second. I can’t wait to come back and do this again.”
— Daniel. Saratoga, California