The Old Course at St. Andrews has been Mr. Finegan's beloved playground for decades.
Illustration by Keith Witmer
By Michael Bamberger
Thursday, December 19, 2013

A man in his age puts away his childish things reluctantly, and so it is for Mr. Finegan. He is 84 and he'd be playing today -- 10 clubs in a slender sack on the back of a cart -- as he has almost daily since boyhood, were it not for his legs. "The legs, the legs." The legs have a sort of dystrophy rooted in arthritis and age. Even in their prime they were never much more than No. 2 pencils, skinny columns that held up a most unorthodox but repeating swing that produced thousands of scores in the 70s, a club championship here, a father-son title there. But now even his senior wins were a long time ago. The legs. If only they would come back even a little bit.

Mr. Finegan lives in a stately Main Line home he built 50 years ago, heated (sparingly) with money he earned as a Philadelphia advertising man. When he met my wife years ago, then working (his phrase) "in the New York ad game," he called her "a Madison Avenue sharpie!" The escalation of the caddie fee north of the $100 mark is "a scandal." He reads Graham Greene on morality, Herb Wind on golf, Flannery O'Connor on faith. He watches the NBA, Eagles football, golf on CBS. He dreams of St. Andrews.

A man in his age thinks thoughts he dare not share. He and Mrs. Finegan have 60 devoted years together. There are three children, seven grandchildren, a driveway more crowded than a car dealer's showroom, the constant murmur of conversation. But often at night and sometimes by day the big house is still, and it was on one such day some months ago that Mr. Finegan commenced a series of furtive calls.

He phoned his travel agent -- remember travel agents? -- and booked himself, round-trip, Philadelphia to Glasgow. Business class. (A scandal!) A friend, the head professional at Crail, would pick him up at the airport. Another, a St. Andrews hotelier, would put him up at the Scores Hotel. Clubs he would borrow. He was going to get himself on the Old Course, where he's played a hundred times. Driver, 3-wood, pitch shot over the burn -- he could envision a 5 on the first. He could envision the whole round.

It was all top secret. If Mrs. Finegan found out, or the children, if anybody knew anything, he would find himself in lockdown, Main Line–style. When the mail came, Mr. Finegan, his walker leading the way, bolted out the front door to be sure he was the first to the Visa bill and the phone bill. He had never been so aware of his paper trail.

He decided to share his secret with a fellow Scotsophile. He recounted for me the plan for his 79th transatlantic journey. He spoke of the magic of his 11 summers in St. Andrews.

It would be an emotional trip, St. Andrews '13, of course. A final trip, in all likelihood. But St. Andrews was not his Mecca, and the Old Course was not his Western Wall. Golf is an elemental part of Jim Finegan's life. The eight golf books he has written. (Lasting contributions to the game -- an American not in Paris but at Nairn.) The handful of clubs he has joined. The friends he has made on courses near and far. But his soul, his true soul, belongs to someone else. St. Andrews, at the end of the day, is his beloved playground. That's a lot and that's enough.

The doctor said no way. The doctor, a golfer himself who would have swum Loch Ness to approve the trip and even join Jim on it, said he was too frail to go. Not alone. Not even with accompaniment. The trip was aborted. His secret trickled out.

A man in his age takes stock. He ruminates and revisits. Mr. Finegan had one minor car accident and gave up his driver's license and wishes he had not. He's become a dependent. Lunch, a son reminds him, is in the fridge, under the foil. "Thank you, thank you." Here are your meds. Thank you. Your walker, your day bag. Thank you. Put on the other sweater, the white shoes with the Velcro straps, the warmer hat. It's a great and annoying thing, to be surrounded by so many loving minders.

Golf was always his. He played seven days a week and the weekday games he played alone. He'd go around, and the shots returned him to his caddie-yard boyhood, his middle age as the agency chairman, his retirement summers in St. Andrews, the legs good and the drives straight and the swing, the most self-taught swing you ever saw, repeating like a mechanical arm on a Detroit assembly line. Golf, Mr. Finegan figured out in his age, was independence. He decided where, how, with whom. John Updike wrote of golf as freedom, of a wild and windy sort. Mr. Finegan will tell you the same thing.

As for St. Andrews in this new year, he's plotting.

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