Old Course starter, and former cop, James Johnstone finds similarities in the two jobs

Old Course starter, and former cop, James Johnstone finds similarities in the two jobs

Johnstone in front of his starter's hut, which is backed by the R&A clubhouse.
Chris Close Photography

In another life James Johnstone was a Glasgow cop, a big man with a badge who thrilled at high-speed chases and worked his rugged beat without the backup of a gun. He didn’t suffer fools. He made them suffer, like the drunk who tried to stab him (cuffed; tossed in the clink) or the woman who called him at 3 a.m. and asked if he could help her force-feed a hungry crow. (“Force-feed the bird a bullet,” was the gist of his reply.)

It wasn’t a bad gig, but it eventually aged, and so did Johnstone. So, for his second act, the man that friends know as “JJ” decided to swap his billy club for a buggy and restrict his crime fighting to combating slow play.

Four days a week, from dawn to dusk, JJ meets-and-greets golfers on the first tee and patrols the windblown fairways of the world’s most famous links. It’s a prestigious, if low-paying, post — starter and ranger at the Old Course at St. Andrews — and the duties aren’t that much different from law enforcement, except that he encounters fewer thugs. Both require the soothing insights of pop psychology and the people-pleasing skills of public relations.

His job, as JJ sees it, is to ease people along and to quell the fears of foursomes as they face the terrors of the first tee. Never mind that the opening fairway is wider than an airfield, with scarce trouble to speak of other than the demons in each player’s head.

“When they come to that first tee, most people are a bit nervous, and understandably so, since odds are they’ve been looking forward to it for a lifetime,” JJ says. “My job is to get them relaxed, to inject a little humor and try to remind them that the goal is to have fun.”

They make a fitting pairing, the ex-cop and the Old Course, both having mellowed and matured with time. In his younger years, JJ liked fast cars and the frisson of excitement that came with police work. Nowadays, flooring a golf cart is his version of a race. At 6’4″, he still cuts an imposing figure. But he’s 63 years old, his hair is tinged with gray, and his broad expressive face and bemused demeanor lend him a friendly, avuncular look (think Uncle Leo from Seinfeld).

When JJ signed on at St. Andrews in 1998, after 19 years on the Glasgow force, the Old Course, too, was in mid-life transition. Long a tweedy venue with a stiff-lipped reverence for tradition, it was learning to relax, opening its arms to corporate outings and pricey golf packages booked overseas. A new clubhouse had been built. Emphasis had fallen on American-style service. Out went grouchy icons, like the gin-blossomed starter who growled at you to move it. In came guys like JJ, who spoke a local’s brogue but was less of a curmudgeon than a company man.

“In the old days, you might have come across some crusty characters who could be quite intimidating, especially for someone coming to a course that already left them in a bit of awe,” says Colin Dalgleish, the GB&I Walker Cup captain and director of Perry Golf, the largest golf tour operator in Scotland. “These days, service expectations are higher. But visitors still come looking for a starter who has that unique Scottish flavor.”

It’s a delicate balance, honoring the past while adapting to the present, all the more so around St. Andrews, where locals like their golf without frills or fuss. Some lament the changes at the Old Course. They pine for the days of the late Bob McCrum, a longtime ranger whose Sabbatini-esque intolerance of slowpokes often led to brusque evictions from the links. That era has passed.

In keeping with new policy, JJ gives laggardly groups three warnings before asking them politely to move up a hole. In 12 years on the job, he has never had to kick anyone off the course. “JJ is always very amiable,” says one St. Andrews regular, who admits that he misses the old rule of law. “It’s the iron fist in the velvet glove approach.”

Since early tee times still go to locals, morning rounds require little intervention. Most wrap up in under four hours. But later in the day, when tourist play takes over, JJ’s job demands diplomacy: urging golfers onward without forgetting that the customer is (almost) always right.

Unfolding his lanking frame from his buggy, he ambles up to offending foursomes, a smiling but skeptical onlooker, a sympathetic ear who has heard it all. He dismisses lame excuses.

Golfers: “It’s not us, it’s the group ahead.”

JJ: “Then why are there three holes between you?” And parries lame complaints.

Golfers: “We paid good money for this!”

JJ: “So did the group waiting behind you.” Sometimes, he cracks down.

One afternoon, the British actor Hugh Grant was clogging up the Old Course, playing at the pace of an arthouse film. When JJ approached him and suggested that he try acting like a golfer, Grant cursed him out. But JJ held firm, and the tension gave way to a warm and fuzzy moment, with Grant handing the starter his autograph.

“To bad-ass,” it read.

Celebrities are common sightings on the Old Course, and to hear JJ tell it, they always find the short grass off the first tee. Sean Connery split the fairway, as did Clint Eastwood and George H.W. Bush. Michael Jordan nuked his drive, then strode up the fairway in his Nike golf spikes and stepped over the burn instead of using the bridge.

“The truth is that, with all the free time they have, most celebrities are excellent golfers,” JJ says. Clearly, he’s never watched the AT&T.

From commoners, meanwhile, JJ has seen shots that strain the laws of physics: shanks that carom off the caddyshack just right of the first tee; banana balls that land on the nearby beach. One misty morning, a St. Andrews member pulled his opening drive left of the adjoining 18th hole, a prodigious miss given that the two fairways combined are 129 yards wide. The ball bounded past a hotel, between parked cars and skipped down the cobblestones out of sight. The man went looking for it, and asked JJ for help.

“With all due respect, sir,” JJ said. “That ball was out of bounds, and for all I know, it’s bouncing still.”

Mostly, he’s the bearer of better news. When he works the first tee, JJ is pure sunshine. He reminds his nervous listeners to embrace the moment, and recites a slogan he coined himself: “St. Andrews for pleasure, memories to treasure.” “Let’s face it,” JJ says, “unlike police work, the people you meet here are here because they want to be. People often ask me if I have to deal with angry golfers, but I’ve never seen an angry golfer, only frustrated ones.”

Whether you break par or windows across the street, JJ says he wants you to go home happy. Life’s too short to pout over poor shots; your next one could be your last. A few years back, on the Jubilee Course, another of St. Andrews seven links, JJ watched a man wheeze his way up the 10th hole.

“This course is going to kill me,” the golfer said.

On the next hole, it did. The man died of a heart attack.

“This is the sort of place that people come to with terminal illnesses,” JJ says. “Playing the Old Course is a last wish.”

JJ himself survived a scare in 2008 when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He missed several months of work, and recovery from surgery cut into his golf. His handicap, once 10, has swollen to 16. He gets out on the Old Course once or twice a year, reciting his slogan as he goes. “St. Andrews for pleasure. Memories to treasure.”

Here’s the one he treasures most. Several years ago, he was policing the sixth hole when a woman sliced her tee shot into the rough. An unrepentant flirt, JJ carries extra golf balls for just such occasions. He dropped one surreptiously at his feet and told the woman he had found her ball.

The two struck up a conversation. Six months later, they strolled together up the 18th fairway and JJ proposed to her on the Swilcan Bridge. “That’s the other similarity with police work,” JJ says. “You have to enjoy interacting with the public. I enjoy meeting people, especially the pretty ones in short skirts.”

Now on the Tee … You!
Scoring a date with James Johnstone — aka, an Old Course tee time — is not as difficult as you might think. There are four ways to arrange it, provided you meet the R&A’s handicap requirements (24 for men; 36 for women).

1. Apply for a time through the advance reservation system on standrews.org.uk.

Local knowledge: Don’t dillydally. The site accepts applications starting in September for the following year.

2. Show up at St. Andrews and enter the daily ballot, which is drawn each afternoon for play the following day.

Local knowledge: Your best chance is to enter as a two- or four-ball. Singles are given lower priority.

3. Just show up, period. As a single, the starter will try to slot you in with groups throughout the day.

Local knowledge: Arrive before dawn. (The worst time to try to play is in late August and September, when R&A members descend on the Old Course.)

4. Purchase a premium tee time through the Old Course Experience, a golf tour company that has an exclusive contract with the St. Andrews Trust.

Local knowledge: Be prepared to buck up. The packages, which include lodging and meals and have a two-night minimum, start at $2,000 per person.

Non-premium green fees:

April 19-Oct. 17: $200*

April 1-18: $150

Nov. 1-March 31: $100

Note: From November through March, you are required to play all shots from the fairway off portable mats.

*Approximate rates after conversion.

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