Playing the Old Course with Bill Murray is every bit as epic as it sounds

October 17, 2019

There is at least one experience in golf cooler than playing the Old Course.

Playing the Old Course with Bill Murray.

The news came after dinner on a recent Sunday, just as we were getting up from our table at The Steak Barn, a former sawmill-turned-trendy-eatery just outside of St. Andrews. Among my dining mates was Guy Sanan, who is the tournament director of the Dunhill Links Championship, a celeb-heavy Euro Tour pro-am conducted on the holy triumvirate of the Old Course, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie. The good folks at the Dunhill had invited me over to cover the tournament on social media, which included a spot in an Old Course outing on the Monday after the event concluded. Tough gig, I know.

“What time do we tee off tomorrow?” I said, rising from my chair.

“Tee No. 3 at 8:30,” Guy said. “It’s you, me, Dan and Bill.”

Bill and the author, right, upon the Swilcan Bridge.
Bill and the author, right, upon the Swilcan Bridge.

Dan was Dan Nicholl, a South African TV personality. Bill was … Bill. Funnyman Bill. Oscar-nominated Bill. Perennial star of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Bill.

Yes, William J. Murray himself.

My attempt to play it cool lasted all of a millisecond. A goofy smile broke across my face. You might call this a bucket-list moment, only who would have the audacity to put Old Course tee time with Carl Spackler on their bucket list?

The next day dawned calm and clear. My head not so much. I was more excited and incredulous than nervous, still half-believing this invite was part of some elaborate ruse. I arrived at 7:30 to hit balls. Bill did not. He strolled in at 8:33 a.m. — yep, three minutes past our starting time, which felt perfectly on brand. I later learned that Bill was out late at a house party singing Scottish songs with the townsfolk. On brand again. We shook hands and readied ourselves for a loop on Old Tom’s sod.

It was a shotgun start. We were dispatched to the par-4 3rd. When I tried to explain the stableford scoring format to Bill, he said, “That’s too many numbers for me.”

Bill floated his opening tee shot down the middle of the fairway with a slight draw. He’s a 13(ish) handicap playing out of Sleepy Hollow Country Club, just up the Hudson from New York City; you can quickly tell he’s capable of putting together a good round but early on this sun-splashed day he was working to find the pieces.

After an ineffective putt on the 5th green, Bill looked up at me and deadpanned, “Good thing I’m not flying a plane.”

To be fair, none of us were threatening the course record. None of us could have cared less, either.

Two holes later, Bill chunked his approach into the gaping Shell Bunker.

“Oh no no, oh no no.”

It wasn’t an especially funny moment but Bill is a natural at making middling golf entertaining to watch. He escaped the pit and managed to salvage bogey.

On the short par-4 9th, Bill faced a 12-footer for birdie. Suddenly, he was all business. He eyed his line, drew back his putter and … draino. We all high-fived and fist bumped, but the smile on Bill’s face lingered just a little bit longer than ours. Turns out Bill Murray loves making birdies just as much as the rest of us.

On the tee at 11, I sat down next to my partner as he stretched out his limbs on a bench. “Teach me your ways, Mr. Murray.” Bill happily obliged. With our hands behind our heads, we did five sets of side twists. Next up were some lunges, with our legs spread wide and our heads between our knees. Bill talked me through each move as if he were my personal trainer.

The author, right, loosening up with Bill.
The author, right, loosening up with Bill.

I took copious mental notes. “Here are a couple of stretches that Bill Murray showed me” will be a fun line to trot out in future rounds. A few holes later, Bill surprised us all when he pulled a Hypervolt massage tool from his bag (it looked like a cross between a hair dryer and a power drill) and began loosening up our squad. Where was this device on the 3rd tee when we really needed it?!

“Bill, you know what is my favorite line from Ghostbusters?” I said as he worked on us.

“What’s that?”

“And the flowers are still standing.”

It’s a rarely-cited line that Bill’s character, Peter Venkman, says after attempting to yank a tablecloth out from under a table of fine china. Bill looked stunned. Then he thanked me.

Thank you?” I said.

“Yes, thank you. I had to fight to keep for two weeks to keep that line in the movie. I knew that line was great but they wanted to cut it.”

Bill wasn’t only gracious, he was also curious. After noticing the RGV Tour logos on my head covers, he asked me what that was. I told him all about my 2018 journey — when I drove cross-country in an RV, playing golf and raising money for The First Tee along the way — and he seemed genuinely rapt. He shared stories from his own cross-country jaunts, which included piling his family into a sprinter van and motoring west.

On the tee at 17 — the famous/infamous Road Hole — Bill went out of his way to engage a small cluster of fans who had gathered to watch him play. Not all celebs enjoy fraternizing with the galleries; Bill revels in it. After a lengthy chat, he stepped up and ripped a postcard drive over the Old Course Hotel sign. He turned back to his new acquaintances, pointed to them and proclaimed, “That one was for you guys.”

Their faces lit up.

His heroics didn’t last. On 18, Bill hammered his drive right of right, eliciting throaty Fore! cries from our group.

“Oh no, it’s way over there,” he grumbled.

Then, in a scene straight out of Caddyshack, disaster turned into delight. Bill’s ball bounded off of a building near the Russacks Hotel and back into the middle of the fairway. After a requisite pit stop for photos on the Swilcan Bridge, we continued on to Bill’s ball. (“My first ever window bank shot!” he said.) Naturally, he saved par.

Bill gives thanks for his fortunate bounce.
Bill gives thanks for his fortunate bounce.

Given our setting, it felt like the round was over. It wasn’t. Shotgun start! Two more holes!

As we approached the burn fronting the 1st green, I decided I’d leap it. Out came the phones. When I landed safely on the other side, the cameras panned to Bill.

“Bill, was that the most impressive thing you’ve seen today?” someone in our group said.

“The most foolish,” he said, accurately.

When the final putt dropped on the 2nd green, we shook hands, exchanged niceties and, in the tradition of Old Tom himself, snapped selfies. Another dream walk in Scotland was a wrap, leaving me with one last task.

I opened my LinkedIn app and added seven words to my lifetime achievements: “I have played golf with Bill Murray.”