Jamie Gardner: Open have you longing to play the Old Course? He can help

Jamie Gardner: Open have you longing to play the Old Course? He can help

Building Bridges --  Jamie Gardner (left) joins Jim Kelechi (middle), owner of Linville Falls GC in North Carolina and Brian Clarke (right) of Arbroath, Scotland on the iconic Swilcan Bridge along the 18th hole at the Old Course.

Building Bridges -- Jamie Gardner (left) joins Jim Kelechi (middle), owner of Linville Falls GC in North Carolina and Brian Clarke (right) of Arbroath, Scotland on the iconic Swilcan Bridge along the 18th hole at the Old Course.

As you’re no doubt aware, the Open is in St. Andrews this week, about a two-hour drive from our home in the Scottish Borders. Yet my wife and I are temporarily in Los Angeles. As such, I’ll be watching the action this week like most Americans, via the various TV sets and mobile devices that happen to come within my view. Oh the bureaucracy!

Though I can’t spend the week at the game’s birthplace, I can still write about it—or more specifically about one of its local heroes. No, I’m not referring to Old Tom Morris, without whom the Old Course and the Open would not be what they are today. Rather, I’d like to cast my spotlight on Jamie Gardner, director of Adventures in Golf, a tour operator based in the Auld Grey Toon.

After all, how could you watch the Open this week—with its iconic shots of the R&A Clubhouse, the Swilcan Bridge and the Road Hole—and not long to experience it for yourself. If that’s your dream, this soft-spoken gentleman can help make it come true.

I first met Jamie while we were both attending the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January. In the interim, he indulged me in a long and rambling conversation about golf and travel—especially as it relates to Americans crossing the pond to experience Scotland’s magical linksland.

What follows are excerpts from that back-and-forth:

Wee Egg Mon: Before we dive into the deep end of your business, I’d like to get to know a bit about you as a person, especially as it relates to your love of golf.

Jamie Gardner: I moved to St. Andrews with my family in the early 1970s. As you can imagine, there’s every encouragement to play the game here. For example, up until your 16th birthday, you can play any of the courses—except the Old Course—for free. So when I was about 10 years old, my father got me started. And there were others who took me under their wing and mentored me.

Then the Open was held here in 1978, the year Jack Nicklaus won it. It was the first big golf event that I’d seen and it really grabbed my attention. I was far too shy to ask for autographs. But I would go down to the course, hang by the ropes and watch those fellows play. That inspired me.

After the championship, I still had about a month to go before the start of the next school year. So I played an average of three rounds a day. I was that fired up about the game. There was no holding me back after that.

I played an awful lot of golf the next 6-7 years through secondary school [the American equivalent of high school], including competitions. I didn’t keep up that pace after I went away to university. But whenever I came back to St. Andrews, I’d get out and play.

WEM: So, clearly, you had the “bug.” But most people who get hooked on the game don’t make it their livelihood. How were you able to turn your avocation into your vocation?

JG: A lot of my contemporaries moved away from St. Andrews to study and start their careers. But I came back during the summers between my school years. I did some caddying. I ran one of the putting greens for the St. Andrews Links Trust. And I did some work with the University of St. Andrews. They hosted golf weeks and I was one of the people who looked after the guests. We worked out of Hamilton Hall. That’s the red building behind the 18th green.

I was involved in golf to that degree. I was also interested in working for myself. As I came to the end of my time at university, those two ideas kind of came together. So in 1991, I started out as a one-man band organizing golf tours.

WEM: Talk about a leap of faith. Though, given your line of work, you can’t beat the location.

JG: I was able to make a go of it for about three years. Then I met the founders of Adventures in Golf: Ken Hamill, from America, and David Paterson, from England. They had worked together for the Colgate Company, one in marketing and the other in finance. They loved golf and wanted a change of scenery. And, like me, they were keen to do their own thing. So they started the business in 1977. In that respect they were one of the earliest golf tour operators in Scotland.

Their first account was the American Society of Golf Course Architects, which was a great start for them. They had fax machines back then. But most of the trip was organized with letters and phone calls. It might take weeks to make all of the arrangements. Of course, that was everyone’s expectation. Today, with email, we can sometimes complete an itinerary in 24 hours.

Then again, when they called up the Old Course to book tee times, they couldn’t buy enough of them. Now? They’re like gold dust. Times have certainly changed.

WEM: Are the founders still involved in the business?

JG: No, they retired seven years ago. Since then, I’ve taken the lead on the UK side and Carl Johnson runs our US office, in New Hampshire. He’s a lawyer by training and, like the founders, came to this from the corporate world. Carl handles the interaction with our clients on that side of the Atlantic and we handle the logistics on this side. It’s a good division of responsibility that has worked well for us over the years.

WEM: In what ways have you brought your passion for playing golf to the business of golf travel?

JG: The big incentive for me to get into this was not so much the business but the opportunity to be around people who share my passion for the game. When I was younger, I played in a lot of competitions. I was a bit of a perfectionist and, in retrospect, I can see that it held me back quite a bit. It took me a long time to figure out that you don’t have to look good, you just need to get the ball in the hole. Hit a shot, forget about it and move on. That’s enabled me to get far more enjoyment from the game, whether it’s a competition or just a social game. The fact is, if you don’t play well, no one will care but you.

Yet I’ll see clients who get off to a bad start. The head goes down and they’re not taking anything in. Maybe they’ll blame the caddy. Or they’ll start breaking down their swing and practicing different moves. I’ve been there and done that. And I just want to say to them, “Look where you are! Think about where you could be and what you could be doing instead.” But, on the flip side, I’ve been with clients and friends who are playing atrociously yet have been the very best of company. You see the extremes.

WEM: In your opinion, what sets Adventures if Golf apart from other tour operators?

JG: We are very much bespoke. Nearly everything we do is customized. One of the big factors is the pace of the trip. Some people are very aggressive. They want to play a round, then hit the road and get to the next location. Others want to take more time and have other types of experiences. They might want to play golf for a couple of days and then take a day off. Although there are common themes, we look at every client’s trip as being deeply personal to them.

WEM: So is there a process to sort all of that out?

JG: Yes. We have a website, of course. But we tend not to do the “please fill in this online form” kind of thing. Typically, a lot of time is spent on the phone in the initial stages. This is where having an office in America is such a big advantage. We ask a lot of questions: Have they taken other trips? Did they make the arrangements themselves or did they work with another company? What did they like about those trips? What is most important to them?

For some clients, it’s all about the golf. They don’t worry about where they’re going to stay. Others are very keen on the accommodations. They want a driver to look after them. They don’t want to have to figure everything out.

Fortunately, 90 percent of our clients are repeat or referred. If they’ve traveled with us before, then we know what they like and don’t like. If they’ve been referred by people they play golf with back home, then odds are they’ll be looking for similar experiences.

At minimum, we look after our clients in the same way we would like to be looked after ourselves. These days, with the Internet, it’s much more straightforward for people to book everything themselves. So as a tour operator you have to go that extra distance with your clients, both in the planning of the trip and the fulfilling of it.

WEM: What’s the most common misconception Americans have about playing golf in Scotland?

JG: They tend to think of Scotland as being a small place and that it doesn’t take that long to get from point A to point B. Sometimes we will have clients who want to pursue a very intense itinerary. If we can, we’ll find a way to make it flow. But there are times when we have to have a polite conversation where we make it clear that it’s just not going work—that we’re just not comfortable doing it that way. Most clients, if you provide clear and logical reasons, appreciate the guidance.

This is especially true when they’re hiring a driver. You can’t ask a driver to pick you up at 6 a.m., drive you around until 11 p.m. and then expect to pick you up first thing the next morning. It’s not sensible. And it’s not legal.

WEM: Do you focus exclusively on golf travel to Scotland?

JG: It’s our biggest draw, but Ireland is also a very popular destination for our clients. We also have interest in other parts of the UK, including England and Wales, which offers some great golf and value for the money. And we organize trips to Spain, Portugal, several resorts in the US and – by partnering with other companies – Australia and New Zealand. The latter tend to be longer trips, say 2-3 weeks. So it’s not just about golf. It might involve hiking, fishing, sightseeing and even helicopter flights.

About half of our clients like to drive themselves and the other half prefer having a driver. Our bread and butter are the smaller groups, 2-12 people. And about 25 percent of our clients are women. Most play golf but we sometimes have non-golfers. That’s a side of the business we’re looking to promote more.

WEM: So you work in golf, but do you still get to play golf? Are you just as passionate about the game now as you were when you watched Jack Nicklaus capture the Open Championship on the Old Course 35 years ago?

JG: Absolutely! There’s no way I could do this if I didn’t have a love for the game and a desire to experience new things. In fact, some friends and I have our first trip planned to the southwest of England to play Saunton Golf Club, Royal North Devon and Burnham & Berrow. All three are in the top 100 in the UK. We’ve traveled together for years. So we’ll play golf but also factor in time for some of the other things to see and do in the area.

I still enjoy going to places I’ve never been before—just like my clients. If I didn’t, they’d pick up on it straight away.

Want to go straight away to St. Andrews? Check out the Adventures in Golf website simply by clicking here.

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