A marriage made in Golf Heaven
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
As you might expect from a good Scottish pub, there is a wide variety of Scotch whiskey on the shelves behind the bar at the Dunvegan Hotel. But on the top row, down the line from bottles in a section labeled “Very Fine,” the keen observer will note two small urns that share space with the single malts.
They contain the remains of “Sleepy” from Tallahassee and Tim from Chicago. Avid golfers in life, those gentlemen requested that in death their ashes be spread over the Old Course.
Ashes to ashes is one thing, dust to dust quite another. The Dunvegan, it seems, was as much a part of Sleepy’s and Tim’s St. Andrews experience as the Swilcan Bridge. So they also specified that their final resting place be a spot where they could eternally eavesdrop on the post-round banter at their favorite 19th hole.
Sheena and Jack Willoughby, proprietors of the Dunvegan, obliged without question.
“That’s what this place means to people,” says Sheena.
She and her husband can relate. When they bought the Dunvegan nearly nine years ago, they acted on a golf fantasy of their own. In the Dunvegan, they’ve created a unique home-away-from-home for American visitors to the cradle of golf.
Figuring out how to appeal to Yanks was the easy part. Jack Willoughby, 52, was born on the Fourth of July in – no kidding – Liberty, Texas. After graduating from Texas A&M University, he did what many Aggies do. He found a job in the oil business.
He worked his way up the sales ladder to an executive position with Houston drilling equipment manufacturer Vetco Gray. In 1981, Vetco transferred him to the company’s new plant in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he spent the better part of 12 years, sandwiched around a brief stint in Nigeria.
It was in Aberdeen that he met Sheena Gibb, a sprightly Scottish blonde from Forfar. She was executive assistant to the company president. Both were divorced – Jack’s 21-year-old twin daughters live in Texas and California. Jack and Sheena started dating in the early ’90s. Their relationship turned serious after he returned from Nigeria and the couple began spending long weekends in St. Andrews.
Jack had never played golf before he was assigned to Scotland.
“We were raised on football and baseball, those macho sports,” he says.
But it wasn’t long before he was smitten by the game. Now he now plays off an 8 handicap. Despite growing up near Carnoustie, Sheena – who is nine years younger than Jack – also was a nongolfer. She took it up when Jack began taking her on his St. Andrews junkets. She now plays off 12.
With each successive visit to St. Andrews, Sheena and Jack thought more and more about living there. They were especially intrigued by the possibilities they saw in an establishment they frequented after golf, the Dunvegan.
“This place was owned by a nongolfer,” says Jack. “He was running it as a pub. He was an older gentleman who let his two sons run it. They weren’t very interested in the business, and the place was in really bad shape. It’s hard to believe that happening in this location.”
That being the corner of Pilmour Place and Golf Place, about 112 yards from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews clubhouse and the first tee of the Old Course.
“We always kind of fantasized about doing this,” says Jack, “because of where it was.”
During one visit in 1992, the couple was having lunch with the Dunvegan’s owner and Jack suggested, only half-joking, “If you ever want to sell, call me.”
Six months later, to their surprise, that call arrived. Jack put together a business plan and started inquiring about financing. Lacking experience in hospitality, he knew it would be a tough sell.
“My argument was, I’d been a customer at these kind of establishments for a long time,” Jack says. “I know what they’re looking for.”
The bankers weren’t impressed. One after another, they rejected his loan application. But Jack Willoughby is nothing if not a salesman, and after several months his persistence was rewarded.
“We finally got the financing arranged, and all of a sudden the ball was in our court,” says Jack. But did they really want to quit their jobs, buy a run-down hotel, move to a strange town and start over as partners in business as well as life?
“We sat on the fence for two weeks, trying to talk ourselves out of it,” Jack recalls. “But we decided if we didn’t go ahead and do it, we’d regret it forever.”
Jack quit his job in Aberdeen where he was vice president of operations. He has never looked back.
“That gets old, the company politics and everything,” he says. “Some people thrive on that. I had had it.”
The Dunvegan deal closed in St. Andrews on a chilly day in January 1994.
“We signed the papers and (the seller) gave me the keys,” says Jack. “Then he left and I had to go over and pour a pint for my first customer.”
Jack won’t reveal how much he paid for the Dunvegan, but he can’t disguise his pride in some shrewd deal-making. “Let’s just say it’s hard to believe a piece of property like this, at this location, would be available to a working man in 1993,” he says.
Nevertheless, Jack reckons the cost of upgrades have since matched the purchase price. As their first decade of ownership draws to a close, the Dunvegan is little more than a break-even proposition for the Willoughbys. And that’s only a recent development.
What the couple had purchased was a 190-year-old, three-story greystone with a checkered past. During World War II it had been owned by the British government, which used it to house pilots from the nearby Leuchars Royal Air Force base. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was a hardscrabble pub, with apartments above, favored by caddies and St. Andrews University students.
Jack soon discovered that the Dunvegan was in worse shape than he might have thought. “We basically had to gut the interior of the building,” he says.
Among the priorities was the renovation of the three second-floor guest rooms. “Installing comfortable beds and good showers was the first order of business,” Jack says.
They also recognized that they needed something to “kick-start” their food service, so they lured chef Mike Farqueson from a competitor, giving him 5 percent of the business. Sheena continued to work in Aberdeen for another nine months, commuting to help Jack on weekends until they were married in September 1993.
Meanwhile, Jack had his hands full. In the best of times, Dunvegan patrons had been rough around the edges. When word of a change of ownership got around, it got rougher. “All the people who had been banned came back,” Jack says. “We had fights in the bar. We had staff problems.”
That wasn’t part of the business plan. “We had to shift the clientele from the local drinking class and students, to a golfing clientele,” Jack says.
One evening, Jack stumbled on an effective tactic. Around 10 p.m., the place had begun filling with St. Andrews University students, plus an assortment of the usual suspects. “They were playing new-wave, punk music (on the jukebox),” Jack recalls. “I put on some country and western, and the place cleared out in about 10 minutes.”
Which wasn’t exactly in the business plan, either. It wasn’t long, though, before the Dunvegan began regularly filling up with golfers. “People in the other establishments kind of do their own thing,” says Bob Miller, owner of Auchterlonies Golf Shop, across Golf Place from the Dunvegan. “Jack had a clear idea of the clientele he was trying to attract. No one else in town caters so much to the golfer.”
“We did feel like we could differentiate ourselves by our level of service,” says Jack. “We realized most of our customers would be Americans.” The Dunvegan’s reputation received a big boost in 1994 when Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Steve Elkington and Fred Couples came in for dinner. “Tom in particular really word-of-mouthed our food quality,” says Jack.
On any given afternoon or evening at the Dunvegan, you never know whom you might see. The walls of the pub and dining room are covered with photos of famous golfer patrons, professional and otherwise. Sheena with Tiger Woods. Sheena with Nick Price. Sheena with John Daly. Sheena with Ernie Els. Sheena with Clint Eastwood. Sheena with Sean Connery. Sheena with Wayne Gretzky. Jack (clad in Texas A&M sweatshirt) with President Bush I.
“This is the best golfy place in St. Andrews,” says Dunvegan regular Gordon Smith, a 13-year caddie at the Old Course.
“The transformation of this place is second to none,” says Smith, recalling the days when customers’ feet would “squish in the beer” on the linoleum floors. “They’ve actually put this place on the map.”
The Dunvegan draws a comfortable mix of locals and visiting golfers. Ever-present Old Course caddies add to the charm. “Part of the experience of St. Andrews is walking down the 18th with your caddie, then having a pint with him afterwards, and having a few laughs about the round,” says Jack.
Caddies are valuable, too, for steering golfers – especially free-spending Americans – to the Dunvegan.“It has definitely helped our business, the fact that you’re an American,” says Sheena, nodding toward her husband. “People can come in and relate to you.”
Jack agrees, but cautions: “The last thing we want to do is Americanize the place.” Which was a concern to their neighbors when the Dunvegan changed hands.“I kind of felt there was a little cloud. It’s fair to say it took a while to be accepted. But that’s normal for any small town. It took three or four years before I really felt welcome as part of the community,”
Sheena attributes the early chill to the fact that the couple was working so much, they rarely had time to play golf or socialize. “People were wary of you a little bit,” she says. “But once they got to know you, they found out, hey, this isn’t such a bad guy.”
Says Smith, the caddie: “Jack’s so laid back, he’s asleep. But he’s a really nice bloke, a gentleman to the end.”
Old Course caddie David Thom, who drives cab in San Francisco during the slow season, recalls when Jack and other oil men came down from Aberdeen to play golf. “The caddie fee was eight quid; they’d pay 30,” he says wistfully.
“Jack’s really fit in well, for a guy who grew up in Texas,” says Thom.
Dunvegan regulars will tell you Jack can be a soft touch, which means Sheena sometimes has to assume the role of heavy. “She can be tough, and she isn’t very well liked by some of the boys,” says one caddie, who for obvious reasons begged anonymity. That’s of little concern to Sheena. She has a business to run, and her priority is catering to hotel guests and dinner customers.
“I tend to look after the wait side of the business,” Sheena says of the division of labor. “I handle the food service and I do most of the general administration.”
Jack is the “morning person” who deals with vendors and early risers. The Dunvegan offers a breakfast special for caddies: Coffee and bacon roll for a pound.“I’m the back room guy; she’s out front, making sure the customers are happy,” says Jack.
If someone does have a problem, it’s easy to find the managers. The Willoughbys live in the Dunvegan’s attic flat, which consists of a bedroom, office and living room. They dine in the hotel kitchen. “Oh, we have a penthouse,” Sheena says, rolling her eyes.
“That’s one of the trade-offs,” says Jack. “I like it, but Sheena would like to move.”
“No I wouldn’t,” she protests. “I know that’s an impossibility. I’ve accepted that. I got over that a long time ago.”
Indeed, life is a series of trade-offs. As for their lifestyle, the Willoughbys believe the plusses far outweigh the minuses.“Because our business is hands-on, and up close and personal, that makes it fun for us, too,” Sheena says.
They relish the little day-to-day challenges, and savor small pleasures like seeing the glow on guests’ faces when they tee off on the Old Course for the first time. “We very much feel like we’re in the golf business, rather than the hotel business.” says Jack.
It’s a business they can’t see giving up anytime soon.
“I have to say, this is home,” says Jack, who tries to visit the States twice a year. (He and Sheena are out-of-town members at Champions Golf Club in Houston.) “Even if someone made me a crazy offer and we sold, we’d still stay in St. Andrews.”
Why not? He and his wife are living every golfer’s fantasy.
“I’ve probably played the Old Course 500 times,” says Jack. “I never get tired of that. It’s a special, special place.“We wouldn’t have done this anywhere else in the world. If I were serving pints to guys who aren’t golfers, I couldn’t handle it. We wouldn’t have anything to talk about.”
Sheena agrees, but adds that timing was everything. They were fortunate to buy a hotel in the heart of the home of golf, at the cusp of the Tiger Woods era. “If we had done this 10 years previous, I don’t think it would have turned out like this,” she says.
Lucky for Sleepy and Tim that it did.
– For more on the Dunvegan Hotel, or to make reservations, call 011-44-1334-473105 or visit www.dunvegan-hotel.com.