One of the longest-serving and best-recognized golf professionals in St Andrews has retired after an incredible 32 years in the town.
Neil Paton, who was born in St Andrews, says: “I grew up in and around golf – and fell in love with the game.”
He decided to become a professional golfer – and headed to London to join Scottish Golf Pro, Laurie Ayton Jnr.
Neil explains: “I worked with Laurie for five years – he had been a member of the Ryder Cup team in his day and during my time with him, I learned many different aspects of being a professional golfer. He helped shaped my career.”
Neil won his tour card and played for three years. He adds: “I realized my talents lay outside the ropes and I was not cut out for the tour.”
He moved back to St Andrews and began teaching the game he loved. “I taught so many people – in so many places: from primary school children to students at the University, from members at the local clubs to visitors coming into the town. I loved it.”
In 1983, the then owners of the Old Course Hotel approached Neil to work alongside fellow St Andrews professional, John Philp. Neil says: “John was great to work with – he taught me a great deal about the workings of the resort.” Neil adds: “It was a really good step to make. I loved the mix of work – meeting guests and members of the hotel’s team as well as getting the opportunity to play in pro-am events across Scotland. It was also fun to teach golf in the iconic green sheds alongside the Road Hole as they were then the golf school for the hotel.”
Six years later, the hotel was sold – and the new owners asked Neil to become a full time member of the team and ‘head pro’ at the hotel. Neil adds: “They were exciting times. The owners decided to create The Duke’s and whilst five times Open Champion Peter Thomson was working on the creation of the course, I was asked to help set up the entire golf operation.”
In 2004, KOHLER Co., the current owners of the five red-star Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, decided to invest in the course’s development and made changes to The Duke’s. Neil explains: “In keeping with their own style, they changed the original pot bunkers to the broader and larger bunkers that now grace the course and undertook significant changes to the final four holes, creating three completely new holes and making significant alterations to the last.”
Neil says: “The hotel is very different from that I joined in the 1980s. Today, it is a world-class resort where golf remains the focus, but the business has expanded considerably to cater for a far wider range of corporate and leisure visitor throughout the year.”
Under KOHLER Co.’s ownership, Neil remained Head Pro for the entire resort and was tasked with building a golf team at The Duke’s and in the hotel. He says: “I am extremely proud to have helped recruit and train many great people during my time here. Building and working in a team is a real honour – and they all made my job easier. They were loyal and knowledgeable … and I will miss the daily banter with them.”
Neil is married to Linda and they have two daughters. Neil and his wife live in St Andrews and his wife is an enthusiastic amateur artist whose work has been exhibited in a number of shows over recent years. Neil’s artistry remains on the course. Asked whether he will be watching any of this year’s Open, he says: “I’ll certainly take some time out on the links – but I have always preferred playing to watching!”
Director of Operations at the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, David Scott, was present at Neil’s farewell reception attended by Mr Herb Kohler. David says: “I have known Neil for many years. He has been a very good friend and colleague to many of us in and around the game of golf in St Andrews. His contribution – not only to the resort but also to the town over the last 30 years – cannot be underestimated. He will be sorely missed … although it is far from ‘goodbye’ as I look forward to maintaining our competitive friendship on the course!”
During his time at Head Pro, Neil has seen six Open Championships as well as every Alfred Dunhill event – from the original team challenges to the current Championship format. Looking back on more than three decades, he cites the 2000 Open as his fondest memory, saying: “It was just an incredible atmosphere – huge numbers of spectators and a unique buzz in and around the town.”
On The Open’s return next month, Neil is just as passionate: “I have been privileged enough to have played the Old Course hundreds of times. But it remains the most magical of all courses – and the closing holes are fantastic. Even for old pros like myself, the Road Hole and the walk up to the 18th green make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It is unbeatable.”
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