ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It’s a familiar refrain Tony Parker gets from golfing friends back in Georgia or new acquaintances he encounters in and around the Auld Grey Toon – “I hate you.”
“I hear that a lot,” Parker said. “I don’t blame them.”
For 21 years since he first showed up to work on his Ph.D. after getting his undergraduate degree (1990) and master’s (1992) at the University of Georgia, the Home of Golf has been Parker’s home as well. He lives in the charming little village of Kingsbarns nearby. His annual links ticket with unlimited access to all seven courses in St. Andrews plus his local rate for the world-class Kingsbarns venue cost him less than he used to pay for one month at his club in Athens, Ga.
If you think that’s enviable, wait until you hear about Parker’s job. Now retired from being a lecturer and director of the School of American Studies across the Firth of Tay at the University of Dundee, Parker was hired last year as the curator of golf collections at the University of St. Andrews – the first to hold such a title at the university in the 600 years that golf has been played in the ancient town.
“So I feel quite proud of that,” he said.
For a golf-crazed history professor who owned a photography studio in Athens ... well, you get the picture.
“This was actually the culmination of my entire professional career,” he said. “It was the perfect job in the perfect place, tailor-made for me. For me, this is not work. It’s absolute pure joy.”
Parker, 60, had already taken early retirement in 2007 after being introduced to Queen Elizabeth for the second time when his American Studies program had reached the top in the United Kingdom. St. Andrews approached him when it came into possession of the life’s work of golf photographer Lawrence Levy, who died of cancer in 1995 at age 47.
He didn’t have much to lose in the interview when they asked him about prior commitments.
“Well, I go to the Open Championship every year with Loran Smith,” Parker said, referring to the renowned UGA football sidelines presence who Larry Munson always asked ‘Whatchagot?’ “The head of the committee spoke up and said that would be job related and would be expensed. So I said I was also a member of the St. Andrews Golf Club and the Thistle Club and have tournaments on Thursdays. They said they could work that out.
Despite his languid Southern drawl – more Bobby Jones than Old Tom Morris – Parker was hired, and has spent the past year combing through hundreds of thousands of Levy’s golf photos to produce an exhibition entitled “Making the Cut,” which is currently on display in the university’s library.
Parker has been collecting other photos to build a collection of more that half a million images that currently range from 1848-1993. He’s in negotiations with other photographers to bring the portfolio up to the present.
“Photography started in 1839 and our first image on the Old Course was in 1848,” Parker said. “And we’ve got the original. We’ve got all original glass plate negatives of Old Tom Morris and Young Tommy.”
Recently, Parker’s duties have been broadened to encompass all golf collections, including books, journals and records that create a comprehensive tableau of the history of the game. The university is raising funds to build a permanent Center for Golf Collections that can house rotating exhibits off The Scores within a par-4 of the R&A clubhouse and the British Golf Museum across the street.
“We have a very symbiotic relationship,” he said of the R&A and golf museum. “They deal in artifacts – golf clubs, trophies, medals, clothing. All we’re interested in is written and printed material – photographs, books, journals, clubs records.”
Parker’s life changed when he first decided to come to St. Andrews in 1992 to work with T.C. Smout, Scotland’s Historiographer Royal, on his Ph.D. regarding the Scottish settlements in colonial Georgia.
“All the history books had names like Mackintosh and McGillivray,” Parker said. “These were all Scottish names. Went to records and found out that Scots were the largest immigrant group in colonial Georgia and were specifically recruited to come there. So I wanted to find out who they were.”
Among the settlers in Darien, Ga., was Old Tom Morris’ daughter, Lizzie, who married James Hunter, of Prestwick. Their son – not shockingly, also named Tom – died at age 2 months and is buried in Darien.
Now Parker and his fellow Bulldog wife, Lisa Laird, have made the resting place of Old Tom Morris home.
“First thing I did when I got to St. Andrews was pick up the keys to the flat and dropped off clothes and went straight down to the Old Course,” he said. “When I finished my Ph.D., my father-in-law bought me a tartan kilt. First thing I did was stand on Swilcan Bridge in my black gown, tartan kilt holding my diploma and a golf club. That sums me up in one picture.”
Play the Old Course at least once a week for 21 years and you run into your share of celebrities making their own pilgrimages. Some of the encounters are more unforgettable than others.
Such was the time Parker and a 19-year-old friend named Paul were playing in the group behind Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson. On one of the early holes, his friend's drive bounded a little too far and rolled up gently onto the back of Nicholson’s leg. No harm, so an apologetic wave was enough.
However, on the par-5 14th hole, his friend's pushed 3-wood approach bounced once toward the 15th tee and hit Nicholson again in the back.
“This time they wait for us,” Parker said. “Nicholson gets right in Paul’s face and in his ‘Here’s Johnny’ voice says, ‘Young man, have I done something to piss you off?’ No Mr. Nicholson. ‘Well then ... quit hitting me with a golf ball.’ After that we waited until they were halfway down the next fairway to hit.”
Living in Scotland does have its drawbacks, however.
“The only thing I miss are Dawg-day afternoons between the hedges,” said Parker, showing off his Georgia belt and claiming he never leaves home without wearing at least one Bulldog-related accessory. “When I took students on tour of the American South every spring, it always ended up in Athens on G-Day. Just happened to work out that way every year. Funny that.”
Eventually, once Parker gets the golf collections in working order, he’ll get a place in Athens where he can spend a few months in the fall and winter before returning when the days get longer in Scotland.
“I’ll probably work until they kick me out,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’ll spend his time poring over golf records and photos. Among all the iconic images, one personal picture stands out. It’s taken from behind on the 18th hole at the Old Course, with him carrying his Georgia golf bag side-by-side with a professor friend from South Carolina carrying a Gamecocks bag.
“One of my favorite pictures of the Old Course,” he said. “Just perfect.”