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US thieves make off with roof of historic St Andrews starters box

It has travelled more than 7,000 miles from its Scottish home and has cost its new owners more than £500,000 so far.

But the iconic Edwardian starters box from the Old Course at St Andrews will never be seen in its original form again after its roof timbers were stolen.

The distinctive pagoda-style box, from where the greats of golf set off for their Open Championship rounds, was auctioned off in its entirety to the highest bidder nine years ago to make way for a bigger, more modern stone hut.

It was bought by a group of wealthy American businessmen to be the centrepiece of a new, upmarket golf course in the Palm Springs area of California. But after the course project collapsed, the pieces had to be stored in a barn, where it stayed for seven years while its future location was decided.

Then, during the construction of a road project near the barn, the high-quality roof timbers were stolen. Now the remaining bricks from the walls, the roof slates and the Old Course Starters Box sign will be incorporated in a new hut beside a putting green on another nearby course.

The putting green will be named after the "Himalayas", the hilly putting course in St Andrews just yards from where the original box once stood. Once built, the new hut will probably be the most expensive building of its type ever constructed, given the cost of some of its building materials.

John Hagen, the Californian property developer who bought the box on behalf of the US developers, said: "No, this is not the perfect ending. It is not what was originally planned but the spirit of the box – and with it the spirit of golf and the notions of fair play and integrity it represents – will live on.

"A lot of time and money and effort has been spent on this project but, in essence, the box is being preserved.

"I think that by the time the new hut is built this autumn about £550,000 will have been spent on this. I have probably spent £100,000 of my own money.

"But was it worth it? Absolutely. It's a symbol of St Andrews, which is unique in golf. Think of the people who have checked in at this box before going on to make golfing history."

The box was built in 1924 for the princely sum of £21.50 and over the years, great Open champions such as Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have all answered the starters invitation to tee off from this picturesque five-sided structure.

The nine-year saga of its sale and relocation has now been captured in a book written by Hagen, which is published this month by Edinburgh-based Mainstream.

Play Away, Please – the phrase used by the official Old Course starter to signal the beginning of play – recalls how the St Andrews Links Trust, which runs the public courses in the Fife town, cannily decided to auction off the box rather than have it demolished and dumped at cost to itself.

The auction, in September 2001, the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, prompted ferocious bidding from eager buyers around the world and eventually raised £50,000 for children's golfing programmes.

But astonishing as the sale price was for the tiny box, the costs of rebuilding it in a new home thousands of miles away were to escalate astronomically, according to the book.

First of all, an extra £25,000 had to be paid for work to stabilise the ground close to the famous Royal and Ancient Golf Club clubhouse, which also overlooks the first tee.

Then there were the costs of dismantling the structure – more complicated than first thought – and shipping it in sections on its 7,000-mile voyage from Felixstowe in Suffolk, along the Panama Canal and on to Los Angeles. It then had to be transported 100 miles inland.

Unfortunately, by the time it arrived the Country Club of the Desert project in the town of La Quinta was in financial difficulties and the hut went into storage while protracted takeover talks took place.

The new owners of the site, the Discovery Land property group, then spent two years building a private residential community but decided the box did not fit in. More years were then wasted in ultimately fruitless negotiations aimed at transferring the box to a new public golf course in the area.

Then Discovery Land completed its new Madison course in 2007 and the remains of the box had a new home again.

Hagen estimates that by the time the whole project is completed, it will have cost himself and his co-investors more than £500,000.

"Minor, I believe, when compared to what Tiger Woods (involved in a sex scandal] may be paying in legal fees, public-relations damage control and who knows what else at this moment.

"Like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, this box, and the values it embodies will endure, not like a passing sports star or a Hollywood celebrity."

Source: Jeremy Watson, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday, 9th May, 2010