In the years since Alexandre Dumas published his timeless classic, The Count of Monte Cristo, in 1844, many have speculated about the inspiration for the novel’s central theme of ultimate vengeance. Some historians believe Dumas was a French spy, sold out by those once loyal to him, forced to go on the run or risk capture and execution, and the novel was his way of letting those who wronged him know that he hadn’t forgotten — retribution was coming. Others believe the bulk of the story came not from Dumas but Auguste Maquet, insisting it was the latter who lived a life of action and adventure but elected to be a ghostwriter so he could continue hiding in the shadows, working as a mercenary. And then there are those who think the story was just that — a fanciful tale conjured up after a weekend of indulgence in wine, women, and song. 

But what if I told you that the real inspiration for what has become one of the most imitated tales of wrongful imprisonment and revenge was a round of golf? Not just any round of golf, mind you, but a round of golf on the planet’s oldest golf course.

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The year was 1835. Boyce Nevin, a blacksmith’s son from the Scottish Highlands, was a student at the University of St Andrews. How this young man came to be at this prestigious institute of higher learning was something of a miracle, and God — or at least his disciples — certainly played a part. With no pedigree of any sort, no parents of any pomp, circumstance, or highness, young Boyce is believed to be the first recipient of a scholarship offered by Scotland’s oldest church, the Glasgow Cathedral. Awarded to the most promising student seeking advancement in theological studies. Boyce Nevin was the unanimous choice.

Though college took up much of his time, with virtually no money to speak of, some type of part-time employment was a must if he wanted to eat. Charming and personable, Boyce easily found work as a caddy at the nearby Old Course at St Andrews. Despite knowing nothing about the game of golf, he could carry clubs, gauge wind direction, and with his excellent vision, he proved to be an expert at finding balls that had gone astray, which happened more often than not on the Old Course. In addition to his meager wages, he also received tips. But the best tip he received came not in the form of coin, but in golf lessons. What makes this story remarkable is that those lessons came from a 14-year-old boy playing golf with his father. That boy’s name: Tom Morris (who would eventually be known as Old Tom Morris).

Boyce became quite talented at the game, and when he wasn’t studying, or caddying, he was playing golf. One day, a few of his classmates convinced him to join them for a round. Boyce had nothing in common with these three young men — all were sons of wealthy businessmen and landowners, for whom attendance at the University of St Andrews was more of a birthright than an honor. But seeing as how they all shared a love of golf, Boyce thought this might make for a great opportunity for them to see him as something other than a charity-receiving pauper.

From his very first swing on the first hole, Boyce’s playing partners knew they were severely outclassed. And when the round was over, and the score differential was so wide that counting was a waste of time, they were utterly humiliated. Even Barclay McCandless, best of the bunch, who fancied himself to be a real “stick,” had needed nearly 30 strokes more than Boyce to complete the round.

What happened next was both cruel and tragic. Wanting revenge for the beating, even though it was just a game with no wagers attached, the three young men conspired against Boyce. The next morning, before classes began, they went to the University of St Andrews’ dean and, although it pained them to tattlem or so they said, gave the school’s headman a false narrative that they had all observed Boyce cheating on a recent exam.

Naturally, the dean was furious. Not only was cheating an intolerable offense at the university but the fact that Boyce was on scholarship, provided by Scotland’s most respected church, no less, made the transgression that much more egregious. The expulsion was immediate. They told Boyce he was lucky to not be jailed and beaten.

As you can imagine, when the Old Course officials learned of Boyce’s honor code violation, he was barred from ever setting foot on the course again. With nothing left in St Andrews for him, Boyce returned to his home in the Highlands, where word of his ill deed had already traveled. Disgusted by his son’s malfeasance, Boyce’s father sent him packing. He was never seen again.

Fast-forward five years. People from all over flocked to the Old Course for a two-day golfing competition that, 20 years later, would be expanded upon into an event known as The Open Championship. Among the competitors was local favorite Barclay McCandless — the oldest son of respected St Andrews banker and businessman Byron McCandless. Many believed Barclay was a lock to win the event. And after the first day of competition, posting a score 11 shots lower than any other competitor, his chances of winning were nearly carved in stone.

But early the next morning, approximately one hour before the golfers began the second and final day of competition, reports that McCandless had cheated on multiple occasions the day prior began to trickle in. Numerous people in the gallery had observed McCandless moving his ball, improving his lie when he believed no one was watching. Were it just a few people that made the accusations, perhaps they could have let it slide? After all, the McCandlesses were a powerful family in St Andrews. But when more than a dozen non-partisan spectators came forward with eyewitness accounts of his deceit, the event’s organizers — a fledgling committee known as the Royal & Ancient Council — had to act. McCandless was immediately disqualified.

Upon hearing the news, Barlay McCandless sank to his knees, clutching his chest, clearly suffering from a heart attack. The embarrassment of being labeled a cheater was bad, but of far greater consequence were the wagers he made, leveraging the bulk of his fortune that he would emerge victoriously — bets he doubled down on following his massive, seemingly insurmountable first-round lead.

As Barclay McCandless lay stiff and dying, he noticed something strange happening in the crowd … a man with a face he immediately recognized, even though the pain of his seizing heart, giving coins to random spectators — the very same spectators who had accused him (falsely) of cheating.

After the last of the payments were doled out, the stranger emerged from the crowd, walked over, and knelt beside the prostrate Barclay McCandless.

“Gotcha,” Boyce Nevin said through an evil grin, and then simply walked away. Barclay McCandless died a few moments later.

In 1840, when Alexandre Dumas visited Scotland, stopping in St Andrews to try his hand at the strange sport they called golf while walking the links, his caddy told him an incredible tale of revenge.

Adam Rocke

Adam has dived for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, hunted for poachers in Africa, played poker with cartel kingpins in Juarez, scouted for UFOs in the Sonora Desert, raced in the Baja 1000 and the original Gumball Rally, swam with great white sharks sans cage, jumped out of planes sans parachute, and taken part in Sasquatch safaris, Chupacabra expeditions and many other “crypto-quests” around the world. Or so he says.