ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The ruins of the once majestic St. Andrews Cathedral are a reminder that this gray seaside town was a place of pilgrimage long before the arrival of golf.
But there’s no doubt what draws the crowds now, and it’s been seven years since golf pilgrims gathered here for a British Open in their waterproof gear and souvenir caps.
Seven years is an unusually long gap, but the R&A, which runs the tournament, decided to delay the return of the British Open to St. Andrews to ensure it could host the 150th edition of what is known on this side of the pond as Open. Championship.
Originally scheduled for 2021, the St. Andrews celebration was pushed back a year due to the pandemic-induced cancellation in 2020, and now organizers may have to wonder if it was worth the wait.
Instead of an opportunity to revel in history and hopefully the windswept charms of the Old Course, the focus remained on the elephant in the locker room: LIV Golf, the breakaway circuit backed by Saudi Arabia and the economy that has poached PGA Tour talent like former British Open champions Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen, and is led by another former Open champion, Greg Norman, who for his Sins and Sorrows was not invited to this year’s Champions Dinner at St. Andrews.
Tiger Woods’ press conference on Tuesday was dominated by the topic (Woods held firm to his stance against defectors, inspiring British tabloid headlines like “LIV and Let Die”).
On Wednesday, Martin Slumbers, the gray-haired managing director of the R&A, tried unsuccessfully to address the subject “briefly” with an opening statement at his press conference that made it clear that the R&A would not rule out Rebel Tour golfers but could change its qualifying conditions to make it more difficult for them to play at future British Opens.
Bring the follow-up questions! “Do you think golf should welcome Saudi Arabian money when we are having sports washout?”
Evasive response from Slumbers: “I think that’s too simplistic a way of looking at it.”
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon in the Scottish breeze and could quickly become the dominant storyline again if a LIV golfer, like Dustin Johnson or Oosthuizen, climbs to the top of the two yellow dashes above the 18th green that are still manually operated. in this otherwise digital age by students from rival private schools.
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“Whoever wins on Sunday will have their name etched in history,” Slumbers said. “And I will welcome them to the 18th green.”
Later in the day, Slumbers stood on the balcony of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse overlooking golf’s most famous stretch of open land, including that 18th green and the first tee and green where Woods honed his shot at short and long distance. amid intermittent showers.
The Scots have a higher rain tolerance than most, and many fans and officials pointing their cellphone cameras at Woods held their ground despite the drizzle.
But rain has been sparse in these areas lately, which could help the Old Course defend against the heavy hitters. The fairways are particularly firm, which means potential problems off the tee as drives can bounce into the rough or beyond.
Players, for now, seem more thrilled than discouraged. While advancements in equipment have threatened the Old Course’s relevance over the past few decades, stars clearly have mixed feelings about tearing it to shreds.
“I don’t think it’s better than winning at St. Andrews,” said Jon Rahm of Spain, who is aiming for his first Open victory. “No offense to any other tournament in the world. It’s the oldest championship on the oldest course and that’s where it all started, especially when you get into the setup we have this week: beautiful and firm and rolling and deceived as she can be.
St. Andrews is widely considered the home of golf because the game was played here as early as the 15th century and then set the trend that made an 18-hole course the norm. But for all its pedigree, it’s not the home of the Open Championships, which started in Prestwick on Scotland’s west coast in 1860 and stayed there until they came to St. Andrews for the first time in 1873.
The Open eventually overtook Prestwick, which last hosted the tournament in 1925, but although The Open rotates between a cluster of Scottish and English courses, St. Andrews, despite its modern challenges, has hosted it more than any other.
Champions here over the years include Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Jack Nicklaus, Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly and Woods in 2000 and 2005 when he was in his prelapsing peak.
“If you want to be a player to be remembered, you have to win at St. Andrews,” said Jack Nicklaus when he last appeared in 2005.
It’s a seductive thought, but not quite fair to such memorable talents as Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Mickelson, none of whom won at St. Andrews.
But the place has character, and the streets of the old town are once again filled with visitors, and for the first time there is also temporary camping at a local rugby pitch filled with rows of tents and hundreds of volunteers and fans who might not be able to afford the high rates of local hotels.
There are two categories in tent city: camping and glamping. In order to promote golf to young people, campers under the age of 24 are allowed to camp for free.
“To me, this all sounds like glamping,” said Michael O’Farrell, 23, from Galway, Ireland. “They even provide the air mattress.”
Open tickets are sold out, and that includes official practice days, which began on Monday when the course was closed to the general public after numerous exchanges with players on the previous days.
“It just exceeds all expectations, and it even goes until Saturday when the locals can walk the fairways with us,” said Will Zalatoris, an American playing at his first British Open.
“You have Augusta National,” he said of the masters tournament site. “Which is obviously one of the most private and private places in the world. And then you come here, and I walk down the fairways with 60 people and their dogs. I think that’s what makes golf so Obviously, this week is much more of a popular tournament.
Zalatoris, 25, paid a visit to the Dunvegan Hotel, the classic St. Andrews watering hole just steps from the 18th hole that has changed hands since 2015 but is still a magnet for fans (toasts were many and the rare face masks at its crowded bar on Wednesdays).
“The Open means everything to this community, even if you’re not directly involved,” said Tom Willoughby, 72, the former Dunvegan co-owner who still held court in front of the blackboard where he and his wife Sheena have long written a daily message, usually in rhyme.
The latest: “It’s a windy Wednesday, Oh, what a pleasure. The Tournament has not started yet. Come Thursday morning, up. At the start, no one other than Paul.
That would be Paul Lawrie, who was the last Scotsman to win the Open, in 1999 at Carnoustie, just up the hill from St. Andrews. Lawrie was scheduled to hit the first tee shot at 6:35 a.m. local time Thursday.
Bring the Old Course. Bring on occasion.
“I’m never good on the first tee,” Lawrie said. “No matter what tournament I go to, I’m always a little nervous. But obviously it will be a little more because it’s the Open, and it’s the 150th. Luckily, it’s a nice, big, wide fairway there.