ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The ruins of the once-majestic St. Andrews Cathedral are a reminder that this gray city by the sea was a place of pilgrimage long before golf came along.
But there’s no question about what draws the crowds now, and it’s been seven years since golf pilgrims gathered here for a British Open in their weatherproof gear and souvenir caps.
Seven years is an unusually long gap, but the R&A, which runs the tournament, decided to delay the British Open’s return to St. Andrews to ensure it could host the 150th edition of what is known on this side of the pond as the 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 might be wondering if it was worth the wait.
Instead of a chance to revel in the history and, hopefully, the windswept charms of the Old Course, the focus has remained on the elephant in the locker room: LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed getaway circuit, dammit. the economy that has conquered the 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 in St. Andrews. .
Tiger Woods’ press conference on Tuesday was dominated by the issue (Woods stood his ground against defectors, inspiring British tabloid headlines like “LIV and Let Die”).
On Wednesday, Martin Slumbers, the grizzled chief executive of the R&A, tried unsuccessfully to address the issue “briefly” by making an opening statement at his news conference that made it clear the R&A would not exclude golfers from the rogue tour. , but could change their qualification requirements to make it more difficult for them to play in future British Opens.
Bring the follow-up questions! “Do you think golf should get money from Saudi Arabia when we know about laundering sportswear?”
Slumbers’ evasive response: “I think that’s too simplistic a way to look at it.”
The problem won’t go away anytime soon with the Scottish breeze and could quickly become the dominant plot again if an LIV golfer, such as Dustin Johnson or Oosthuizen, rises to the top of the two yellow markers on the 18th green that are still manually operated on this 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’ll welcome you to the 18th green.”
Later that day, Slumbers stood on the balcony of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse overlooking the most celebrated expanse of open field in golf, including the 18th green and the first tee and the green where Woods was perfecting his putt. and long range. amid intermittent rain.
The Scots have a higher tolerance for rain than most, and many of the fans and officials who trained their cell phone cameras on Woods stood their ground despite the drizzle.
But rain has been rare in these parts lately, which could help the Old Course fend off big hitters. The fairways are particularly firm, which means potential problems off the tee, as drives can bounce into the rough or beyond.
The players, for now, seem more delighted than intimidated. As equipment advances have threatened the Old Course’s relevance in recent decades, the stars clearly have mixed feelings about ripping it to shreds.
“I don’t think there is anything better than winning at St. Andrews,” said Jon Rahm of Spain, who is seeking his first Open win. “No offense to any other tournament in the world. It’s the oldest championship in the oldest field and where it all started, especially when you get into the setup we have this week – nice, tight, rolling and kitted out as it can be.
St. Andrews is widely considered the home of golf because the game was played here as early as the 15th century and later set the trend that made an 18-hole layout the standard. But for all its pedigree, it is not the home of the Open Championship, which began in Prestwick on Scotland’s west coast in 1860 and remained there until it first came to St. Andrews in 1873.
The Open eventually overtook Prestwick, which last hosted the tournament in 1925, but although the Open rotates between a group of Scottish and English courses, St. Andrews, despite today’s 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 prelapsarian heyday.
“If you are going to be a player that is going to be remembered, you have to win at St. Andrews,” said Jack Nicklaus, in his last appearance in 2005.
That’s a seductive thought, but not entirely fair to memorable talents like Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Mickelson, none of whom won at St. Andrews.
But the place has prestige, and the streets of the old town are once again filled with visitors and, for the first time, there is also a temporary camp on a local rugby pitch filled with rows of tents and hundreds of volunteers and fans who could Don’t pay the high rates at local hotels.
There are two categories in the city of tents: camping and glamping. To promote youth golf, campers under the age of 24 can camp for free.
“Everything feels like glamping to me,” said Michael O’Farrell, 23, from Galway, Ireland. “They even provide the air mattress.”
Open tickets are sold out, and that includes the official practice days, which began on Monday when the field was closed to the general public after much fellowship with the players in the days before.
“It just exceeds all expectations, and that continues until Saturday when the locals can walk the streets with us,” said Will Zalatoris, an American playing in his first British Open.
“You have Augusta National,” he said of the Masters Tournament site. “Which is obviously one of the best, most private places in the world. And then you come here, and I’m walking down streets with 60 people and their dogs. I think that’s what makes golf so much fun. Obviously this week is much more of a popular tournament.”
Zalatoris, 25, visited the Dunvegan Hotel, the classic St. Andrews watering hole just steps from the 18th hole that has changed hands since 2015 but remains a fan magnet (toasts were plentiful and face masks few). at his packed bar on Wednesday).
“The Open means everything to this community, even if you’re not directly involved,” said Tom Willoughby, 72, a former co-owner of Dunvegan, who was still in court in front of the blackboard where he and his wife Sheena have long written a daily message, usually in rhyme.
Latest: “It’s windy Wednesday, oh so fun. The Tournament has not started yet. Come Thursday morning stand tall. Playing off the tee, nobody but Paul.”
That would be Paul Lawrie, who stands as the last Scotsman to win the Open, winning in 1999 at Carnoustie, on the coast of St. Andrews. Lawrie was scheduled to tee off at 6:35 am local time on Thursday.
Bring on the Old Course. Bring on the occasion.
“I’m never good off the first tee,” Lawrie said. “No matter what tournament I’m playing in, I’m always a little nervous. But obviously it’s going to be a little bit more because it’s the Open and it’s number 150. Luckily there’s a nice, big, wide fairway down there.”