ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The ruins of St. Andrews’s once-majestic cathedral is a reminder that this gray town by the sea was a pilgrimage site long before golf came along.
But there is no doubt about what attracts crowds now, and it has been seven years since the 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 returning the British Open to St. Andrews to ensure that 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 got pushed back a year because of the pandemic-induced cancellation in 2020, and now the organizers might have to wonder whether it was worth the wait.
Instead of an opportunity to revel in the history and hopefully windswept charms of the Old Course, the focus has remained on the elephant in the locker room: LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed, economics-be-damned breakaway circuit that has poached the PGA Tour. Talent like the former British Open champions Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen, and is led by another former Open champion, Greg Norman, who for his sins and pains was not invited to this year’s dinner of champions at St. Andrews.
Tiger Woods’ news conference on Tuesday was dominated by the subject (Woods held firm to his position against the defectors, inspiring British tabloid headlines like “LIV and Let Die”).
On Wednesday, Martin Slumbers, the gray-haired chief executive of the R&A, tried unsuccessfully to address the topic “briefly” by making an opening statement at his news conference that made it clear that the R&A would not bar golfers from the rebel tour but could change its qualifying requirements to make it more difficult for them to play in future British Opens.
Bring on the follow-up questions! “Do you think golf should be welcoming money from Saudi Arabia given when we know about sportswashing?”
Evasive answer from Slumbers: “I think that’s a too simplistic way of looking at it.”
The issue is not blowing away anytime soon in the Scottish breeze and could quickly resume being the dominant plotline if a LIV golfer, like Dustin Johnson or Oosthuizen, rises to the top of the two yellow scoreboards 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 is going to have their name carved in history,” Slumbers said. “And I’ll welcome them onto the 18th green.”
Later in the day, Slumbers stood on the balcony of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse overlooking the most celebrated expanse of open land in golf, including the 18th green and the first tee and the putting green where Woods was honing his stroke from short and long range. amid intermittent showers.
The Scottish have a tolerance for rain higher than most, and many of the fans and officials pointing their cellphone cameras at Woods held their ground despite the drizzle.
But rain has been rare in these parts of late, which could help the Old Course defend itself against the big hitters. The fairways are particularly firm, which means potential trouble off the tee as drives can bounce into the rough or beyond.
The players, for now, sound more delighted than daunted. As advances in equipment have threatened the Old Course’s relevance in recent decades, the stars clearly have mixed feelings about tearing it to shreds.
“I don’t think it gets any better than winning at St. Andrews,” said Jon Rahm of Spain, who is chasing his first Open victory. “No offense to any other tournament in the world. It’s the oldest championship on the oldest course and where it all started, especially when you get into the setup we have this week: nice and firm and rolling and tricked 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 Championships, which began at Prestwick on Scotland’s west coast in 1860 and stayed there until coming to St. Andrews for the first time in 1873.
The Open eventually outgrew Prestwick, which last hosted the tournament in 1925, but although the Open rotates among a group of Scottish and English courses, St. Andrews, despite its modern-day challenges, has hosted it more than any other.
The champions here through 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 at his prelapsarian peak.
“If you’re going to be a player that’s going to be remembered, you must win at St. Andrews,” Jack Nicklaus said, in his last appearance in 2005.
That is a seductive thought, but not quite 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 cachet, and the streets of the ancient town are filled once again with visitors, and for the first time, there is also a temporary campsite on a local rugby field filled with rows of tents and hundreds of volunteers and fans who could not afford the jacked-up rates at local hotels.
There are two categories in the tent city: camping and glamping. To promote golf to the youth, campers under 24 are allowed to camp for free.
“It all 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 started on Monday when the course was closed to the general public after plenty of mingling with the players in the preceding days.
“It just exceeds all expectations, and that even goes to Saturday when the locals are able to walk down the fairways with us,” said Will Zalatoris, an American playing in his first British Open.
“You have Augusta National,” he said of the site of the Masters Tournament. “Which is obviously one of the premier, most private places in the world. And then you come here, and I’m walking down fairways with 60 people and their dogs. I think that’s what makes golf so fun. Obviously, this week is much more kind of the people’s tournament.
Zalatoris, 25, paid a visit to the Dunvegan Hotel, the classic St. Andrews watering hole a short walk from the 18th hole that has changed ownership since 2015 but is still a magnet for fans (the toasts were plentiful and the face masks scarce at its packed bar on Wednesday).
“The Open means everything to this community, even if you’re not directly involved,” said Tom Willoughby, 72, the former co-owner of the Dunvegan who was still holding court in front of the chalkboard where he and his wife Sheena have long written a daily message, usually in rhyme.
The latest: “It’s Windy Wednesday, Oh, What Fun. The tournament has not yet begun. Come Thursday Morning Standing Tall. Teeing it up, no other but Paul.”
That would be Paul Lawrie, who stands as the last Scotsman to win the Open, winning back in 1999 at Carnoustie, just up the coast from St. Andrews. Lawrie was scheduled to hit the opening tee shot at 6:35 am local time on Thursday.
Bring on the Old Course. Bring on the occasion.
“I’m never great on the first tee,” Lawrie said. “No matter what tournament I’m playing in, I’m always a wee bit nervous. But obviously it’ll be a little bit more because it’s the Open, and it’s the 150th. Luckily, it’s a nice, big, wide fairway down there.”