The Links at St. Andrews offers a free ticket to the greatest stage in golf

Friday July 16th, 2010
The Links is a narrow street near the 18th green at St. Andrews, where fans can catch the action for free.
John Garrity

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — How much would you pay for courtside seats at the Final Four? How about box seats at the World Series? What if I could get you a folding chair on the hash marks at the Super Bowl?

Or would you rather stand the length of your shadow from the greatest stage in golf and pay nothing?

That opportunity arises whenever the British Open is played in St. Andrews, Scotland. A white railing is all that separates the 18th hole of the Old Course from The Links, a narrow street lined with shops, stone townhouses and the Rusacks Hotel. Police barricades form a channel for ticket holders, but one lane remains open for emergency vehicles and pedestrian traffic. Anybody walking by — that's anybody — can stand on tiptoe and watch Tiger Woods roll his putt through the Valley of Sin. The view of the R&A clubhouse and the first tee is just as good, and if the wind is right you can hear every syllable of Ivor Robson's lilting player introductions. ("On the tee ... Pad-raig HAR-ing-ton!")

What can you see? Well, if you had been standing in front of the Tom Morris Golf Shop on a July day in 2005 you would have witnessed Jack Nicklaus holing a birdie putt and raising his putter to acknowledge cheers for the last time in a tournament. If you had been there in 1995 you would have seen Costantino Rocca fall to his knees and pound his hands on the ground in joy after holing a 60-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff with John Daly. If you had been there in 1970 you would have gasped and then shared Doug Sanders' disappointment when he missed that 3-footer to win the Open.

Is there a comparable freebie in sports? The Tour de France, maybe, but the cyclists zip by, blurs of color, and it's over. Meanwhile, you have to pay hard cash to view events of dubious value: exhibition baseball, spring football, a New Jersey Nets game.

I have a press pass, so I don't need to line up with the townspeople on The Links. But I find that stretch of unlicensed, free-range pavement irresistible. This afternoon, after the wind delay, I exited at the R&A Museum gate, circled around behind the 18th-green grandstand and worked my way through a covey of freeloaders until I was up against the barricade.

Did I catch a glimpse of history? Admittedly, I did not. I saw Paul Goydos tie the bow on a 76. I saw Malaysia's Danny Chia make birdie for a wind-blown 77. I saw a player, whom I will not name, wave his arms like a ramp agent at an airport gate when his birdie putt was blown off line by a strong gust. But if I had waited a few minutes, I would have had my pick of glamorous finishers, including the kaleidoscopically-dressed John Daly, first-round leader Rory McIlroy, defending champ Stewart Cink, and the aforementioned Mr. Woods.

"We feel like we're stealing," said a young man with a camera, his girl friend watching anxiously as he balanced on a stone curb to snap a photo that would get him ejected if he took it on the other side of the barrier. "Can't do this at Wimbledon," echoed a woman tending a baby carriage in front of Rusacks.

Granted, it's only the second round. On Sunday afternoon, when the tournament comes to a boil, The Links will be so packed with passersby that you won't be able to raise an arm to scratch your nose. If you're short, you may have to turn around to catch the action reflected in somebody's sunglasses. But it's free. I repeat, it's free.

And if you ask nicely, I'll take off my hat.

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