Swingin' St. Andrews: The town comes alive during the British Open

Tuesday July 20th, 2010
A visit to the Cathedral of St. Andrew can be a surreal experience.
Erick Rasco/SI

\n"I've never been in a cemetery at night," Brian Gay said, his eyes as big as full moons. "This is some freaky s---."\n

\nGay had just hopped an old stone wall and was now traipsing through the St. Andrews graveyard with his wife, Kimberly, plus a giddy crew of friends and friends of friends. The weathered headstones were scattered among the old bones of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, which was built in the 12th century and looted during the Reformation in 1560. The stone walls were left to decay in the elements, leaving behind spooky ruins. Gay — the down-home Southern boy who won twice on the PGA Tour last year — had other reasons to be suffering the heebie-jeebies. The dank, foggy air was right out of a slasher flick, and the night sky was alive with the nerve-jangling screams of seagulls. A lone bell rang out in the gloaming. It was one o'clock in the morning on Sunday, 6 1/2 hours before the final round of the 139th Open Championship would commence.\n

\nThis sojourn had been fueled by alcohol — Gay was toting a pint of ale in a glass — and a shared desire to experience all that St. Andrews has to offer, including the chance to commune with the ghosts of golf's past. First stop was the grave of Allan Robertson, who was considered the first great professional golfer before his passing in 1859. Gay mused on the cause of death: "He stabbed himself after missing a cut." \n

\nThe gallows humor was self-referential. Gay had the weekend off after shooting 72-83 in his first Open at the Old Course. Navigating by the dim illumination of cellphones and a tiny flashlight, the interlopers eventually arrived at the final resting place of the Morris family. Old Tom's grave was satisfyingly no-frills, while Young Tom was memorialized in a life-sized bust. A volunteer was needed to read the inscription celebrating Young Tom, and luckily, Jim Nantz was on hand, as the voice of golf for CBS was enjoying a busman's holiday working an hour a day for the BBC telecast. The crowd hushed, and Nantz's magisterial baritone suddenly brought Young Tom to life:\n

\nDeeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers

He thrice in succession won the champion's belt

And held it without rivalry and yet without envy

His many amiable qualities

Being no less acknowledged

Than his golfing achievements.

\nGay spat some chaw onto the ancient earth and mused, "How cool is that?"\n

\nThe Open Championship at the Old Course is much more than just a golf tournament. It is equal parts history lesson, board meeting, holy pilgrimage and frat party. The game's oldest event visits the home of golf only once every five years, and nobody wants to miss this gathering of the tribes. The special feeling of the week derives from the majesty of the course and the intimacy of the town that surrounds it. The players stay at the Old Course Hotel, on the 17th fairway, or in rented houses nearby, so rather than being hermetically sealed in courtesy cars and remote resorts, they are out and about on foot every morning and evening, mingling with the masses.

\nBefore visiting the graveyard, the Gays had spent three hours hanging at the Dunvegan, the celebrated pub around the corner from the Old Course that is the unofficial headquarters for caddies, reporters, fans and the occasional wayward player. Seeing Gay in jeans and sneakers was just one of an endless number of glimpses of off-duty players. Angel Cabrera was a regular at Morrisons supermarket, pushing around a shopping cart piled high with Scottish beef, while Phil Mickelson made a pit stop almost every morning at the Starbucks on Market Street. Rickie Fowler was seen window-shopping at a few of the many golf stores that dot the town. On Monday night of Open week Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle chatted with 2004 Open champ Todd Hamilton, who was eating his dinner on the sidewalk — a basket of fish and chips precariously balanced atop a trash receptacle. The next night at the Dunvegan, Hamilton bought a round of drinks for a group of scribes. On Saturday evening, while the Gays were chatting on the clogged sidewalk — it was five deep in some spots — 1996 Open champ Tom Lehman was holding court in the Dunvegan dining room along with Loren Roberts and the two men's families. Why do the players feel so comfortable mingling with the townsfolk? Says Fowler, 21, who finished 14th in his first Open, "They don't want an ­autograph or to take a picture, which I don't mind, they simply want to talk golf or about the golf course. There's a level of respect here for what we do, but it's not about celebrity, it's about golf. You feel kind of honored to get to play here for these fans."\n

\nGolf may be Scotland's national game, but drinking is a favorite pastime. Bollinger, the champagne label, pitched a tent adjacent to the 16th fairway, and during the second round alone sold more than 1,200 bottles, including dozens of jeroboams (a double magnum) that each went for 250 quid ($380). One pub in the heart of town, the Rule, offered a fixed price lunch that included a pint and a free lesson on a simulator in the backyard beer garden. Once the sun went down, the simulator was where sodden, rowdy lads gathered to be humiliated in closest-to-the-pin contests versus Sophie Horn (right), who writes a column for the sassy U.K. magazine GolfPunk under the pen name Golf Nurse. Horn is a 10 and a 4 — the former on the Bo Derek scale of hotness, the latter her handicap.\n

\nThomas Bjorn's caddie, Dominic Bott, was so besotted with Horn that he practically rubbed the sequins off her gold mini-dress while trying to dance with her to a Queen tune, but Horn is a no-nonsense young woman who spent Open week trying to further her career in the golf industry. "For me this is a wonderful opportunity to network," she said. After chatting up members of Justin Rose's entourage, Horn snagged an invitation to play in a fund-raising pro-am that Rose hosts.\n

\nPlenty of other business was conducted during the Open, including powwows by the International Federation of PGA Tours, the World Ranking board of directors and the executive committee of the International Golf Federation. These ponderous meetings convened at the Old Course Hotel, while more discreet power lunches were conducted within golf's ultimate inner sanctum, the very private clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.\n

\nThe R&A building is part of St. Andrews's timeless iconography, and even the competitors get swept up in the magic of the place. "As somebody who loves the game of golf," says Mickelson, "you can't help but feel emotion and this sense of spirituality come over you as you play this course, knowing that this is where the game began."\n

\nMickelson's palpable passion for St. Andrews registered at the Ladbrokes betting parlor a few blocks from the Old Course. One of the most popular early-week bets was picking Phil to win, at 16 to 1. Having a punt is one of the Open's most cherished traditions, and this lone Ladbrokes outpost took about 14,000 bets from Wednesday to Sunday, including one from a bloke who put down £10,000 on Friday for Tiger Woods to win at 5 to 1 — ouch! — and another 10,000 quid for Woods to beat his Saturday playing partner, Darren Clarke, at 1 to 2. (That at least covered some of the losses.) The bylaws of the various tours forbid players from betting, but that doesn't stop them from having a little fun. "They have their caddies go place the bets at our other shop about five minutes down the road, where there are fewer tourists," says Paul Whitters, a Ladbrokes spokesman.\n

\nThe shared enthusiasm among the ­bettors — "I'm rooting for McIlroy too because I have five pounds on him" — is one of St. Andrews's many communal experiences. The Links road runs alongside the 18th fairway, and last week the R&A made the magnanimous decision to allow fans to congregate there without having to buy a ticket. On Sunday thousands of people gathered to share a final glimpse of the tournament. One floor above them, on the balcony of the Rusacks Hotel, a posher crowd paid £195 ($297) apiece for a more rarefied view, but all the fun was at street level. The smack of the drives from the 18th tee was audible above the din, and then for a couple of pregnant seconds everyone would wait for the ball to materialize, cheering lustily when a player drove the green and booing any ball that detoured into the Valley of Sin. Finally, Louis Oosthuizen made the champion's triumphant walk down the Old Course's final fairway, just as Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have before him. On the Links a couple of St. Andrews University students clinked glasses and shouted, "To Louie!"\n

\nThen a couple of people standing nearby spoke for the rest of us: "And cheers to St. Andrews!" Merrily, the crowd began filing toward the town center, and to the pubs. Golf's greatest tournament was over, but the party was just beginning.\n

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