This Open has been a perfect fan experience … so where are all the fans?

Before the final groups came through, the bleachers alongside the 18th fairway had many empty seats on Saturday.
Bob Martin / Sports Illustrated

GULLANE, Scotland — You can’t roam the grounds here at Muirfield for long before stumbling into a local who will say, with a wonderfully Scottish lilt, "This is as good as it gets."

They’re making a reference to both the weather and the Open in full, and how can you argue? It's been sunny and about 70 degrees every day this week. The course is accessible, historic and picturesque. Scottish golf fans almost never have it better than this. Writers don’t, either.

The only thing missing are more of those locals. Because despite the idyllic weather and the venerable venue, attendance at this year's event is in the tank.

Thursday's Open Championship attendance was 23,393, a 23 percent drop from Muirfield's opening round in 2002, which drew 30,620. Friday's crowd was down 15 percent. So what gives?

"It could be the economic situation. People are pushed a wee bit hard for money there days," said 70-year-old Alan McKnight, who drove 50 minutes from Motherwell to attend his 14th Open. "It's not difficult to get here, the parking's okay, it's a first-class event. I can't really think of another reason other than the economy."

The telltale signs of a thin crowd can be spotted with ease. Restroom lines are nonexistent. You can grab an ice cream cone or some fish and chips almost immediately. Want to watch from the grandstands? Plenty of seats are available. McKnight had an entire section to himself near the 18th green on Saturday afternoon, and he didn’t miss fighting the masses like he had at past Opens.

"I don't go with every game, but you can walk between holes without pushing or shoving,” he said happily. “There's not much jockeying at all."

It’s possible the great weather actually incentivized some locals to stay home and watch from their cookouts, but it’s far more likely that costs are the key factor. Single-ticket prices were raised this year from £65 to £75 ($99 to $114), and McKnight and his fellow over-65 crowd no longer receive a discount. The R&A, which sets the rates, declined to comment on the price hikes and instead focused on the positives, including a potentially epic final round.

"Nearly 30,000 people attended The Open [Friday] and the feedback we have received suggests they enjoyed a first-class experience," said R&A spokesman Mike Woodcock in a prepared statement. "With such a strong leaderboard the galleries tomorrow can look forward to an exciting final round." You can question the R&A’s wisdom in raising prices, but the fans who made it are enjoying a real treat, and Sunday certainly has the look of a thriller in the making. It’s just surprising there aren’t more of those fans out here.

"Today it's been relatively quiet. I haven't had lines, maybe two people at once," said Samuel Bradley, who was manning a Coca-Cola stand near the 10th tee. He then added, "I've heard the bars have been busy. Maybe you should go there."

That tip clearly merited investigation, but moments later at the Open Arms, the largest bar in the epicenter of Muirfield's primary hospitality area, lines were a few fans deep, at most. "Today's been quieter than yesterday, but overall, I expected it to be busier," said Louise Dickson, one of several bartenders working the counter with spare time to chat. "The atmosphere hasn't been quite as lively."

One area on the course that still had crowds, lines and, yes, atmosphere, was the scene around the day’s marquee pairing of Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood. Thousands of fans followed the twosome all afternoon, and because many of Muirfield's assorted humps and bumps are found outside the ropes, savvy onlookers were often able to position themselves with a clear view of the action.

"It's a big crowd, but there have been plenty of vantage points," said Stephen Cotton, a Manchester resident who tailed Woods and Westwood from start to finish. "It's been no problem at all — I've seen them all day."

It really has been a great show. Too bad more folks aren't here to watch it.