FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
British Open 2022: The Old Course begins and ends in town, creating a welcoming ambiance and a grand stage
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
ST. ANDREWS — The whole point here is to play home, just as you want to get yourself home in baseball, or Parcheesi. You play home on every golf course — a final hole may always be called the home hole — but it is especially true here on the Old Course, in this town known as the Home of Golf.
You start in town and head out. (On you go!) You make this peculiar reverse C turn in the middle of the round. And then you play on home, smack-dab into the heart of town, where you will be greeted not just by paying fans, but also by townspeople, temporary or entrenched.
So it was with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland on Saturday and so it will be with him for the Sunday finale. Same for his playing partner, young Viktor Hovland, the high prince of Norwegian golf. Ditto for Scottie Scheffler, your Masters champion; Justin Thomas, your PGA champion; Matthew Fitzpatrick, your U.S. Open champion. There will more professional golf played this year, but viewed another way, this is it. Here he comes: the Champion Golfer of the Year.
McIlroy won this old golf tournament in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, aka Hoylake, across the Irish Sea from the Belfast shipbuilders who employed his mother’s people not so long ago. In the third round here, he was gliding, in his usual way, down the 18th fairway, with the town and its people lining the wee lane to his right. He looked up to a row of windows at Rusacks, the old hotel where his mum, his dad, his wife and their daughter are staying this week.
And then back to work: getting his golf ball up and in from the side of the 18th green for a closing birdie. His ball was in a little depression. Your ball is always in a little depression on the Old Course, except on the tee. Every golfer surrounding that 18th hole had to be asking the same silent question: Will be putt it or chip it or pitch it?
You could almost see the thought bubbles over all those baseball caps: I know what I would do!
McIlroy plays with amateurs all the time. His father, Gerry. His buddies in South Florida and Northern Ireland. His pro-am partners on regular PGA Tour weeks. When he came in from his round, he was asked if that’s the advice he gives his amateur partners, to chip with the putter when you can.
“Yeah,” he said. He was smiling. Why wouldn’t he be? “If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for anyone, I think.”
He is, after all, one of the best golfers in the world.
Someday, maybe a century from now, McIlroy’s putter, a great square glob of TaylorMade metal called the Spider Hydro Blast, will look like an odd relic from yesteryear, and some kid will wander into the R&A World Golf Museum across the street from the R&A clubhouse and say, “Can you believe they ever putted with such contraptions?” There is, by the way, little more charming in this world than to hear a Scottish kid use the word contraption.
You’re drawn to town to see the golfers and the golf. By any means necessary. Will Richardson, a young Scot and a recent graduate of Durham University in England where he studied geography, got a job for the week working the practice area, distributing balls to the players and their caddies, working on his juggling during times of low demand. Four balls! He’s brand-agnostic and he’s good!
Will and Jack exemplified the carefree spirit of St. Andrews.
One of Will’s goals for the week was to see Tiger Woods in the flesh, and he did. His brother got to see him too. It brings to mind the old Scottish folk anthem Will’s forebears would surely know: “Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?” The Open will come back to the Old Course. If Tiger will be in the field, we do not know. Maybe he’ll only play the four-hole outing for past champions, as he did with Lee Trevino and others this year. McIlroy was in that group.
Will Richardson’s young practice-grounds partner for the week, Jack Sharp, is a good junior golfer in and around St. Andrews who just graduated from high school. One of Jack’s jobs was to rake the practice bunkers, and he took it upon himself to rake the number 150 into the coarse bunker sand, as this is the 150th playing of the Open. Jack, tall and lanky, was experimenting with a left-hand low putting grip on Saturday afternoon, using the column of a ball-collection device as the grip. He was waiting for his shift to end, so he could watch McIlroy play to the house and get in an evening nine holes of his own.
“I played nine hole in 1 under last night cross-handed, but I played nine the night before that in 3 under with a regular grip, so I don’t know,” Jack said of his experiment. “Have you seen Danny Willett chip cross-handed? That I don’t get.”
Before long, Jack finished his shift and headed on in, past the Old Course Hotel and Rusacks and into town. You’re always heading into town here.
Town and course, course and town, today’s golf and yesterday’s golf and tomorrow’s golf — they’re all mixed together and muddled up, in this town. Here’s David Feherty at the grocery store in town. Here he is on the course. Here he is at dinner at Rusacks. He was playing golf with Rory McIlroy’s lifelong teacher, Michael Bannon, before Rory McIlroy was born. Ye olde game and its many tentacles.
Adam Scott, the Australian golfer, was enjoying the sunshine in the backyard of the Old Course Hotel late on Monday afternoon, watching Tiger and Rory and most especially Trevino play the Road Hole in that four-hole exhibition. On Thursday, Scott was 4 over through six holes. At the end of play on Saturday, the day he turned 42, he was 9 under. Give Scott a few mulligans over the course of his career and he’d have his name on the Claret Jug two or three times. But, you know, when our forebears came up with the rules of golf nearly 300 years ago, there was nothing about do-overs. Not then, not now. This game changes but slowly.
Scott said on Saturday night that the one legend he would still want to play with is Trevino. He has played with Tiger many times, with Jack, with Arnold. But he has missed Trevino. He saw him on Monday, at close range, over a short stone wall, while sitting on a step, at a hotel on the edge of town. On Sunday, you can be sure, Trevino will be watching Scott and McIlroy and Hovland and the others trying to win the jug he won twice. Everybody’s here, in some manner. Everybody’s in St. Andrews.
On Saturday night, somebody gave Scott a bottle of Vegemite, the dark-brown food spread with a bright-yellow label, a product of Australia, loaded with veggies and yeast. Scott took it with a smile and headed home.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com