Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
I have never played Royal Liverpool, but I could. Anyone can. You can play where Rory won a British Open*, where Tiger won one, where Roberto (De Vicenzo) won one, where Bob (Jones) won one. Yep, you can play Royal Liverpool, site of this year’s tournament. You can get so familiar with it you can call it by its nickname, Hoylake, for the seaside town in which it resides. You can play it! One of the best and most historic courses in all of golf. How great is that? It’s open. It’s open to all.
(*Yes, the British Open, to us, here in these United States. The Open, everywhere else.)
There are private clubs all across the British Isles. Royal Liverpool is private. Royal Troon in Scotland, next year’s venue? Private. Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland, come 2025? Private. Ditto for ’26, Royal Birkdale in England.
Their first names alone—the Royal starts—suggest their private status, their social standing, their age. But each of these clubs has a website and the websites tell another story. Each is open—open!—for “visitor play.” It might be expensive, but you can get on. You can take a caddie, pull a trolley, carry your own, wear shorts. (In other words, it’s looser than you might think.) But the main point here is that tee times are available for nonmembers. Lots of them.
It is such a better system. It also helps defray costs for the members, so that membership is not the exclusive preserve of the super-rich. School principals and clergy members and insurance brokers are at all of these clubs, sharing the same “drying room” with the landed gentry and visiting royals.
Club life is different in the British Isles, and the lack of air conditioning in the clubhouses is the least of it. (No free tees, either.) No matter what somebody says to you, no matter how unintelligible, just respond with “Right you are!” and you’ll be fine.
For years, one of the most prominent members of Royal Dornoch, in northern Scotland, was a wee man with small teeth and a sharp wit named Sandy “Pipey” Matheson. Sandy played the bagpipes on various Dornoch occasions—weddings, funerals; maybe he played the occasional bat mitzvah—as a hobby. By profession, he was a Dornoch club caddie. He was a Dornoch member, too.
Sandy caddied for me at Dornoch, and we played the great links together as well. I recall that his wind jacket looked like it was made of rubber. One night he invited my wife and me to dinner at his house. It was an old, stone townhouse with low ceilings, as Christine and I recall it, more than 30 years later. This we remember with more certainty: Sandy and his wife served boiled salmon with boiled potatoes and after dinner Sandy poured Scotch, straight up, of course. A memorable host and a memorable evening.
Sandy put more than a few American visitors up for membership at Royal Dornoch over the years. Royal Dornoch! The place where Tom Watson, finally, in 1981 and already a three-time Open winner, fell in love with links golf. Over the decades, a small group of corporate chieftains with broad American accents became Dornoch members by way of one of its caddies, Pipey Matheson his own self. What does that tell you?
Golf in the Kingdom really is a better game. It’s the turf below your feet, the wit of the caddies, the pace of the rounds. At least usually. Once, during a painfully slow round at Dornoch, a visiting golfer asked Sandy, “Are you tired?”
“No,” Sandy said. “Homesick.”
They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Not even at St. Andrews, where the caddies are part of the scenery, along with the gorse and humps. I remember well the old wool-coated caddies there, but these days the caddies tend to be polite young people in tourwear who are skillful with an iPhone camera. It’s actually a job requirement. That’s OK. If you get to play the Old Course, you’re going to want a memento.
Somewhere, I have a ball—a balata Titleist 384—that I used there from start to finish, playing home into the wind and in 39 shots. Also (somewhere) two snaps, on the 1st tee and the 18th green, the regal R&A clock in the background, proof positive that, on a busy summer day, three Scottish golfers and a wannabe got around in three hours and 30 minutes.
Unlike all of those Royal-branded courses at the top here, the Old Course is a true muny. Now if you’re staying at the Old Course Hotel, beside the 17th hole, it might seem like a resort course. If you’re using your R&A membership to get a tee time, it might seem like a private course. But it’s public land, and the course is administered by a public trust, and it’s open to all. It’s the oldest course in the world, it’s one of the best, and it is open to everybody. That has a lot to do with why it is so famous, and so beloved.
The closest thing we—we who use British Open—have to the Old Course is Pebble Beach. Pebble is a resort course, privately owned and wildly expensive. But the course is public. Nobody gets turned away. What the Old Course is to golf in the United Kingdom, the Pebble Beach Links is to golf in America. Talk about your bucket-list golfing destinations. Both of them.
I imagine that sometime in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years the Public Investment Fund, the hilariously named Saudi Arabian investment firm with $750 billion in assets, will try to buy Pebble Beach, or, at the very least, make a major investment in it. Covenants might be in place that would make that difficult, but expensive legal talent has a knack for burying inconvenient problems.
You can’t buy the Old Course. It’s not for sale. Also, it doesn’t exist to make money. Along those same lines, at least in theory, you can’t buy the PGA Tour. It doesn’t exist to make money. Likewise, you can’t buy the U.S. Open or the British Open or the Masters or the PGA Championship. They don’t exist to make money. They exist to allow the world’s best golfers to show off their talent on the world’s best courses for a golf-loving public. That’s why we’ll watch Cam Smith and Brooks Koepka and Wyndham Clark and Jon Rahm do their thing this week at Royal Liverpool, and why many of us aspire to play the course ourselves.
In 1960, as the new U.S. Open champion, Arnold Palmer finished a shot behind the winner, Kel Nagle, at the British Open at St. Andrews. In 1966 and ’67, Arnold had second-place finishes at the Bing Crosby pro-am at Pebble. He loved both places, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. He owned a piece of Pebble Beach. St. Andrews owned a piece of him. The home of golf. “Golf made me,” Arnold said many times. He said it and he believed it. He lived his life with those three words in mind.
I have wondered what Arnold would make of the PIF’s effort to be a business partner of the PGA Tour’s while financing a league, LIV Golf, that has already shown itself to be a direct threat to the PGA Tour. You gotta admit, it is kind of weird.
In 1990, a businessman from Japan linked to Japanese mobsters bought Pebble. That didn’t sit right with Arnold. By the end of the decade, Palmer was part of a group of prominent American golfers and investors, including Dick Ferris of United Airlines and Chuck Schwab of Charles Schwab and Clint Eastwood of the “Dirty Harry” movies, that bought Pebble, then owned by a Japanese bank. Order was restored.
Arnold played in the British Open 23 times and won it twice. He didn’t play in the 1967 Open at Hoylake, when De Vicenzo won, but he did play the course. Of course he did. Anybody can. You wonder what he would give to have one more crack at the claret jug. Yes, for sure, the $3 million first-place prize would be part of the draw. But the bigger thing would have been just to play in it, on a splendid course with a rich history, against outstanding competition, and a petite and charming trophy awaiting the winner.
The Open. It’s open. Open! Such a fine word.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollectice.com