The magic of St. Andrews

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For four weekends a year, golf-lovers mark their calendars for the major championships. For many, including myself, an ideal day during the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and the Open Championship consists of an early-morning 18-hole round with friends followed by hunkering down to watch the drama unfold.

This year’s Open Championship that concluded Sunday in the historic town and grounds of St. Andrews, Scotland, brought a level of sentiment difficult to describe. While the word “spiritual” can be overused, I can think of no better description.

I have never looked more forward to watching a major championship, and it had little to do with the golf itself – though it turned out to be an extraordinary display of talent from the world’s top players. It all had to do with some fortunate personal experiences.

Having been fortunate enough to visit the “Home of Golf” twice, staying 400 steps from the first tee of The Old Course and soaking in the culture (and the pubs) of the quaint college town along the scenic North Sea, the anticipation leading up the event bordered on unbearable. I could not wait to see how the town would host hundreds of thousands of people in what would eventually turn into a weeklong party and celebration of golf and its history.

Not surprisingly, it did not disappoint.
Granted, St. Andrews is not exactly a rookie when it comes to hosting a major championship. Last week’s tournament was the 30th to be played there, the first coming in 1873.

The buildup to this one, however, was different for more than just myself. It was the 150th playing of The Open (over there, it is not to be called the British Open), which was originally scheduled to be contested in 2020 but was delayed a year due to the pandemic. The event was the only of the four majors in 2020 to be canceled. Though, the three played on American soil were played mostly without fans, and the Masters was played in November instead of its traditional second weekend of April.

It also marked the return of Tiger Woods, who had only played in the Masters and U.S. Open this year while recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident 16 months ago. Woods was attempting to win his third Open at St. Andrews, but he was headed home after missing the 36-hole cut by nine shots.

My level of geekdom for this event was likely over the top, and to those who had to put up with me, I apologize. Then again, those who know me completely understand my position.

Former champions of The Open were invited to The Old Course July 11 for a four-hole exhibition. Though Jack Nicklaus, who won two of his three Open championships at St. Andrews, did not play, he was in attendance.

Seeing the Golden Bear and Tiger Woods – the game’s two best all-time players who have combined to win 33 majors – pose for pictures on the famous Swilcan Bridge that I stood on with three of my friends eight months earlier is pretty cool.

My obsession level maybe got a bit too extreme when I retrieved my scorecard from last year’s round to help me relieve the good, bad and ugly of my second trip around the most famous links course in the world. But I did not care. I was going to enjoy every possible second.

Television coverage actually did the event justice. Scots love and appreciate their golf, which was evident by the packed grandstands along the first fairway and behind the 18th green along with the thunderous applause in appreciation of a great shot.

The only semi-bummer of the week was that the normally unpredictable winds of Scotland took the week off.
In October, the course is normally lush and green, though the fairways and greens remain pleasantly firm and playable.

A relatively dry summer on the Scottish coast meant The Old Course was baked, making already difficult-to-predict bounces even weirder. The conditions brought shorter hitters into the fray as drives often rolled out 100 yards.

The Royal & Ancient, which oversees the championship, made things as difficult as it could with the course setup, placing hole locations in tricky spots. With little or no wind, the course has no defense, meaning champion Cameron Smith’s winning score of 20-under par surprised no one.

As incredible as Smith’s come-from-behind victory was – he shot a record 30 on the back nine – it dashed the hopes of Rory McIlroy fans everywhere. McIlroy is one of the game’s most popular and talented players who has four major titles but none since 2014.

Despite hitting all 18 greens in regulation, a nearly impossible feat in a major championship, McIlroy’s putter let him down while Smith’s was sizzling on his way to his first major title. It was a gut punch to Rory fans.

Only four players made all four cuts in majors this season and had a combined under-par score. McIlroy’s 29-under in all four majors led Will Zalatoris by eight shots, yet he was unable to close the deal in any of them.

Smith’s win was still popular. He is engaging, personable and sports a mullet that looks more suitable for watching a NASCAR race. His victory comment of looking forward to learning how many beers fit in the Claret Jug, the trophy awarded to the winner, endeared him to the knowledgeable and likely thirsty crowd.

It was a special week at a magical place.