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Must-see TV (but better in person): St. Andrews hosts the 150th Open Championship in July

by Garrett Johnston

We all have our reasons that bring us out on the links, but golf in Scotland – and specifically the links golf courses we find at St. Andrews and beyond – pack a punch which can’t be matched in our sport.

The venerable Royal & Ancient clubhouse looms over the first tee (left) and 18th green (middle) at the Old Course in St. Andrews. (Photo by TJC)

If you haven’t played golf in Scotland yet, you’re missing out. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. From the unpredictable weather to the quirky bounces of a links layout to the stunning finishing holes in some of the old towns, it’s a thrill worth making the trip over the Atlantic for.

That brings us to this July and the 150th Open Championship heading back to the “Home of Golf” at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

I don’t think there’s a more special walk in the game. Why? Well, for all the beauty of Augusta National during Masters week, exactly none of us will ever get to get inside the ropes and know what it feels like to walk up 18 and throw both arms up in the air like Tiger did in 2019. At St. Andrews, it’s a totally different story.

If you get to St. Andrews on a Sunday, it’s like a neighborhood picnic. Mothers push their children in strollers, friends spread out blankets for a picnic while others walk their dogs. And yes, you can walk down the 18th fairway – as Seve, Tiger, Jack and the greats all did – and do it for free, soaking in the view of the venerable R&A building behind the green. Walk the course in the evening and the building looks stunning as it gets lit up.

When you add an Open Championship to this amazing setting, with the iconic yellow scoreboards and fans from around the world, it’s hard to miss the thrill of being there.

CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz loves going across the pond and visiting each time The Open gets to St. Andrews. He’ll go with friends to see Young Tom Morris’ gravesite (a visitor’s tradition) and walk the Old Course with the fans during the Open.

CBS announcer Jim Nantz has many memories of St. Andrews. (Photo courtesy CBS)

“When it comes to over-delivering on expectations, I found there are two certainties in golf: The Masters, and an Open Championship at St. Andrews,” Nantz said. “They always exceed people’s wildest hopes and dreams.”

The Open Championship has long been one of major champion Davis Love III’s favorite events, and he suggests we experience it for ourselves, especially when it’s at the Old Course.

“Opens at St. Andrews are such an incredible tradition,” Love says. “And when you go there, you’ve got to go visit Young Tom Morris’ grave. My wife always says, ‘Well, we did this last time we were here’ and I say, ‘Yes, and we’re going to do it again the next time,’ because it’s just paying homage to the origins of the game and carrying on the tradition.”

Not only is tradition a major hallmark of Opens at St. Andrews, but the energy in the air is palpable. Especially when it finally gets dark around 11 pm and the local pubs are packed.

“It’s electric, you go into these pubs and these little restaurants and the food kind of sucks but you have these great beers and the ceilings are really low and everyone’s shoulder to shoulder and laughing,” PGA Tour player Kevin Streelman says. “It’s loud and there’s dancing late at night, and everyone’s singing and there are people there from all over – Asia, Australia, Africa – and all these people are coming together who love golf and they love being there.”

And the locals so enjoy hosting all of us visitors that week. The Scots are such a kind, welcoming group of people that it just feels amazing when you get to know the locals.

PGA Tour player Billy Horschel played his third Open in 2015, but that was his first at St. Andrews, and he got a taste of the welcoming nature of the locals through his dad.

Billy Sr. went to a couple local pubs the first night of the trip. The next night he took Billy out to the same places and Billy couldn’t believe how close his dad and the local regulars were with each other.

“It was crazy,” Horschel said. “My dad was like, ‘This is my son everybody, he’s playing in the Open,’ and he was beaming with pride. The locals were just like, ‘Oh yeah, we love taking care of your dad. He’s the best.’ They had already been telling stories with my dad the night before and had welcomed him in to their group. He was so happy.”

Visit Scotland’s Chief Executive Malcolm Roughead loves to hear of how hospitable his fellow Scots are with visitors who come to St. Andrews from around the world.

“It’s a fun cast of characters who come to St. Andrews and enjoy having a pint with the locals and swapping war stories on how they fared on the fairways,” Roughead said.

“From our perspective, it reinforces our positioning as the Home of Golf with the reach and magnitude of those big events like The Open and more.”

The “more” he’s referring to are the other four pro events which comprise five in a row throughout the summer in an unprecedented lineup for Scotland. It all begins with the Genesis Scottish Open at Renaissance Club about two hours south of St. Andrews from July 4-10; The Open at St. Andrews July 14-17; The Senior Open at Gleneagles July 21-24; the Women’s Scottish Open July 28-31 at Dundonald; and the AIG Women’s Open August 4-7 at famous Muirfield.

But back to St. Andrews. It’s going to be a special Open this summer. Like Augusta National, there are so many spots on the course that visitors who’ve never been to St. Andrews simply can’t wait to explore.

For many, the dream begins on the memorable first tee box, just yards in front of the R&A building, the North Sea and putting green to your right and the 18th hole and old town to your left.

“It’s everyone’s dream to tee up there on the first tee, and it’s quite nerve-wracking when your name’s announced,” Roughead says. “You either shank it right or hit it left into the people watching in the town. I’ve seen grown men weep on that first tee, and I’ve been one of them myself.”

It’s an overwhelming range of emotions for most. Even for two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington, the first tee at St. Andrews delivers every time.

“It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Harrington said. “It’s just amazing.”

It makes grown men cry and past champions nervous. And that’s just the first hole.

Three-time Open champ Nick Faldo loves to embrace the odd bounces on the rest of the Old Course.

“St. Andrews is that course where if you miss a shot by a fraction, you could end up 30 or 40 yards from your target,” Faldo said. “Those slopes are amazing.”

The 64-year-old knows the significance of this 150th Open, and doesn’t want us golf fans who are willing to make the trip to miss out on history.

“This being the 150th Open, at St. Andrews of all places, you’ve really got to make the effort to get out to it,” he said. “This is certainly the one you want to attend.”

While in Scotland, the temptation will be to bring the golf clubs and go play the other Scottish courses we’ve heard of in the Open Championship rota. Muirfield and Carnoustie would certainly get our attention. But one of the beauties of golf in Scotland are the amazing amount of courses just a notch below those cream of the crop ones, and there are plenty of memorable ones.

“There’s really a course here for everyone,” Roughead says. “You can play all the trophy courses. Then you can go down to the next level. And we always say that the next level courses are as good as anywhere else in the world. We’re very spoiled for choice. I would definitely recommend you go to the links courses, and if you’ve never played links golf, it’s a version of golf you’ll never forget, that’s for sure. Just make sure you come dressed and prepared for all seasons, and you can get them all in one day. So best be ready.”

Some of the classic courses Roughead refers to just outside of St. Andrews are Kingsbarns, which is one of tour caddie Ted Scott’s favorite golf courses in the world. It’s golf on a stunning coastline and it’s only a few miles from St. Andrews, so when you do finally make that pilgrimage, you’ll have a great course nearby. Crail is just a few more miles to the south and is an absolute blast. Golf Australia editor Brendan James once told me the opening downhill par 4 is brilliant because you can drive the green if you hit a good one, or end up with double bogey in a flash.

As you look toward a visit to St. Andrews, whatever you do, check out the iconic pub in the Dunvegan Hotel, about a block away from the Old Course’s 18th green. Every golfer, famous or not, has been down there for a pint and sung with the locals.

When tour pro Ben Martin made his first trip to St. Andrews in 2015, he and a friend drove from the Edinburgh airport and went “straight for the Dunvegan – we just had heard so much about it.”

Streelman and his caddie Michael Bestor love that you can blend into the crowds with the regulars at Dunvegan.

“The cool thing is they might recognize you’re a golfer, but they treat everyone the same,” Streelman said. “They’re not coming up to you for a picture or autograph, they come up and ask, ‘How’s the course playing? What’s going on with you?’ You just feel like one of the guys or the girls who’s just having a golf vacation.”

Just one of the guys or girls. Now ain’t that a nice thought.

Garrett Johnston has covered golf for 10 years as a freelance writer. He also hosts the “Beyond the Clubhouse” podcast. Follow him at @JohnstonGarrett