St. Andrews has a feel all its own

July 18, 2010 

— On Saturday afternoon, as the Scottish wind blew across the Old Course at St. Andrews for another day, a man and three boys leaned on the gray steel fence that ran parallel to the 18th hole.

The sun, when it wasn't ducking behind the purple clouds, was on their faces, putting a warm glow on a cool day. They watched quietly as 21-year old Rory McIlroy marched up the final fairway toward a closing birdie, ringside at the place where it all began.

They didn't need a ticket. The road that runs alongside the 18th hole is open to the public, just one of the unique charms of the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

This is Lucas Glover's fifth appearance in the Open but his first time to St. Andrews.

"It doesn't let you forget where you are," said Glover, who, like many other American pros here, walks the streets to dinner in the evenings.

You can see U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell stopping into a Thai restaurant to pick up his take-out order and 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton standing by a garbage can, eating a burger with friends.

The Open Championship returns to St. Andrews every five years, a nod to history, tradition and the idea that everybody likes coming back. Phil Mickelson said this week he'd be happy if they put the championship on the Old Course every year, a romantic notion if nothing else.

It feels somehow both ancient and intimate, a tournament for the world staged in a quaint little town known for its ghosts and golf. Experiencing the Open at St. Andrews gives you what a logo on a shirt can't - the feeling of being someplace like no place else.

Some of it is obvious.

Seeing Tiger Woods, backlit by a slowly setting sun, hammering his tee shot up the 18th fairway with the famous clubhouse in the distance is an image for the ages.

But the Open at St. Andrews is about small things, too.

It's about hearing the accents from around the world, not around your block.

On the second tee, a group of little Scottish boys chant, "Goo Tiger, Goo Tiger" as he walks down the fairway past them.

The locals talk about watching "th' gawlferz," and visitors in the galleries speak Japanese, Spanish and, occasionally, Southern.

There are ice cream stands, operated out of rolling trailers, scattered around the golf course. There are beer gardens, and there are American cheeseburgers with fries (chips they call them) for sale.

There are old men with thick eyebrows wearing tweed jackets and young women dressed in Burberry.

Between the cheers and the rush of the wind, there is the wisping sound of windshirts and rain pants rubbing together as galleries walk together.

Sea gulls float overhead, even on gusty days, and there's a faint briny scent to the heavy air coming off the North Sea.

At the far end of the Old Course, where the holes crisscross before turning back toward town, you get a sense of how it must have once looked and felt before there was golf, back when braveheart William Wallace was roaming the country and witches were rumored to live here.

It is flat and exposed, almost spectacular in its desolation.

Work your way back into town and there, maybe 25 feet off the 18th fairway, are apartments with window boxes filled with flowers and water bottles visible on the counter through the window.

A block away from the Old Course, the bar in the Dunvegan Hotel is a few degrees too warm and filled with the smell of beer as visitors watch the Open on television. The crowd spills outside to the edge of a street where two cooks work a charcoal grill.

On a board outside the bar, there is a poem written in chalk. The verse changes daily, but on Saturday as the tournament began to gather for the finish at the Old Course, it ended like this:

For as long as golfers have played this great game,

No place on earth can match her fame.

So today make your move,

You just never know,

Come Sunday you lift the jug at this the greatest show.

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5118

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