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For the love of the Old Course

Even by the rugged standards here on the western edge of the North Sea, Wednesday was a day to find shelter, warmth, and, if you were so inclined, a glass of the national beverage with at least 10 years of age on it.

Two beautiful summer days that felt like early fall in the Carolinas surrendered to leaden skies and an icy rain that blew sideways in the relentless wind coming off the white-capped sea nearby.

In a town where they once threw suspected witches to their death from rocky cliffs and burned martyrs at the stake, it was a day that literally dripped with atmosphere. It demanded what the locals call 'waterproofs' and the understanding that even at the game's birthplace there are days when golf isn't such a good idea.

Though the town now has its own Starbucks and the movie theatre is showing "Toy Story 3" along with the latest installment of the "Twilight" saga, St. Andrews has retained its old world charm. It doesn't live in the past but the past lives in it, around every corner and down every narrow cobblestoned street.

On Tuesday evening, just before the sun set around 10:30 p.m. and the rain arrived, Davis Love III was standing near the famous Swilcan Bridge with some friends who wanted a photo. Love was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, looking like any other visitor to St. Andrews though this will be his fifth Open at the Old Course.

He smiled as he told the story of how he learned last weekend that he was getting one of the last spots in the field here, allowing him to make his 24th straight Open start.

"That's a lot of years," Love said, walking down the Road Hole fairway in the gloaming, the satisfaction clear in his voice.

At other places, golfers leave the course in the evening. At St. Andrews, they walk the streets and, in some cases, the golf course.

Love watched his friend David Duval hop a short rock wall to reach the back door of the Old Course Hotel, which was locked for the evening. Duval, wearing a suit and returning from the champions' dinner at the Royal and Ancient clubhouse 400 yards away, stood knocking on the glass, waiting for someone to let him in.

"There's your (former) Open champion right there," Love said with amusement as Duval tried to beckon someone to the door.

Duval was carrying a box holding a sterling silver belt buckle fashioned after the original given to the first eight champions of the Open, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It was a gift to the champions who returned here this week for dinner, stories and a four-hole exhibition that was lost to the rain Wednesday.

Arnold Palmer was here. So was 87-year-old Roberto de Vicenzo, who made the trip from Argentina. Lee Trevino came, as did Tom Weiskopf, Bob Charles, Gary Player and others.

They were going to tee it up together again, for the fun of it, and it would have been almost perfect had the weather cooperated.

But it would be missing Seve Ballesteros, who so wanted to be at the Old Course this week. He's fighting brain cancer, and the reports from Spain aren't encouraging.

Ballesteros transformed the game in Europe in much the same way Palmer did in the United States. He played with style, charisma and, most of all, simmering Spanish emotion.

He won five majors, including three Opens, the best being the one at the Old Course in 1984. His reaction upon holing the winning putt - a fist in the air and a look of pure joy on his face - said what words can't about what the championship meant to him.

Ballesteros sent a one-minute video to the champions, telling them how much he wanted to be there, which they watched at dinner.

"It was sad," Tom Watson said.

It's a sadness that can be felt around St. Andrews this week, knowing how much Ballesteros wanted one more day to look around at the ancient buildings that shadow the 18th green at the Old Course and to feel the love a final time.

Instead, it rained on the day Ballesteros didn't get.

But St. Andrews, even when it's wet, windy and wintry, is a place that remembers.

And somehow it feels warmer.

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