On Saturday evening, as the last straws of daylight were dimming into darkness, a quiet peace had settled over the Old Course where the 144th Open Championship will begin on Thursday.
The breeze smelled damp, the night had gone silent and the famous gray stone Royal & Ancient clubhouse near the first tee was lit in a soft yellow glow. Massive, empty grandstands framed portions of the last two holes, stadium-like walls waiting for the masses to arrive.
It was an hour when ghosts whisper and they live in these parts where golf, at least a form of it, has been played for about 600 years, give or take a century.
St. Andrews, the town, is an ancient place (though it now has a Starbucks and wi-fi) and so is the Old Course, where Mary Queen of Scots was accused of playing just days after her husband’s suspicious death in the 1500s and which looks very little like most of the golf courses with which we’re familiar.
It’s flat, treeless and its fairways have the wrinkled look of a shirt that’s been at the bottom of a laundry hamper. Without someone pointing you in the right direction, it’s not easy to know which way to play except that the first eight holes go away from town and the last five come back in with the four others crisscrossing about 2 miles from the town’s business district, which nudges literally feet away from the 18th hole.
Bobby Jones won here. Sam Snead, too. Jack Nicklaus won two Opens at St. Andrews, as has Tiger Woods.
It’s been said that a player isn’t truly great until he’s won at the Old Course. That excludes a lot of names, but the point is the Old Course, like perhaps no other place, anoints a rare grandeur on its champions.
The Open Championship has a unique charm with its old world backdrop and windswept links, but when it’s played at the Old Course, folded into the gray-walled heart of St. Andrews as it is, it becomes almost romantic. Its staging, its storylines and its soul give an Old Course Open a life different than anyplace else.
This week, soon-to-be 22-year-old Jordan Spieth has history calling, having already made a massive imprint since April. He’s just the sixth golfer to have won the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year (Craig Wood, Ben Hogan twice, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods also did it) and if Spieth can find a way to win the Claret Jug, he will join the 1953 version of Hogan as the only players to have won the first three majors in a season.
It’s not outrageous to imagine Spieth winning at the Old Course. He’s already won four PGA Tour events this year, most recently winning the John Deere Classic in a playoff on Sunday, and though some traditionalists have argued he would have been better served coming to Scotland a few days early, Spieth knows better than anyone what works for him.
While Rory McIlroy sits this Open out with an ill-timed ankle injury, denying us a potential duel with Spieth at the surprisingly green and relatively lush Old Course, Spieth is like a fire that keeps burning regardless of what’s thrown at it. Among his many strengths, his greatest may be the way he manages to absorb the intricacies of the game — from swing nuances to course strategy — and condense them into a clean, almost simple approach.
That may be particularly valuable at the Old Course, where wind and rain and capricious fortune will add to the natural challenges on the centuries old sod.
This week, Tom Watson will play his final Open having already won five of them, and Nick Faldo will wave goodbye from the Swilcan Bridge. Rickie Fowler is coming off a dramatic victory in the Scottish Open last week, Dustin Johnson has reemerged after his U.S. Open disappointment, Jason Day is feeling better, Justin Rose is sharp and, after months of struggle, Tiger Woods is showing signs of life again.
The betting shops have been busy, the weather is poised to provide just the right amount of atmosphere, and the anticipation is peaking.
Come Sunday the Claret Jug will be held high
The million dollar question: By whom?