At 150, St. Andrews and The Open show they have stood the test of time

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It all comes back to Scotland and St. Andrews on the 150th edition of The Open. It’s a place where the game’s greats bid farewell to this championship. It’s where hopes have been shattered in the Valley of Sin in front of the 18th green, or the “Road Hole” bunker off the 17th. It’s where some experienced the greatest moments of their career as they crossed the Swilcan Bridge toward the 72nd hole knowing they had a comfortable lead to secure a spot in golf history.

The 156 players contesting this year’s Open spent the past couple of days walking the Old Course at St. Andrews familiarizing themselves with the 112 bunkers, the vast greens and the intricacies and pitfalls of the course. Nostalgia was inescapable. There were reminders of the past and present at golf’s home — everything else could wait, even normal life for those living here was occasionally suspended.

At midafternoon on a Tuesday North Street was temporarily shut. A supermarket truck was held up among other vehicles — including one of the local buses — as golf fans, residents and those slightly bemused by what was going on lined the street. They created a corridor of phones and strained necks hugging the 300 or so yards from Younger Hall down to Murray Park.

Those who had to be somewhere got off their bicycles to walk — “this is what happens when you live in the town, it’s a nightmare,” said one resident late for a meeting — while others just parked their cars and took in some sun.

Jack Nicklaus had been made an honorary citizen of St. Andrews at Younger Hall and a procession was organized to mark the occasion. Voices from all over the world could be heard as fans waited to catch a glimpse of the 18-time major winner — while some younger voices asked “Who is Jack Nicklaus?” and “Why is he so special?”

Seven or so minutes after the planned 3 p.m. local start, the sole bagpipe player started his walk. It was like witnessing a royal visit, with Nicklaus sitting in the back of an open-top Royale Windsor next to his wife, Barbara, waving to those watching. Various dignitaries followed behind. After 5 minutes, as the procession drifted around the corner, life in that small corner of the town ticked back to usual life.

But life isn’t normal when The Open is in town. The local population of students and residents, which numbers around 18,500, swells to its bursting point with the expected 290,000 visitors all ticking off a “bucket-list” destination for golf fans.

Nostalgia and tradition is everywhere, but this tournament comes at a time when golf’s foundation is showing some cracks. LIV Golf presents a monumental hazard to the order; sport-shifting news chips away daily at the serenity of the 150th celebrations. And it leaves us wondering what the next couple of years will resemble, let alone another century and a half.

It all started back in 1860 — or a year previous when Scotland’s undisputed top golfer, Allan Robertson, died. To determine who the next “championship golfer” would be, eight players met at Prestwick — a course where Old Tom Morris was the greenskeeper. On Oct. 17, they contested for the honor of being Scotland’s top golfer — and by default, the world’s best — and for the Challenge Belt, made with red Moroccan leather and completed with an engraved silver buckle.

Willie Park was the inaugural champion, with Morris winning four of the next seven. Then it was his son’s turn –Young Tom Morris, or Tommy, won three from 1868 to 1870 and was allowed to keep the belt. Due to a lack of trophy, the tournament was cancelled in 1871, but the Claret Jug was purchased in 1873 and remains the coveted prize to this day.

Old Tom had a hand in designing or reshaping 75 golf courses — including Prestwick, Muirfield, Royal Portrush, Carnoustie and the Old Course.

His legacy is now preserved through this tournament, and there are reminders everywhere of his influence around the town, including the famous address “7-8, The Links.” There was a healthy queue outside the shop called “The Open” at No. 8 on Tuesday. But those who’ve been here a few times will know it more commonly as “Tom Morris Shop.” It was where Old Tom sold his golf wares while living on the first floor of the building at No. 7. If you walk past the shop this week and look up to the windows on the first floor, you might see Sheila Walker, the great, great granddaughter of Old Tom. She has lived there all her life, occasionally opening the windows to watch the world go by, taking in her view overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course.

Old Tom is one of the tournament’s architects and his story is just part of what makes the championship so special. It can be overpowering. To counter that, the current “Champion Golfer of the Year” Collin Morikawa got it out of his system when he played 18 over the weekend.

“You’ve got to embrace the history,” he said. “You have to embrace everything. Everything that has happened before us.

“I did that all on Sunday when I got here, and I’m over it. I have to. That’s the only way I can focus on this tournament.”

A total of 14 golf courses have hosted The Open. It has been at the game’s home, St. Andrews, the most. This will be the 30th time The Open has been contested here.

There are generation-defining moments dotted through the tournament’s history. Some are immortalized through accounts — paintings like the one of Old Tom’s first tee shot in 1860, and black-and-white grainy film like the one of Bobby Jones being carried off the green in 1927 on the shoulders of the crowd, or the one of Ben Hogan’s ice-like demeanor guiding him to the 1953 Open at Carnoustie.

Color breaks through with Arnold Palmer in 1960 and intertwines in memories of great moments like the image of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson walking off the 18th green at Turnberry in 1977 after the “Duel in the Sun.” There were those famous wardrobe choices that mold our memories — like the trademark red Tiger Woods wore in 2000 when he won his maiden Open by 8 shots at St. Andrews for the final part of his “Tiger Slam” or Nick Faldo‘s garish yellow Pringle number at Muirfield in 1987. There was the light blue of Tom Watson in 2009, when at age 59 he nearly defeated the field and Father Time before falling in a playoff to Stewart Cink. And, of course, the late Seve Ballesteros‘ navy jumper and his incredible, infectious grin as he won the 1984 Open and celebrated with a series of fist pumps.

But for every memorable champion, there are the infamous collapses as competitors saw their grip slide off the Claret Jug.

Jones fell to the Hill bunker at the 11th in St. Andrews in 1921. The Road Hole bunker got Tommy Nakajima in 1978, and Costantino Rocca in 1995 and David Duval in 2000.

And there were the moments when the pressure seemed to be just too much. Doug Sanders missed a 2-footer on the 18th in 1970, sending him to a playoff won by Nicklaus. Adam Scott squandered a 4-shot lead with four to play in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. And then, of course, there was Jean van de Velde’s collapse at Carnoustie in 1999. He simply needed a double bogey at the last to win … and made triple and lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie.

But here, at St. Andrews, is where you truly feel The Open.

“I’ve heard multiple champions say it, I think it was Jack and Tiger both accomplished it: you can’t really call yourself a great player unless you win The Open at St. Andrews, which is a very selective group to say,” Jon Rahm said Tuesday. “I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I do know what they mean.”

But this year there is another topic fighting for attention. There is a hope off-course politics will be parked for the four days when play starts Thursday. With the emergence of LIV Golf, the natural order of the sport has been rewritten, with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour both attempting to preserve their spot in golf as the Saudi Arabia-backed circuit offers incredible riches and poaches some of the game’s recognizable names.

It has been a constant theme in the buildup to the 150th Open. One by one the participants have been asked about Greg Norman‘s absence, with the two-time champion and LIV Golf CEO not invited to the celebrations. There are plenty of LIV Golf players in the field — Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau to name a few. On Tuesday, though, Rory McIlroy was quite honest, saying he does not want a LIV player to win the tournament for the tournament’s sake.

All great golf stories are intertwined with St. Andrews, one way or another. For the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Watson, they all chose to bid farewell to The Open on the Old Course — all exiting in their own remarkable way. Palmer played his last Open in 1995, Nicklaus’ farewell came in 2005 with a delightful birdie on the last. In 2015 it was Watson’s turn, as he strolled up the 18th at 9.40 p.m. with the locals shining torches from their windows to light the way.

“Everyone has seemed to have made their farewell there,” Woods said.

Woods loves it here, has called it his favorite golf course in the world. To sum up The Open and why it’s so special, here’s his answer about why he didn’t play this year’s U.S. Open and instead prioritized St. Andrews.

“For the most part of my rehab [after his car accident in 2021] I was just I was hoping that I could walk again, you know, walk normal and have a normal life and maybe play a little hit-and-giggle golf with my son or my friends at home,” he said. “But lo and behold, I’ve played championship golf this year.

“Once I realized that I could possibly play at a high level, my focus was to get back here at St. Andrews to play in this championship being, as I said, it’s the most historic one we’ve ever had. I just didn’t want to miss this Open here at the home of golf. This has meant so much to me. This is where I completed the career Grand Slam. At the time I had the record in scoring in all four major championships. So it meant a lot to me. This venue has meant a lot.”

The past 149 Opens have all led to the celebrations this week. The tournament has been dotted around the United Kingdom, but its roots are firmly in this part of the world. Old Tom Morris remains the oldest winner of the Open, while Young Tom Morris is the youngest. Both are buried in the graveyard of the ruined St. Andrews Cathedral, near where Robertson lies. They look down on the Old Course. Their records might one day tumble, and the look and feel of The Open might change over the next 150 years, but the foundations of the tournament will stand firm.

“It feels more historic than it normally has. And it’s hard to believe that because we are coming back to the home of golf,” Woods said. “It is history every time we get a chance to play here.

“It’s hard to believe, it’s been 150 years we’ve played this tournament. And it’s incredible, the history behind it, the champions that have won here. This does feel like it’s the biggest Open Championship we’ve ever had.”