I got up to St Andrews on Tuesday and arrived from the airport about 10.30, to catch the end of Tiger’s practice round. The atmosphere around the two practice days was electric, it was very special and different from any other Open all week. I’ve attended nine Opens at St Andrews and nothing has been like this.
As Tiger said himself you had the sense that this was the biggest open championship there ever had been. I caught up with him as he left his presser and he seemed to look different. He strode out to his courtesy car where his girlfriend, caddie and manager were waiting for him. He’d had his say about how he felt about LIV golf and he looked lighter, almost as though a big decision had been made. And at the Celebration of Champions and the Champions Dinner he was smiling broadly, and joshing with Lee Trevino, waving at Rory McIlroy’s little daughter who waved back from the Old Course Hotel.
“Let’s hope it won’t be the last time we see him here” said someone watching as he strode out. He had deftly dodged questions from the press about his future with “I just don’t know” but he admitted that St Andrews is his favourite golf course in the world and it was right that he was here. It was much more important that he was here than any other champion and we all waved to his departing car, just in case.
He had a late start on Thursday and the round was interminably long, finishing near 9pm. Several times he stood on one leg, lifting the damaged right foot off the teeing ground. This was the leg that he had nearly lost in his car accident. He was clearly finding it hard going. With the Open returning to St Andrews probably in another five years, and he now being 46 it may be the last time he competes, although former champion Mark Calcaveccchia is in the field at 62. He seemed to struggle with all aspects of his game, but the galleries carried him along on a wave of emotion.
As he played the 14th on Friday and American private plane was spotted coming into land at the airfield that was the former RAF Leuchars, very likely to take Tiger away from all this. I wondered whether in three holes, on the Swilkan Bridge there would be a special goodbye wave and an announcement at his presser as he missed the cut. He wouldn’t have wanted to have left like this but it was huge that he got here at all.
Although LIV CEO Greg Norman was disinvited from the celebrations of the 150th Open the spectre of LIV was still present. One journalist riled Phil Mickelson by asking him to expand on his emotions about being advised to stay away from the dinner and celebration of champions. It was clearly a sore subject even though he explained the situation with the logic of a robot, sticking to the “line to take’ that had been worked out in advance. Using words like “ecstatic and incredibly happy” about his future, didn’t fit with what was seen. Every picture tells a story and he did clearly look very stressed out and his face betrayed his emotions. Whether, logically, all that money offered by LIV, the time off, the chance to play a different format with other top competitors would be enough when the reality down the line kicks in. Particularly so when the LIV tournaments have so far been attended by rentacrowds on free tickets, not fully engaged with the concept.
Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson’s caddie brother Austin were definantly wearing LIV branding and Ian Poulter was clearly booed on the first tee. It did lend an undercurrent to the week as there were a lot of press questions about the “civil war’ in mens professional golf. But somehow, it hasn’t spoilt the week. There is a bigger, almost spiritual thing going on. When I got on to the course on Tuesday I was surprised how emotional it felt because I haven’t felt that before at St Andrews. It was interesting.
Before getting into the championship there were a couple of magical events in the town which were worth waiting a couple of hours to see.
I ran alongside the blue and cream open top Rolls Royce which had Jack and Barbara Nicklaus in the back. They were waving royally to the cheering crowds which lined the streets after Jack had been invested with the Freedom of St Andrews, only the third American to be so awarded after Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Jones. Jack looked clearly moved. The ceremony in St Andrews’ University Younger Hall is available to watch. And out came Lee Trevino, Catriona Matthew, Sir Bob Charles, Sandy Lyle and Jose-Maria Olazabal who had all been awarded honorary degrees. It was quite a moment to see all of this.
And the following day at Younger Hall was a lovely memorial service for the beloved BBC broadcaster Peter Alliss. His family also paraded round the streets of the old grey toon accompanied by a piper. Peter had planned to retire at this championship, but he passed away after the Masters late in 2020, so it was fitting that the ceremony took place here so that he could be part of it all.
And in the Royal and Ancients newly refurbished Golf Museum was the most wonderful photographic display honouring Seve Ballesteros compiled by his family. The R&A encouraged everyone to leave a message about what made St Andrews such a special Open venue. I wrote “our Seve winning in 1984” and finished with what he always said “everything is destino”.
The golfing gods have already chosen the man who will be bestowed with the great honour on Sunday of being not only the champion golfer of the year, but the 150th champion. This will be an important winner at this unfortunate time of discord because this championship has been like a peak of a crescendo. We need the worthiest winner on Sunday.