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What I Learned in a Tent at the British Open Camping Village

July 16, 2016

TROON, Scotland — There’s a place at this British Open where you can sleep under the stars, practice your chipping and drink a cheap pint of Carlsberg, before resting easy as one neighbor snores, another breaks wind and one careless couple sets their sights on romance. All you need is a blanket and pillow.

For hundreds of people attending this year’s British Open, this is an appealing option, because of the price tag: It’s free.

It’s also new. This year, the Royal & Ancient is hosting the first ever Open Camping Village, just one mile from the luxury and comfort of Royal Troon. Families, along with unattached campers age 25 and younger (that’s me!), can enjoy the delights of a Scottish night from the comfort of a tent, free of charge.

Open campers who are dropped off on Monktonhill Road, trek through a pasture, beyond a cemetery and past a wooded area to a field with 166 tents, already pitched. The idea behind this ad-lib accommodation is to make the Open — now in its 156th year — more accessible.

It appears to be working.

Although the week started slowly, the Village added 100 new campers on Thursday, creating an amicable mix of families and boisterous millennials. The Village reached max capacity Friday night (500) and is expected to do so again Saturday.

Troon, in Ayrshire, has a population of less than 15,000, and its shoulders are heavy this week; Open attendance is expected to approach 170,000. The demand for a hotel here outweighs the supply, as typically happens at major championhips. This makes a trip to the Open difficult for the tightly budgeted, and it explains how you reach max capacity at a makeshift campsite that offers cafeteria-style meals and college dormitory showers.

I camped in the Village Thursday night. The accommodations, as you might expect, are spartan. A twin-size, inflatable mattress, which is provided to all campers, elevates your supine body six inches from the turf. If your mat is slightly defective, like mine was, you will slowly sink closer to the ground with each passing hour. Cars purr along in the distance and you can’t help but pick up the conversations of your neighbors: “Well, that’s just what we do on holiday,” or, “I’m an early riser. I am not missing that tee time.”

By midnight only five tents emitted any light, and the campsite was silent… for the most part. My neighbor snored loudly, but what can you do when a stranger’s nasal cavity starts acting up? Just grin, close your eyes and bear it. In the Village, camping supplies are not permitted, so you can forget s’mores. There is also no Wi-Fi. Despite all this, the campsite is bustling.

Four American college students studying abroad in Dublin determined the campsite was the only way they could afford consecutive days at Royal Troon. They couldn’t imagine staying anywhere else, even if the Village didn’t exactly match their expectations.

“I really thought it’d be a bunch of kids staying out late and drinking,” said one, a rising senior at the University of Kentucky. “I figured it would be a piece of cake to find reefer.”

At 9:30 p.m., though, the foursome was surprisingly tame. They were in the mess hall, drinking water, saving their biggest party night for a weekend trip to Edinburgh and discussing the merits of Mickelson’s Thursday 63.

The Village hosts make rounds to ensure there isn’t “a bunch of kids staying out late and drinking.” After 10 p.m. quiet rules are in effect. Inside the pop-up bar on site, there are four options on tap, a large projection screen on the wall and golf chatter in the air, but a 10:30 last-call clears the stable at a reasonable hour. Outside the dining area on Thursday night, a pickup volleyball game and soccer match kept the restless entertained, while tractor tires served as goals in a golf version of Skee-Ball.

This is the dynamic of the Village. As the sun slowly sets on a Scottish summer night, it’s not families over here, young adults over there, quiet games over here and rambunctious drinking over there. The Village is an Open mixer: young and old, Americans and Europeans, Scots and Brits — all loving the best deal in town.

“This will be the cheapest Open we ever get to, by far,” said Sam Casey, one of the abroad students. Their golf tickets were £35 (about $46), and the round-trip fights from Dublin another £50. Their biggest cost was always going to be lodging, even if it meant cramming into a single hotel room. The same goes for Alistair Walton and his son, Dom, who drove more than five hours from Lincolnshire, England, to share their second straight Open together.

“We bought tickets to the golf first,” Walton said after losing a chipping contest to his son. “We started looking into accommodations, and hotels were, what, £300 a night? Then this thing came around. To be honest I thought it was trickery. I thought it was a hoax.”

What does it all prove? The appetite for golf spectating — multiple days of it, live on-site — extends beyond just those with disposable income, who are accustomed to certain comforts. The Open realized this, and got ahead of it.

“I honestly don’t know why the USGA doesn’t do this,” said Andrew Neal, another young American enjoying his first Open. “If they did this at the U.S. Open, I would go every year, no matter where it is.”

Next year’s U.S. Open heads to Erin Hills in tiny Hartford, Wisc., home to less than 15,000 people and only a smattering of hotels (four if you search Google). Milwaukee is the nearest big city. It’s about 40 miles from the course, or about the same distance that Glasgow is from Troon.

If a campsite for fans makes sense in Scotland, it would undoubtedly make sense in the States. All that’s required is an open field, of which Wisconsin has plenty. The R&A’s accommodations partner took care of the tents, the games and the pints. Spectators arrived and learned that while the property isn’t glamorous, it’s no scam. For anyone in a lodging pinch, the appeal is undeniable.

“I think I’m going to go [to the Village] each year until I’m 25,” Neal said, planning his next four summers. “And then when I’m older than 25, I’m going to have a kid, just so I can use his junior access and stay another 17 years.”