Discomfort loomed in the air at Gate C65, John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was 9 p.m. local time, the coronavirus peaking in America once again, and I was about to leave the country for 90 days.
Who else is wearing a mask? How many hours in this tin can? Will that screaming baby be next to me in the tin can? Wait, why haven’t I been assigned a seat yet? The solo international redeye during a pandemic is not exactly a place of relaxation.
But then, about 20 yards away across C65, the perfect reminder: a young man, under the watch of his pals, rehearsing his backswing. That’s right! I’m leaving home … for the Home of Golf — St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.
Many golfers have made this commute before, and many did alongside me on DL0208 from New York to Edinburgh. But as the shuttle driver who picked me up from the airport reminded, usually this is a group trip. “Why are you going about it alone?” he asked.
(The personal answer is some combination of I’d like to do something cool for work and I had better do something cool. I just turned 30.) The general answer is there cannot be a more interesting moment in golf history than these next few months. Rival golf tours threatening the status quo. Modern technology taking on ancient tradition. As golf changes across the globe, what does golf look like in St. Andrews, its birthplace, on the doorstep of the R&A, the game’s oldest governing body.
Tiger Woods — the bionic man! — is competing here this summer. He could barely finish the Masters, and limped his way off the property at the PGA Championship, but he’s already committed to the Open at St. Andrews. Why? Because the Old Course is Woods’ favorite track in the entire world. It was a crowning achievement for him to play four rounds at Augusta National, but from Butler Cabin — within the belly of the beast! — Woods said, Nah, my favorite course is across the Atlantic, four thousand miles from here.
The Old Course is Brooks Koepka’s favorite, too. And the favorite of many of the game’s best minds. It’s where the best players in the world play some of their most emotional rounds of golf. And is one of the rare places where a handshake after 18 doesn’t suffice. Only hugs will do.
When I told Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie, Ian Finnis, of my summer plans, he was ecstatic. “My favourite place in the world,” he said. He’s planning multiple visits in the weeks before the Open. Simply put, you can have your Pebble Beach and your Brookline this summer. There is no better place to be than right here, in Fife.
My shuttle driver, Colin, was the perfect audience for my rambling explanation, as he isn’t a golfer. Nor was my bartender on Day 1 in town. Nor is my AirBnb hostess! I made the same mistake with all three of them, and to many others recently, saying the Open at St. Andrews is like golf’s Super Bowl. But my coworker Dylan Dethier recently corrected me: it’s more like golf’s World Cup. An Open at St. Andrews happens once every five or six years. And in the case of this pandemic open, for the first time in seven years.
And through one day in town, the buzz is palpable. Bartenders are already discussing special arrangements for Open crowds, where patrons will literally sell their seat at the bar to those waiting outside. On Wednesday, while amateurs traipsed the ground, a tournament scoring team was already out rehearsing operations. And shortly after that, yes, I was crushing my first can of Irn-Bru, a Scottish delicacy that is the perfect mix of orange cream soda and Mountain Dew.
My job, all summer long, is to capture some of that magic — both the exciting aspects of the biggest tournament in the world, but also the more mundane brilliance of what makes St. Andrews the true Home of Golf … and an otherwise incredible place to visit. I’ll be doing it from a one bedroom rental on Allan Robertson Drive, named after the original Best Golfer on the Planet. Tom Morris gets all the acclaim, and he rightfully has a street named after him nearby, but it was only after Robertson’s death that the Open began in 1860, an attempt to replace him with a proper Champion Golfer of each year.
On this Summer in Scotland journey, we will no doubt get into some generic stuff like visiting Old Tom Morris’s grave — a classic American golfer pilgrimage — or spending a night among the heathens trying to win a tee time. We will provide updates in the lead-up to the Open, like how the cold, dry spring has the course playing as firm as can be right now. But hopefully, we find some undercovered topics along the way, like how the name “St. Andrews” has become currency in this part of the world, how the Open can dictate the economics of everything in this town, and also my 90-day hunt for a Large version of the sweatshirt Tiger Woods wore during the second round of the 1995 Open.
Check back in Monday to hear my progress on that, and what it’s like when no one gets to play on the Old Course … except for dogs.
Got an idea for a Summer in Scotland story? — I’ll hear them all! Just send a note to email@example.com.