James Gray has been swanning around the Old Course pretending to be important.
The Dunhill Links tournament is something of a legend among St Andrews students. The queue outside Ma Bells during the week is quite staggering, with countless girls dressed up to the nines in an attempt to ensnare Hugh Grant, and men trying to grab a picture with a former England cricket captain. It is one of the rare occasions in the golf world when famous amateurs and golf fans get the chance to mix with the professionals, if only briefly.
The Saint were able to grab a word with Ernie Els, who triumphed in the British Open in July, before he went out to relearn the ways of the Old Course. While the Open visits St Andrews, but the Dunhill takes place during term time, when the town is buzzing with student life. Ernie fondly remembers, in the days when the Dunhill coincided with the Freshers Week: “I used to have some great parties with the students, but I’m an old man now.” At the age of 43, it is remarkable that Els is here at all, given that he told us that he “would have loved to have had a break…I’ve been playing pretty much solid since [his Open win in] July” and “can understand guys pulling out this week, it’s acceptable”. Lee Westwood pulled out on Tuesday, much to the disappointment of many fans. Sir Steve Redgrave, who has an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, also mentioned what a difference the students make: “It’s normally Freshers’ Week when we’re up here, which is pretty crazy. It’s been a busy year, but this is a very special place. It means a lot to me to be here.” Mark Nicklaus, former voice of Channel 4’s cricket coverage, was equally full of praise when it came to describing his feelings about the town. “I love it. I’ve never had anything but the best time here. The students give the town a vibrancy, an energy.”
It is a testament to the magic of the tournament and the attraction of the town that there haven’t been more withdrawals along with Lee Westwood. Many of the amateurs have to move holidays or miss work to play here. Alan Hansen, BBC pundit and Liverpool legend, is among the celebrities playing this week, and was almost an undergraduate here. “I was studying History, and if I hadn’t gone professional then I would have been here. I love the town, the views, the golf, everything.” For Els, “it’s a unique bonding week for the boys”.
There certainly is quite a buzz. Wandering round the course, the tented village, and the media centre, even on a practice day, the atmosphere is electric. Not in the same way as a major championship, which tends to be tense and edgy, but like the Opening Ball of the season. Everyone knows everyone, there are hugs between old friends and new, and the golf is a good excuse to spend four hours catching up with mates. Things will no doubt feel very different come Sunday, but for now, it’s nice to enjoy the party. And the free coffee.