Tuesday 24 September
The mist was slowly enveloping the auld grey toon as I sauntered down to the Old Course to pick up my media accreditation for this year’s championship. I will hold up my hands right now and declare that I am not the biggest golf fiend on this planet of ours. But one cannot help but become dewy-eyed when the sight of the clubhouse and Swilcan Bridge slowly come into view.
This tournament, and I know some very keen golf types hold Dunhill in dubious regard, is not as old as the bricks and mortar which seem to embody the game of golf. The current incarnation of Dunhill appeared in 2001 as a ‘Pro-Am’ tournament combining a professional and amateur in the one team. It seems very St Andrews to garnish some extra glitz and glamour on proceedings and it would appear this glamour has disgruntled some of the more ‘traditional’ golfers. It does seem a fairly attractive way in which to draw new interest into the sport, however. Peaks and troughs. Or should that be bunkers and greens. I am losing myself in a land of mixed metaphors.
The media centre, much like the library, was humming with activity and basking in some overly-bright lighting as Frazer and I picked up our passes. This was very much the calm before the club swinging/freebies in the press bar storm that was heading our way.
Wednesday 25 September
This was practice day for a number of the amateurs and pros, many of them tussling with the winds that were blowing across the course. Cocooned within the bowels of the media centre – with enough biscuits and cans of Fanta to last several days – the press pack were deep in conversation with last year’s winners Branden Grace and Paul Lawrie.
Some press conferences can be relatively dull affairs and Grace’s certainly was. Stock phrases such as “it’s a great course” and “I’m feeling confident. I had a good practice round yesterday” abounded. Paul Lawrie, however, provided the waiting hacks with something to nibble on. This year’s Dunhill, unlike last year’s which came off the back of Europe’s swashbuckling comeback at Medinah, was lacking the big names that have taken part in the past. Indeed, on the celebrity front, a journalist I was speaking to from the Mail on Sunday said: “That’s the problem with Dunhill. It has been drawing the same celebrities for the past seven years. It needs to spark things up.” Lawrie, however, aimed his ire at the number of stay-away golfers who are not attending the Seve Trophy in Paris next week, organised and hosted by the family of the one and only Seve Ballasteros. “For so many of our boys not to want to play in an event that not only carries Seve’s name, but you get handsomely paid to play in, I don’t understand it,” he said. “It’s disappointing for everyone involved in it: for the Tour, who have done a great job putting it on, and for Seve and his family.” It certainly sparked things up, the proverbial verbal Molotov cocktail thrown into what had been a fairly humdrum morning. One could sense the disenchantment in Lawrie’s voice that an opportunity to pay tribute to a truly totemic figure in golf was being passed up by so many of his colleagues.
Lawrie was certainly more loquacious than Darren Clarke, proud Ulsterman and winner of the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s, who brushed aside any request for an interview as he set off on his practice round in conditions that might give Port Rush, his home course in Northern Ireland, a run for its money. An amusing moment came about when the intrepid reporter from STV asked if Clarke was anyone worth speaking to. Novices abound even in the professional ranks it seems.
Jesper Perniak, a Swede who chews volcanic ash in his spare time and is known as “Spaceman” for obvious reasons, spoke to The Saint about the course later in the day. “It’s absolutely beautiful here, I don’t know anyone who does not like this course,” he said, with no sign of ash emitting from his mouth. “The wind made it a bit awkward today but yeah, you just go with it. I’ve not been here for a few years but it is always outstanding to come back to the home of golf.” Anticipation was mounting.
The highlight of the day, however, was, without question, the press dinner, put on for the benefit of the malnourished scribes covering the tournament. Your correspondent, having sprayed himself liberally with Lynx Africa, headed off for an evening of wine and song. I was sitting beside Phil Goodlad, the golf correspondent for BBC Sport Scotland, when he opined “that this is a fantastic tournament. It is the ideal thing to get people into golf. Plus there’s always a great atmosphere in St Andrews, it makes a real difference to have it on during term time. The students add such a buzz to the place.” The highlight of the evening – aside from a free bar – was our table’s victory in the quiz. Shelly’s Heroes’ place in immortality and a Dunhill pen costing $350 was secured with no use of any smartphones to scour the internet for answers. I swear.
Thursday 26 – Saturday 28 September
Sore heads abounded in the press pen. Your correspondent, who was feeling about as fresh as a daisy that had been trampled upon by an elephant, was braving the elements to speak with some of the glamorous amateurs who were cutting around the Old Course.
Ruud Gullit, the mercurial Feyenoord, AC Milan and Dutch national team star spoke with The Saint and seemed in low spirits. “I didn’t play very well today. The wind was awkward and a few shots didn’t come off which was disappointing. But this is the home of golf so it’s great to play the course. Playing with Johann [Cruyff] is fun; he knows his stuff when it comes to golf.”
Over the years St Andrews’ bouncing night spots have caused certain celebrities to fall foul of press and the desires of the town’s nubile beauties. Sadly Hugh Grant was not speaking to the press after a particularly awful Saturday, but on Thursday James Nesbitt, of The Hobbit and Cold Feet fame, made the comment that when he visited Ma Bells “it made me feel about thirty years older.” He too was effusive in his praise of the town, the course and the tournament but would sadly not divulge any details about his upcoming adventures in Middle Earth.
A slightly more renowned party animal, Shane Warne, Liz Hurley’s boyfriend and occasional cricketer, reminded me that he had “five kids with him” when I asked if he would be hitting up The Lizard anytime soon. His England counterpart, Michael Vaughan, who was wearing a pair of trousers only to be rivaled by Sir Ian Botham’s rainbow effort, said: “Shane’s probably going to be the only Aussie player to win something this year! He was really strong out there today. Plus since I’m at the home of golf I thought I should wear a classy outfit (of flat cap and white and black tartan trousers) to do the place justice.”
That’s the sense one gets about Dunhill. Sir Ian Botham, whom I spoke with briefly before he set off for his round, said that this was “the first thing he put in his diary” each year. It is not merely lip service; this town in a truly special place for golfers and students alike.
Two wonderful panoramas of our town summed it up for me. Standing on the rooftop terrace of the Hamilton Grand at night taking in the view after a press reception, I was offered an unparalleled view of the town’s skyline at night and a truly sumptuous view of the most-storied final stretch of a golf course in the world.
Then on Saturday afternoon, while speaking with the legendary Sir Steve Redgrave, who was pensive as to whether he would make the cut or not, I caught sight of the warm sunlight gilding the Royal and Ancient clubhouse and realised yet again that this is a truly special place. Sir Steve summed it up: “There’s no better place for golf. I had a frustrating round out there but this is the best place for golf by far. Matthew Pinsent was texting me on the first day, since he hadn’t been invited, and was gutted at missing out. Everyone loves it here.”
As I stood watching the fireworks on the final night, I reflected on what had been an interesting week. Standing only yards from Sir Bobby Charlton or Johann Cruyff took some getting used to but it was an absolute pleasure to cover an event which does the town of St Andrews proud. While all golfers are competitive, to a man they are all sure about one thing. That this, as Martin Kaymer said, “is the ultimate.” As fitting a term for golf in St Andrews as I could think of.