The sky is glowing with a rosy orange hue, dipping down over an expanse of green and blue tents. From behind dull metal rails at the entrance to a field, I see twinkling lights, the crossed poles of giant tipis and hear the low beating hum of music.
Out of flaring sunset, a flat-bed buggy arrives to take me to the reception of the Open Camping Village. It’s a pop-up city for golf fans attending The 150th Open at St Andrews, the ‘Home of Golf.’
To my right is the modest clubhouse of Madras Rugby Club, custodians of the fields. It’s where I met some of my oldest and best friends, in Fresher’s Week, 25 years ago; as a fresh-faced student.
Beyond it, The Old Course Hotel, one of the priciest places to stay in St Andrews; and where many of golf’s biggest names stayed for the historic playing of golf’s oldest championship. Beyond that, the most famous golf course in the world: The Old Course.
It’s Tuesday and St Andrews feels in party mood.
Children are playing football on a pitch between meticulous rows of tents, some small, some family sized and some retro looking bell tents powered by solar panels. People wait in lines at food trucks. The scent of burgers wafts in the salty sea breeze. The beer garden at the Clubhouse is filling up fast.
I've come to watch a golf tournament but I feel transported to Worthy Farm, Somerset, in scenes reminiscent of Glastonbury Festival. People seem genuinely happy. Chatting away in groups, reuniting with old friends, making new ones.
At reception, a family are getting help to loosen a toddler’s wrist band. Her older sister is helping herself to free Haribo. After a short wait, I’m assigned a Glamping Bell Tent and a clip-on red board to tell the world and camp staff I’m in residence.
I also find out FootJoy, sponsors of the 150th Open Camping Village, are throwing a ‘Camp-Out’ party in the clubhouse with DJ’s, FJ ambassadors and visits from Adam Scott, Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young.
This is the fifth tented village pitched by The R&A since the inaugural peg was struck at Royal Troon in 2016.
“We started with 169 tents at Troon. We pitched them ourselves and it took days,” says Tom Critchley, who runs the camping village for the R&A every year with a hand-picked team of event managers.
Golf is in Tom’s blood. His father is Bruce Critchley, the retired Sky Sports golf commentator and one of the most recognisable voices in the game.
He tells me there are 770 tents at St Andrews, catering for up to 2000 golfers on the busiest nights, with prices starting from £50 for a two person tent with a self-inflating mattress and a wind up lantern.
At previous Opens, campers had to travel by Park & Ride bus to the course and back.
In St Andrews, the course is a mere mid-iron away across a gangway bridge with direct access to the Tented Village and the Road Hole.
Getting there was easy. I’d booked overnight parking for my car for £15 per night and free transfers by Park & Ride bus to the tented village.
I stowed my car safely at the fields next to Leuchars Train station and boarded a bus with six other campers.
There are faces young and old in the village. Some are headed to the wash rooms and showers, others out into town to the best pubs in St Andrews. After dropping my bags, I head out into town in the half light, on a trip down memory lane.
I pass John Burnet Hall (Atholl) where my first-year dorm room had a view of both the 17th and the 1st greens of The Old. I walk, wide-eyed, to my ‘living-out’ flats on Playfair Terrace, Murray Park (B&B Street) and the best of them all – 88 Market Street – across from The Keys and The Central.
I’m flooded with endorphins and need a nightcap before a night spent camping at The Open.
It takes only four hours to remind me, that despite the euphoria and the warm nostalgia of my University years, that camping is still camping.
I wake at 4.30am, bright light cascading through canvas and the shriek of sea gulls wheeling overhead. Luckily, I brought ear plugs and had a duvet to pull over my head, wrestling back much needed sleep.
There are hot showers at The Open Camping Village and plenty of toilets. There’s chatter, in soft Irish lilts, confident Afrikaans and the unmistakeable RP of the ‘Queen’s English.’
Later, I meet more of Tom’s camp leaders including Alex, Jacqueline and Samantha, who like me, all hail from North East England.
“We all have day jobs in events and sports and we all take annual leave to come and work at The Open, because it’s so much fun. We’ve done all five camping villages together.”
“If ever a camper needs anything, Tom just tells them ‘look for a friendly girl with a Geordie accent’,” says Alex Fothergill.
Two campers that were grateful of their help are Gordon Alder, 62, from Burnitisland, Fife, and Shaun O’Mara, 62, from Lutterworth Golf Club in Warwickshire.
I get chatting with them as I charge my phone in the Clubhouse while Sky Sports Open coverage plays in the background. Gordon has ‘half a heart’ and Shaun was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer last September.
They met when their sons played roller hockey for Great Britain in 2005 and have camped at each of the last five Opens.
“This one has been the best so far, each year the village gets bigger and better. We’ve loved the FootJoy events, especially the Q&A with Nick Dougherty and Andrew Coltart (Dough & Co) – that was a real high point," said Gordon.
"The tents are not cramped, there’s plenty of space, totally waterproof and there’s hot showers in the morning. You can get a free power pack to charge your phone.
The only thing that wasn’t great was the walk over the bridge with all our stuff and the double decker buses coming from Park & Ride with no compartments below to store your luggage,” said Shaun.
Shaun O’Mara – Open Super Fan
Shaun tells me he has been to 37 straight Opens, starting with Sandy Lyle’s win at Sandwich in 1985.
“I love it. I started coming with my Dad and now he’s too old to get around. Gordon and I have been coming together for a good while and Royal Portrush in 2019 was probably my favourite, because I have Irish roots.”
His cancer is aggressive and has spread to his lymph nodes but he’s defiant and says he’s got many more Opens in him.
“I’ll keep coming back. I’ll go to my dying day,” said Shaun.
We both hold back a tear and conversation turns to who will win this most special of Opens.
The field is truly international, as is the Open Camping Village. In 2019, there were 17 nationalities camping says Alex Fothergill.
“There are lots more Americans this year, with travel re-opening post Covid, but we have campers from North Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Denmark and Spain."
“There are lots of families staying with us this week,” said Tom Critchley.
“The Camping Village is also free for under 25’s and we have given away more than 4,000 bed nights to young people this year to provide them with a pathway into the game.” The profits from the Open Camping Village are reinvested back into next year’s village by the R&A, in order to continue its drive to make golf accessible for young people.
Two beneficiaries of this are Liam and Brendan McConnell of Cape Town, South Africa. I meet them at the chipping zone next to the FootJoy shoe fitting tent. They had been travelling with their parents and camped free of charge.
“I got a half price ticket yesterday and my brother was free, which is amazing. It’s just so close to the course and it’s great what they are doing to promote golf and sport to young people like us,” said Liam.
Speaking to campers, two things keep coming up, accessibility and value for money. According to the Fife Tourism Partnership, the average price of accommodation in St Andrews for the 150th Open was £1506 per night.
Dorm rooms at the University of St Andrews sold for up to £250 a night and a stay in the budget Sleeperz Hotel, above Dundee Railway Station, would have cost you £325 pn. Three nights in an apartment in Hamilton Grand overlooking the 18th green was priced at £30,000.
The R&A said 290,000 golf fans visited St Andrews for the 150th Open and over eight days, the tent city sprawled across rugby pitches became the ‘largest hotel in Scotland,’ with 770 rooms and a bed stock of over 2400 per night.
For my final two nights, I downsized from glamp to camp, taking a basic package tent. Two more 4.30am wake ups followed with nature’s alarm clock set to symphony of seagulls.
On my final morning, the heavens opened and the walk to the showers wasn’t quite so leisurely.
If you camp at The Open, don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep. You can expect to make friends, share stories and enjoy a clubhouse atmosphere that is unlike anything else you’ll find at The Open.
On value for money alone, staying at The Open Camping Village is probably up there with the best lies you’ll find in golf.
*Find out more about Camping at The Open
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Matthew Moore fell in love with golf hitting an old 3-iron around his school playing field imagining rugby posts were flags and long jump pits as bunkers.
He earned golf scholarships to the University of St Andrews and Emory University, Atlanta, U.S.A and dreamed of playing professionally before training as a journalist.
He has worked at Golf Monthly and CNN Sports as well as covering golf news, features, products and travel as a freelance writer and TV presenter for newspapers, magazines and corporate clients. Matthew has interviewed Ryder Cup Captains, Major Champions and legends of the game and rates sharing a glass of rioja and a bowl of nuts with Miguel Angel Jimenez as his favourite moment. Matthew plays off 1, has won five club championships and aced the first hole of Augusta National’s Par-3 course in 2002.
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