ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — They were having fun, perhaps too much fun, on the Old Course on Saturday at the British Open.
With the wind and weather mild and Rory McIlroy and many more of the world’s best golfers in town, under par felt more like par during this rollicking third round brimming with birdies, clenched fists and big grins in the direction of the grandstands and fans packed behind the ropes.
But local knowledge, as usual, seemed to count for little at the only men’s golf major played on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
St. Andrews, full of old stones and bones, has staged more Open Championships than any other course, but a Scottish golfer will once again not be winning it.
Only three Scots were in the 156-player field, which was actually a threefold improvement over last year’s British Open at Royal St. George’s, when only one Scotsman, Robert MacIntyre, took part.
That was a historic low in an event with a surplus of history. This is the 150th edition of a tournament that was first played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club on Scotland’s west coast. All 13 competitors were Scots that year, and until the early 20th century a majority of the participants in the Open continued to be Scots, along with quite a few naturalized Americans from Scotland.
But no Scot, exported or domestic, has won the Open or any major men’s tournament since Paul Lawrie in 1999 at Carnoustie, and Lawrie’s victory, with all due respect to a fine player, was a minor miracle.
Then ranked 241st in the world, Lawrie trailed by 10 shots heading into the final round and only made it into the decisive playoff because of one of the sport’s most excruciating (and memorable) meltdowns as the French golfer Jean Van de Velde blew a three-stroke lead on what really should have been the final hole.
Scotland continues to wait in vain for a second lightning strike at the Open, and the two Scots who did make the cut at St. Andrews this year — MacIntyre and David Law — will not be the ones to provide it.
Both were 18 or more shots off the torrid pace set by McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, who shared the lead at 16 under par heading into Sunday’s final round and who dueled from start to finish on Saturday. Both shot 66, although McIlroy had the shot of the day, holing from a bunker for eagle on the 10th hole.
MacIntyre, a promising 25-year-old from Oban who shot a 69 on Friday, found himself having to turn away from the 16th fairway at one stage during his round because there was so much commotion and emotion.
“The fan support is absolutely brilliant, but I was feeling it,” he said. “There’s so many people supporting me, and it means so much to me.”
“I wasn’t going to let them down,” he continued. “But I was trying almost too hard.”
That has certainly been an obstacle for the Scots at home through the years. But in truth, the Scottish drought has gone on for too long to be considered a drought. Of the 33 Scottish men to win a major, only two have done so since World War II: Lawrie and Sandy Lyle, who won the 1985 British Open and the 1988 Masters.
Demographics are an obstacle. Scotland, with 5.5 million people, has a much smaller talent pool than England, with its 56 million people, including Nick Faldo, who won six majors in the 1980s and 1990s, and Matt Fitzpatrick, who won this year’s U.S. Open. But Scotland has about three times as many inhabitants as Northern Ireland, which has produced three major champions in the past 12 years: Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and McIlroy.
Bernard Gallacher, 73, a longtime European Ryder Cup player and a captain from Scotland, makes the good point that Scotland’s many great links courses are not the ideal places to grow champions.
“It’s not a great training ground for great golfers to play on a seaside course every day,” Gallacher said on Saturday. “I know the wind is benign this week, but normally there’s a strong wind blowing and it’s not great developmentally to be playing your golf in strong winds all the time. So that’s why the really top golfers usually come from courses where they can develop their swings, like parkland golf courses in the U.K. Even Rory, who comes from Northern Ireland, was not brought up on a seaside course. His golf course, Holyrood, is inland.”
And though McIlroy did not do this, Gallacher believes Scottish golfers need to follow the prevailing winds by playing collegiate golf in the United States. “We just don’t have that system over here,” he said. “In my view, Scottish golfers stay at home too much. We have to break our way of thinking a bit.”
Law, a 31-year-old father of two from up the coast in Aberdeen, is making his first major championship appearance.
“I’ve probably played the Old Course eight to 10 times, and first played it when I was 18,” he said. “But even if I played it 100 times, I’m sure I’d still get goose bumps.”
Ranked 351st, Law has long been mentored by Lawrie, who is deeply involved in developing young Scottish talents and who hit the first tee shot here in recognition of past glories but never came close to making the cut at age 53.
Lawrie is not the greatest Scottish player of the modern era. There is Lyle, as well as Colin Montgomerie, who could never quite win a major but was the longtime leader for the European Tour and European Ryder Cup team.
But Lawrie is the only still-active Scottish major champion, and he may not play the Open again.
“I will wait and see how I feel next year, but right now, it’s no,” Lawrie said. “I always said I wouldn’t ever take a spot if I didn’t feel as though I could certainly play OK and play four rounds.”
Law struggled plenty himself in his third round on Saturday, shooting a 5-over-par 77 to drop to two over par for the tournament.
“It’s not a regular tournament, but we’ve tried to make it as normal as we can,” he said earlier in the week. “I’m not just here to soak it all in.”
There is, of course, plenty to absorb. St. Andrews not only has the R&A World Golf Museum, which sits just across the street from the Old Course. It is an open-air golf museum, as well, one where the American accents often outnumber the Scottish ones in the stores, pro shops and cobbled alleyways.
Business and real estate are booming again after the pandemic lockdowns, and The Times of London reported this week that properties near the Old Course’s iconic 18th green are selling for up to 2,500 pounds (about $3,000) a square foot, that housing prices in St. Andrews are up 23 percent in the past year and that about 50 percent of the buyers in central St. Andrews are from abroad.
It is not just the golf: St. Andrews University remains one of the most prestigious in Britain, with alumni that include John Knox, Thomas Bruce and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (better known as William and Kate). But golf certainly is at the core of the enduring attraction, and the shops on Golf Place, a road that borders the Old Course, are filled with golf trinkets and memorabilia, much of which feature Scottish golfers like James Braid, who won the Open five times in the early 1900s.
Would a present-day Scottish champion really provide much of a boost in the marketing or the bottom line?
“It might make a bit of difference, but being in St. Andrews, I’m not sure it would make a huge difference,” said Hamish Steedman, chairman of the St. Andrews Golf Co., which continues to manufacture traditional hickory clubs as well as the modern, metal versions. “Our visitors and customers come from all over.”
They are back en masse now that travel restrictions have been lifted, and after the 2020 Open Championship was canceled, the international golfers are back in force, as well. The leaderboard on Saturday night was a mix of Europeans, Americans, Asians and Australians.
What was missing were the locals.