Shrine feels the strain of the pilgrimage

Whatever dramas the 2000 Open Championship conjures up over the last few holes this afternoon, the occasion has already touched its ceremonial peak. Of course it matters who wins, and how, but a St Andrews packed to bursting point is experiencing more than a tournament, more even than a celebration of an historic landmark.

Whatever dramas the 2000 Open Championship conjures up over the last few holes this afternoon, the occasion has already touched its ceremonial peak. Of course it matters who wins, and how, but a St Andrews packed to bursting point is experiencing more than a tournament, more even than a celebration of an historic landmark.

This is a game rejoicing in its flourishing existence and the feeling of imperishability that itsbirthplace provides. The specialatmosphere could be felt particularly in Wednesday's emotional challenge match between 22 former champions, but has pervaded the entire week and has transformed tens of thousands of fans into pilgrims attending an open-air thanksgiving service that no cathedral could match for reverence.

Pilgrim is an apt description, because the long and dusty trail that winds around the Old Course is a hard road to travel, and clear glimpses of the gods are not easy to come by. No other sports supporters have to make the effort demanded of golf galleries and no venue has ever offered less reward for those strains than St Andrews over the past few days.

It is not an easy viewing course at the best of times, but the record crowds that have packed the town so tightly that the police have been threatening to put up road- blocks have had to walk far and jostle determinedly for their ration of the proceedings. But just being here seems to compensate for any discomfort.

The Millennium Open could have been staged nowhere else but on these bumpy, well-worn acres that have borne the ceaseless march of golfing progress over the past 600 years. As well as giving golf to the world, the town of StAndrews also played a part in providing its fuel. It may seem a touch perverse to mention it, but the US dollar sign was designed at St Andrews University.

The town's two offspring were destined to form one of the most lucrative partnerships in sporting history but, for all the game's commercialism, it still manages to project a wholesome image and, certainly, is the most honest and self-disciplined of games.

Meanwhile, St Andrews is a shrine that earns its keep throughout the year and not just at bigtournament time. Despite the proliferation of more scenically beautiful courses located in more favourable climates, the Old Course continues to be the destination to which golfers of all nationalities and handicaps aspire.

That makes the town an all-year tourist attraction, and it fulfils the role with some enthusiasm. There have been complaints about the price of accommodation during Open week but that's nothing new for hosts of a big event. The prices in the pubs and restaurants do not seem inflated; indeed, the only place where the cost of food and drink has raised the eyebrows is within the bounds of the course itself.

 

If golf is the St Andrews meal ticket, at least they make a sound job of protecting the precious asset on behalf of the world. The Old Course belongs to the town as a public park, through the St Andrews Links Trust, and not to the Royal & Ancient as most people think. The trust also administer five other courses, which make them the largest golf complex in Europe. They are now considering adding another course to the collection to help cope with demand.

With the new course at nearby Kingsbarn raising appreciative comments and another being built by the St Andrews Bay Hotel, playing pilgrims to the area are certainly not discouraged. In their attempt to prevent the Old Course suffering from overuse, the trust have cut back the number of rounds played on it from 48,000 to about 40,000 a year. Part of the preservation policy is to allow no play on a Sunday - they make an exception for The Open.

Caroline Nurse, a spokeswoman for the trust, says: "Sundays are sacred and the day for people to walk their dogs and enjoy the open space, and I can't see us ever changing that policy. We aim for the Old Course to remain available to anyone who wants to play while trying to control wear and tear. It costs £80 to play and we don't think that is expensive for playing the oldest and most famous course in the world. Play starts at 7am and we've lengthened the interval between tee times from eight to 10 minutes to make it more comfortable."

The problem of coping with the rising interest in golf while protecting the courses is not confined to St Andrews. Spain is enjoying a boom in golfing visitors. Mike Lovett, director of golf at the Mijas complex near Malaga, says that they have 130,000 rounds a year on their two courses and are constantly improving the courses to help them take that sort of punishment.

The use of caddie cars, banned at St Andrews, does enable them to accommodate more rounds, but Lovett believes that courses everywhere are reaching the limit of their use.

"Golfers don't feel comfortable on crowded courses so we need to get the numbers down so that we can offer quality golf and cut down on overuse. It's a problem that St Andrews does not face alone," he says.

The race may lack the bumping and boring of the World Cup 2006 shambles, but the bidding for the 2009 Ryder Cup is beginning to take a fascinatingly competitive shape. At St Andrews last week the Scottish bid was announced with an aggressive skirl that threw five of the most famous courses in golf into the ring.

If the attempt is successful, the Old Course, Carnoustie, Gleneagles, Loch Lomond and Turnberry would then bid to be named the host. It is a powerful claim, although I do wonder if the Americans would turn up if Carnoustie was chosen.

Wales have already entered a claim via Celtic Manor, where the billionaire Terry Matthews has built a super-complex that he is prepared to back with unflinchingfinance. Next month the North-east of England will join in via Slaley Hall, the complex owned by the hotel group De Vere, owners of the Belfry, where the Ryder Cup has had its British home for 15 years and where the 2003 Cup will be held. Ireland will stage it in 2005.

A challenge for 2009 is also expected from Sweden and Spain, but it should be a slug-out between the Brits, with the winner being named in just over 12 months' time.

One of the social highlights of the week is the Golf Writers' Association dinner, and this year the titled heads of world golf were included among the record attendance of over 300 in the R & A marquee.

As usual the quality of the speeches was excellent, both that from the association's president, Mike McDonnell, and the response from Jose Maria Olazabal, in which he was not only extremely eloquent but managed to achieve the impossible task of convincing the assembly that golf writers are not the irritating pests they areusually cracked up to be.

Then the organisers departed from the norm and introduced a cabaret. The apprehension caused by this decidedly risky move lasted only a few bars into the revue act of the Foreballs, a group made up of golfing actors who each boast a list of film and TV credits and together engage in an hilarious send-up of the game and its characters.

From a Shakespearean tournament - cries of "Thou art the Man" - to a plea to the game's favourite Spaniard to the theme tune from Evita "Don't take the wood, Ballesteros", they were a great success. I make no apologies for the plug. Boring golf dinners could be a thing of the past.

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