Date: July 15, 2015
Author: Mark Hayes, St Andrews

So much more than a host city

There’s a sign behind the 18th green of the Old Course this week paying tribute to late Australian golfer Kel Nagle.

His lone Open Championship victory came at St Andrews back in 1960 when the then 39-year-old famously held off Arnold Palmer’s late charge.

Naturally, as an Aussie, I’d stopped to take in the sign and think of Kel’s famous deeds just months after his passing.

But then I overheard a trembling voice say something that stopped me in my tracks.

“I remember when he did that, Mr Nagle,” a voice I soon learned to be Betsy’s told her granddaughter.

I was taken aback. This frail American lady had sat to watch the big Sydneysider’s magical moment 55 years earlier – and she could remember it as if it were yesterday.

“We’d been pulling for Mr Palmer, but this big guy who had great manners just held his nerve and was the Open champion,” she soon told me.

Betsy is 82, from somewhere near St Louis.

And she hasn’t missed an Open at St Andrews since that year.

That makes this her 11th consecutive trip to the Scottish icon – and she’s probably not alone.

She caught a train to Chicago, then one north from London with her granddaughter.  “I don’t like flying that much, to be honest.” Yet she still can’t stay away.

Betsy declined to tell me her surname for this story. “I don’t think you should write about me – it’s not about me. This week’s all about the golf, dear.”

There are 1000 tales of what this event in this town means to people who make the pilgrimage to the home of golf; Betsy’s is but one.

But her point is simple and emblematic of the atmosphere that pervades this quaint yet hopping little town.

This, I’m learning in my first time in Scotland, is far more than just a host city.

It’s a way of life; it’s history in the making; and far more than just a twee marketing slogan, it really is the home of golf.

Just the same as footy around Australia, if you can’t talk golf in a St Andrews pub, you’re going to struggle in conversation.

In this town of about 17,000 residents, there are more golf shops than service stations, McDonalds, KFC and Spar (think 7/11) stores combined.

As part of Fife, the Old Course is one of 45 in this 1325 square kilometre county; Hobart’s total area is 1696 square kilometres by comparison.

The players here are rock stars, yet they are somehow respected enough that their presence in town after hours creates little more than polite and due recognition.

Even many of the lesser lights and Open newcomers are known to this enthusiastically knowledgeable crowd.

And while its venerable university helps sustain St Andrews for much of the year, it’s still a golf town at heart – and a hardcore one at that.

Betsy gave me some parting advice, which makes more sense as it sinks in.

“Enjoy the tournament … actually, no, enjoy the experience.”

Thanks Betsy.