The sun is setting over the birthplace of golf, casting the majestic Old Course in rose gold. Massive grandstands are in place for the 150th Open Championship and the flags atop them snap in the steady breeze. On a giant banner under the leaderboard, this year’s slogan: “Everything has led to this.” The tournament runs Thursday through Sunday.
With the spectators gone for the day, the course is empty. But there’s a soft thrum of pop music in the distance, and, as you walk toward it, the happy chatter of kids playing soccer. The sound is coming from behind the Old Course Hotel & Spa, the posh digs this week of Tiger Woods and other stars of the game.
The sound goes louder still as you approach the manicured playing fields behind the hotel, now populated with tidy rows of tents that sprawl like streets of a neighborhood. Blue tents over here, smaller green ones over there, and tan ones in the middle that each have a small solar panel about the size of a political lawn sign.
These might be the greatest and most ingenious accommodations in sports — 770 cozy nylon domiciles that are a well struck six-iron from the 17th green, this week’s home for a couple of thousand lucky golf fans chosen by lottery.
Rest your head here and you have — in golf terms — an ideal lie.
“It’s about providing a safe and affordable place to stay,” said Tom Critchley, who oversees the operation for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Open’s governing body.
This is the fifth tent village the R&A has assembled since 2016, when the championships were held at Royal Troon. There were 100 tents then, and that number has grown with each successive Open. This year, the village is closer to the course than ever.
Nightly prices range from $59 for simple single tents to $357 for the biggest “glamping” tents, which sleep six and feature rugs, cots, sheets and duvets and two bedside lights powered by those solar panels.
Any profits made by the R&A are funneled back into the operation of the tent village. The idea was to create an affordable way for people to see the Open without incurring the break-the-bank prices of the local hotels and home rentals, which can be thousands of dollars per night.
What’s more, in an effort to foster a love of golf among the next generation, the R&A allows adults ages 16 to 24 stay for free, only providing a deposit in case they should damage the tents.
The camp sleeps 2,400 people this year, and Critchley said the R&A has given away more than 4,000 free bed nights to people younger than 25.
“It’s quite an interesting contrast; the least expensive place to stay at the Open, right across from the most expensive,”
— Alex Fothergill, who has worked all five British Open tent villages
“I just finished my exams this year, so I wanted to do something,” said Finan Farrell, 18, a golf fan from western Ireland who is staying for free along with his brother, Eoghan. “This is really good value.”
By contrast, the guests at the 175-room Old Course hotel are living in luxury. Even when the Open packs up and leaves next week, the cheapest room there is $627 per night.
“It’s quite an interesting contrast; the least expensive place to stay at the Open, right across from the most expensive,” said Alex Fothergill, who has worked all five years the villages have been in operation and helped pitch the tents in the original iteration at Royal Troon in 2016.
Those duties are handled by professionals now, who need a week to set up this temporary town that includes portable toilets, showers, food trucks and a tented clubhouse that variously features live music, a DJ, trivia contests and special guests such as Open competitors who come over to answer questions.
There are open areas where kids play soccer and volleyball, picnic tables, booths for charging a phone or trying out golf clubs, a big fence around the area and security guards so the tents are undisturbed while the denizens are off watching golf.
The community rules are pretty simple.
“It’s all about being a good place to sleep,” Critchley said. “So we don’t want to be too rowdy. We talk to people about respecting their neighbors, trying to be quiet after 10 p.m. No fires, no barbecues. We’re not like Glastonbury [the British version of the Coachella music festival] where you bring your own tent. All tents are pre-erected, so it’s like a hotel.
“We are the largest hotel in Scotland this week.”
And arguably the most joyful one. People are happy to be there, and they come from all over the world, including a lot of Americans. Critchley said he counted 17 different nationalities among the denizens of the Portrush village in Northern Ireland, the last before the pandemic. He has yet to do the math on that this year.
“If it wasn’t golf, I don’t think this would work,” said England’s Alex Gurnell, who is not only staying in a tent but works for shoe and apparel maker FootJoy, which is sponsoring the village.
“You can go to a festival like Glastonbury and it’s there to an extent. But with golf it’s a whole different level of respect. Everyone is there to watch the golf and enjoy it, and have a great time.”
“We’re all here for the same reason — good time, had a couple of beers and watch the golf.”
— British Open camper Matt Hillier
Simon Nelson, a devoted golf fan from Northern Ireland, brought his wife and two young daughters to the event, and they are staying in one of the larger, spartan tents. They were at Royal Portrush in 2019, and had a great time despite getting soaked in the frequent downpours.
“You’re in Ireland, you’re in the North Atlantic, so you’re going to get wet at some stage,” Nelson said. “You don’t come to Ireland to stay dry. I just hope the wind gets up a wee bit here so the scores aren’t silly.”
James and Sara Jones, who live in Wales, are treating this as a couples getaway, glamping while one daughter is at the Glastonbury festival and another is staying with a friend. So far, they said, the experience has been refreshingly easy, as they parked in a satellite lot four miles away and a bus was waiting to take them to the tent village.
“The only hard part was lugging all the beer,” James said. “But it will be empty when we’re going home.”
Golf fan Matt Hillier might have traveled the farthest. He works for an airline and was able to arrange an affordable flight from his hometown of Melbourne, Australia.
“Yes, camping anywhere is rough,” he said. “But you meet people. I’ve met 100 people in the last three days and it’s been amazing. The guy I’ve been spending time with the last couple of days, I met on the bus coming here. From there we formed a little group of six guys who are all here for the same reason, from England, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Australia and Scotland. We’re all here for the same reason — good time, had a couple of beers and watch the golf.”
Hillier conceded that sometimes in these close quarters you get to know people a little better than you might want to.
“Everyone’s very respectful, but it’s camping,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a symphony orchestra, everyone’s snoring all around me. But I know that I’m probably going to be leading that as soon as I get to sleep.”