In the shadow of St Andrews most expensive hotel, a vast tent city popped up for the 150th Open – I glamped at the ‘Home of Golf’
The sky above St Andrews simmers a hazy rose gold. The grandstands are empty but the flags above snap in a crisp sea breeze.
The setting sun casts long shadows across a sea of nylon tents, stretching away from the foot of The Old Course Hotel; a well struck iron from the most famous golf links on the planet.
Across the playing fields of the Madras Rugby Club, I see twinkling lights, the crossed poles of giant tipis and hear the upbeat thrum of dance music.
Emerging from the orange hued sunset, a flat-bed buggy arrives to transport me to the reception of the Open Camping Village.
It’s a pop-up tent city for golf fans attending The 150th Open at St Andrews and for a single week it is the ‘largest hotel in Scotland,’ with 770 tents and room for more than 2000 campers a night.
We pass the clubhouse of Madras Rugby Club, where 25 years ago I began my Fresher’s Week as a new student at St Andrews University. It’s Tuesday of Open week and the ‘Auld Grey Toon’ is celebrating.
Children play football on a pitch between orderly rows of tents, some large, some small and some bell tents reminiscent of Scout jamborees or historic British Army encampments.
I notice they are powered by discreet solar panels, feeding off the warm July sun. Golf fans wait in orderly lines for wood-fired pizza, sushi and patties from Blackhorn Burgers – St Andrews’ most popular gourmet burger bar.
At the clubhouse, it feels more like an Ibizan sundowner than a golf club social. There is hardly a free seat on the wooden benches outside and the giant Tipi hums to the rhythm of a dance set by DJ Spoony.
I’ve come to watch the world’s oldest golf tournament but I feel transported to younger days at Glastonbury Festival. The vibe is unmistakably happy. People chat 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 helps herself to free Haribo. Soon after, I’m given directions to my Glamping Bell Tent and handed a clip-on red board that tells the camp team I’m in residence.
I also discover FootJoy, sponsors of the 150th Open Camping Village, are throwing a ‘Camp-Out’ party in the clubhouse and that Adam Scott, Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young have been in the village that day, meeting fans and signing autographs.
Glamping at The Open
I pull back the cream folds of my new front door to reveal a Queen sized double bed with turned down white linen, two plump pillows, a double duvet and a quaint red Tartan throw.
The floor is covered in soft brown hessian sack and two reclaimed wood crates double as bed side tables and temporary storage.
Atop one of the crates is a Hubi solar panel unit with USB connectors for phone chargers and plugs for the tent’s lighting.
While you’re out on the links, your tent is steadily recharging for the night ahead, part of the R&A’s sustainability drive; which includes free water stations across the site, sales of refillable Open canteens and free portable phone chargers.
This is the fifth time that the R&A has pitched its tent city for golf fans.
“Our first camping village was Troon and we had 169 tents. We pitched them ourselves, it was seriously hard manual labour and took us days,” says Alex Fothergill, one of reception team at The Open Camping Village.
At previous Opens, campers had to travel by Park & Ride bus to the course and back. In St Andrews, the course was a good dunt with a long iron away, across a gangway bridge; leading directly to the Tented Village and the Road Hole.
Getting there was easy. I 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.
Campers, young and old, wander freely around the village. Some are headed to the wash rooms for a hot shower, while others head out for dinner or drinks at one of St Andrews’ many fine restaurants and pubs.
After unpacking my things, I head out in the half light on my own trip down memory lane.
I pass the left hand stone turret of John Burnet Hall (Atholl), my first-year dorm room, which had an enviable view of both the 17th and the 1st greens on The Old. I stroll up Playfair Terrace to my first ‘living out’ flat, then continue the short way to Murray Park, where most visiting golfers enjoy B&B (bed and breakfast) stays.
I cross North Street, nod to Sallies Quadrangle, dart down a wynd and emerge onto Market Street and number 88, my final year home across the cobbles from The Keys and The Central taverns.
I’m flushed with endorphins and enjoy a pint of Belhaven Best and a wee dram ahead of my night spent Glamping at The Open. Only four hours later, I’m reminded that despite the warming nostalgia of my University years, Glamping (glamorous camping) is still camping.
It’s 4.30am, bright sunlight bursts through canvas and sea gulls shriek as they wheel overhead. Luckily, I brought ear plugs and had a duvet to pull over my head, eventually drifting back to sleep.
I freshen up with a hot shower and a shave in the Open Camping Village wash block. There are softly spoken Irish lilts, assured Afrikaans and the unmistakeable RP of the ‘Queen’s English.’
Breakfast is a Flat White and a Bacon and Lorne Sausage roll from the busy food vendors outside The Clubhouse. All around me fans are expectant for the first day’s play of the 150th Open.
The Open Camping Village – a rainbow of nations
On my way to the course, I meet Tom Critchley, the organiser of the Open Camping Village; and the man the R&A entrust with the welfare of campers aged from 18 months to 80 years old.
Tom knows golf. His father is Bruce Critchley, the retired Sky Sports golf commentator and one of the most distinguished voices in the game.
“It’s quite a paradox isn’t it. Right across from the most expensive hotel in St Andrews you can stay from £50 per person, per night, in a two person tent,” said Critchley.
We are talking near a tent draped with a New Zealand flag. Like The Open field, the Camping Village is made up of a rainbow of nations.
In 2019, there were 17 nationalities camping says Critchley. He hasn’t crunched the numbers yet but he expects that number to have risen for the 150th.
“There are many more Americans this year, as travel reopens post pandemic, but we have campers from North Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Denmark and Spain.”
“There are lots of families staying with us this week and The Camping Village is also free for under 25’s. We have given away more than 4,000 bed nights to young people this year to provide them with a pathway into the game.”
There are dedicated quiet areas for families and adults, with sections for younger campers and a distinct central section for glampers.
The rates for a small Glamping tent (sleeping two) started at £160 per night on the first Sunday and Monday – practice days – of Open Week, rising to £380 per night for a large Glamping tent (sleeping four) on the main championship days – Friday 15th Saturday 16th.
All tents in The Open Camping Village were a minimum 2-night stay, availability dependent.
All 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 were 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.
Sleep under the stars at golf’s oldest Major
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 three nights in an apartment in Hamilton Grand overlooking the 18th green was priced at £30,000. A two-bed apartment in Dundee cost £567 per night on AirBnB.
Later, after a great day watching the world’s best golfers, I meet more of Tom’s camp leaders at reception.
Alex, Jacqueline and Samantha, all hail from North East England, my home region and I immediately recognise the friendly sing song of their accents.
“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,” said Alex.
“If ever a camper needs anything, Tom just tells them ‘look for a friendly girl with a Geordie accent’.”
Two campers that needed their help were Gordon Alder, 62, from Burnitisland, Fife, and Shaun O’Mara, 62, from Lutterworth Golf Club in Warwickshire.
I chat to them as I charge my phone while Sky Sports Open coverage plays on a large flat screen in the Tipi clubhouse. 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 Marathon Man
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 has spread to his lymph nodes but he’s upbeat 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 say farewell as Shaun and Gordon head back out onto the links for another memorable day at The Open.
The R&A said 290,000 golf fans visited St Andrews for the 150th Open over eight days bringing an estimated economic benefit of between £50m and £100m to St Andrews and the wider Fife economy.
The Open Camping Village had over 16,000 bed nights available during the championship, from basic two man domes to the relative luxury of its glamping tents.
On my final morning, the heavens opened and my saunter to the shower was brisker than Tom Watson’s backswing.
If you camp or glamp at The Open, don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep.
You can expect an adventure unlike any other at golf’s oldest Major. You’ll connect with golfers from across the globe, make friends, share stories and possibly meet some of the famous faces teeing up that week.
If you’re happy to fall asleep to the gentle rustle of a flysheet and wake to a symphony of seagulls, then glamping at The Open is one travel experience worth putting on a postcard.
*Find out more about Camping at The Open
Where to stay in St Andrews outside of The Open
St Andrews has a wealth of high quality accommodation for visiting golfers, including The Old Course Hotel, The Rusacks, Rufflets and nearby Fairmont St Andrews. If you are a looking for a private exclusive property for a golf group, read our review of Hawkswood House in the village of Peat Inn.
A good starting point for any trip to St Andrews and Fife is the official website of the Hotel and Guesthouse Association of St Andrews.