Inside the British Open’s affordable, surprising tent city

The sun sets over the birthplace of golf, bathing the majestic Old Course in rose gold. Huge grandstands are set up for the 150th Open Championship and flags flutter in the steady breeze. A giant banner below the leaderboard reads this year’s slogan: “Everything has led to this.” The tournament runs from Thursday to Sunday.

With spectators gone for the day, the track is empty. But pop music blares softly in the distance, and if you approach it, the merry chatter of children playing football. The sound comes from behind the Old Course Hotel & Spa, this week’s posh digs by Tiger Woods and other stars of the game.

The noise gets louder as you approach the manicured playing fields behind the hotel, now populated with neat rows of tents that spread out like neighborhood streets. Blue tents over here, smaller green ones over there, and brown ones in the middle, each with a small solar panel the size of a political lawn sign.

These are probably the greatest and most ingenious accommodations in sports – 770 cozy nylon domiciles that hold a well-beaten six-iron from the 17th centuryth green, this week home to a few thousand lucky golf fans chosen by lottery.

770 cozy nylon tents stand in front of the 17th green of the Old Course in St. Andrews.

The greatest and most ingenious accommodations in all sports? A few thousand lucky golf fans can stay in 770 cozy nylon tents on the Old Course in St Andrews.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

Rest your head here and you’re in an ideal location – in golf terms.

“It’s about providing a safe and affordable place to stay,” said Tom Critchley, who oversees the operations of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the governing body of the Open.

This is the fifth tent village the R&A has set up since 2016 when the championships were held at the Royal Troon. Back then there were 100 tents and that number has grown with each successive Open. This year, the village is closer to course than ever.

Nightly rates range from $59 for basic single tents to $357 for the largest “glamping” tents, which sleep six and have carpets, cribs, sheets and duvets, and two bedside lamps powered by these solar panels to be fed.

All profits from the R&A flow back into the operation of the tent village. The idea was to create an affordable way for people to see the Open without having to put up with the sparse rates of local hotels and rentals, which can run into thousands of dollars a night.

In addition, to promote a love of golf among the next generation, the R&A allows adults aged 16-24 to stay free and only leave a deposit in case they damage the tents.

The camp has capacity for 2,400 people this year, and Critchley said the R&A has given away more than 4,000 free nights to people under the age of 25.

“It’s quite an interesting contrast; the cheapest place to stay at the Open, right across from the most expensive,”

– Alex Fothergill, who has worked in all five British Open tent villages

Tom Critchley, the camp manager responsible for the entire British Open tent city operation for R&A

“It’s about being a good place to sleep,” said camp manager Tom Critchley.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

“I just finished my exams this year so I wanted to do something,” said Finan Farrell, 18, a golf fan from the west of Ireland who lives for free with his brother Eoghan. “It really is good value for money.”

In contrast, guests at the 175-room Old Course Hotel live in luxury. Even if the Open packs up and leaves next week, the cheapest room there is $627 a night.

“It’s quite an interesting contrast; the cheapest place to stay at the Open, right across from the most expensive,” said Alex Fothergill, who has worked over the five years that the Villages have been in operation and helped set up the tents in the original iteration at the Royal Troon in 2016 .

Simon and Elaine Neson are sitting in front of their tent with their daughter Emma

Simon and Elaine Neson sit with daughter Emma outside their tent in the makeshift camping village outside the Old Course at St Andrews.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

Those tasks are now handled by professionals who take a week to build this temporary city, which includes portable toilets, showers, food trucks, and a tented clubhouse that features live music in various ways, a DJ, trivia competitions, and special guests like Open offers participants who come by to answer questions.

There are open areas for kids to play soccer and volleyball, picnic tables, booths for charging a phone or trying out golf clubs, a large fence around the area, and security guards to ensure tents are undisturbed while residents watch golf.

Alex Fothergill stands in front of the makeshift clubhouse which will host various events for campers during the Open.

Alex Fothergill, who has worked in every tent village since he started at Royal Troon in 2016, stands in front of the makeshift clubhouse which hosts various events for campers.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

The community rules are pretty simple.

“It’s about being a good place to sleep,” Critchley said. “So let’s not get too loud. We talk to people about respecting their neighbors and try to be quiet after 10pm. No fire, no grilling. We’re not like Glastonbury [the British version of the Coachella music festival] where you bring your own tent. All tents are pre-assembled, like in a hotel.

“We are the largest hotel in Scotland this week.”

And probably the happiest. People love being there and come from all over the world, including many Americans. Critchley said he counted 17 different nationalities among residents of the village of Portrush in Northern Ireland, the last before the pandemic. He still has to figure that out this year.

“If it wasn’t golf I don’t think it would work,” said Englishman Alex Gurnell, who not only stays in a tent but also works for shoe and clothing manufacturer FootJoy, which sponsors the village.

“You can go to a festival like Glastonbury and it’s there to an extent. But in golf, that’s a whole different level of respect. Everyone is there to see golf, enjoy it and have a great time.”

“We’re all here for the same reason – good time, had a few beers and watched golf.”

– British Open camper Matt Hillier

Simon Nelson, an avid golf fan from Northern Ireland, has brought his wife and two young daughters who are staying in one of the larger, spartan tents. They were at Royal Portrush in 2019 and had a great time despite getting soaked from the frequent downpours.

“You’re in Ireland, you’re in the North Atlantic, so you’re going to get wet at some point,” Nelson said. “You don’t come to Ireland to stay dry. I just hope the wind picks up a bit here so the results don’t get silly.”

James and Sara Jones, who live in Wales, treat this as a couples getaway and glamping while one daughter is at Glastonbury Festival and another is staying at a friends house. 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 difficult thing was lugging all the beer,” James said. “But it will be empty when we go home.”

Golf fan Matt Hillier is perhaps the most well-travelled. He works for an airline and was able to arrange an affordable flight from his hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

“Yeah, camping anywhere is rough,” he said. “But you meet people. I met 100 people in the last three days and it was amazing. I met the guy I’ve been hanging out with the last few days on the bus that came here. From there we formed a small group of six guys who are all here for the same reason, from England, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Australia and Scotland. We are all here for the same reason – good time, had a few beers and watched golf.”

Hillier acknowledged that sometimes you get to know people a little better in close quarters than you’d like.

“Everyone is very respectful, but it’s camping,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a symphony orchestra, everyone around me is snoring. But I know I’ll probably quote that once I fall asleep.” Inside the British Open’s affordable, surprising tent city

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