Celebration of Champions kick-starts special week at The Open

By: PGA

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Rory McIlroy beamed as he grabbed the hand of Tiger Woods and excitedly pointed up to a window high in the Rusacks Hotel that flanks the 18th fairway at St. Andrews.

The pair then waved animatedly in the direction of 22-month-old Poppy McIlroy, daughter of the 21-time PGA TOUR winner and four-time major champion as they finished up play in The Open Championship’s Celebration of Champions on Monday.

Just moments earlier they had posed for photos together on the Swilken Bridge, with 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus no less, but this moment was arguably just as incredible. It was raw. It was pure. And in an age where renumeration can dominate headlines, it showed what this is really all about. Being part of, or bearing witness to, history.

This is indeed a very special week – one that will ultimately crown the champion golfer of the year – but one that is so much bigger than any leaderboard. For this is the 150th Open Championship. At the home of golf.

It is a celebration of the game born in the Scottish sheep paddocks around this area that has now blossomed into a game that will see hundreds of thousands of fans swarm through the gates this week. It is a game that is still inherently open to all and enjoyed by multiple generations.

And while Poppy likely won’t ever remember the special time where Woods, an 82-time TOUR winner with 15 majors – two of which came at St. Andrews – made her the center of attention despite being in the middle of a spiritual setting on golfs grandest stage… Rory will.

“If you had of told 10-year-old me that I would play in something like this I’d have hardly believed it. Playing with my idol, ahead of such a special week, it’s just really really cool,” McIlroy said.

Woods and McIlroy were part of the last four-person team that included two-time Open champion Lee Trevino and 2018 Women’s Open champion Georgia Hall to take on the first, second, 17th and 18th holes at the Old Course in a better ball format competition that, as the name suggests, celebrates the former champions of The Open.

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Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino pose for a photo at the Celebration of Champions Challenge during a practice round prior to The 150th Open at St Andrews. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Fans were treated to a cavalcade of legends including gems of the past like Tom Watson and Gary Player to current stars Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa among many more. Nicklaus is also here to become just the third American, behind Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Jones, to be given honorary citizenship of the town having won The Open here in 1970 and 1978.

This was pinch yourself stuff. Tell your grandkids stuff. One golf analyst was going to leave early to buy a desk fan for his non-air-conditioned accommodation before the light bulb went off… when will you see something like this ever again?

The fans cheered for them all. But they saved the loudest roars for Woods who will tee it up Thursday in likely his last real chance of making it three wins at the iconic venue. Despite the numerous complications he faces with his body following a car accident last year, Woods showed glimpses of the smarts that helped him dominate in 2000 and plot his way to another win in 2005 as he birdied two of the four holes.

If there was a way to count it, it’s possible a world record number of phone photos would’ve been taken in the four-hole stretch. A chef at The Old Course Hotel on the 17th fairway snuck away from his burners and grabbed his pictures through the glass while down below him, sitting out on a grass lawn, was former Masters champion Adam Scott and his father Phil, also realizing the significance of the occasion enough to come out and soak it all up.

“For a lot of guys who haven’t been here like myself, to come here, look out the hotel, walk down 17, 18 on Sunday when you have the public just walking, that’s the coolest experience as a fan, as a golfer, anyone could ask for because it’s a game for everyone,” defending champion Morikawa said.

“The stretch of just teeing off on No. 1, just seeing 17, just seeing 18, you feel the history, and you feel the importance of everything that has come before us at this golf course and golf in general. It’s really cool to be here.”

For the record, the team of Sir Nick Faldo, Louis Oosthuizen, Zach Johnson and John Daly – all winners at St. Andrews – posted the low score Monday to claim bragging rights over the fellow former champs. They won be three shots and perhaps foreshadowed what might be a birdie fest later in the week. Some are fearful the modern golfer might have usurped The Old Course … Nicklaus isn’t one of them.

“They might shoot low. So what? That’s sort of the way I look at it. They’re shooting low now compared to what they shot 100 years ago. But times change and golfers get better, equipment gets better, conditions get better,” Nicklaus said.

“I don’t think it really makes a whole lot of difference, frankly. It’s St. Andrews and it is what it is, and it will produce a good champion. It always has. That’s the way I look at it. Bobby Jones always said a golfer’s resume isn’t complete unless he’s won at St. Andrews.”

And so we await which golfer will complete his resume – but ultimately – just being part of this iconic week – is enough.