ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the brooding gray-stone clubhouse at the oldest and most famous golf course in the world. As the foursome posed in the morning chill, cameras clicking, a playful voice in the crowd called out.
"Say, who ar' yeh guys?"
Scottish fans threw back their heads and laughed. A good joke. Aye, it was.
Everyone knows them, of course, or feels as if they do. The warmly sentimental Scots, standing five deep to watch a practice round, adopted the Americans years ago.
They feel a friendship. A first-name kinship.
"Ernald." "Jek." "Rymin." "Tome."
Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Raymond Floyd. Tom Watson.
None is favored to win the 124th British Open, which begins here today. Only Watson, a five-time champion, and the youngest (45) of the four, is considered a challenger.
But the Scots, like golf fans the world over, pay homage. The passage of time has not diminished their admiration and respect. They lean out over the restraining ropes to glimpse them. They trail alongside from hole to hole. The applause is polite; their cheers heartfelt.
Palmer, Nicklaus, Floyd and Watson have left their mark on golf -- 37 major championships.
Their names are recorded alongside Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead.
They fill a page in the continuing story. They are part of history, and nowhere is the rich history, tradition and lore of golf more revered than at St. Andrews.
The game was born here and nurtured here, and here its spirit resides.
You sense it while strolling the winding, cobbled streets of this 13th-century village -- the auld toon they call it. There's the Links Hotel. The Niblick Restaurant. The Golf Shop of St. Andrews. The Hickory Sticks Golf Co.
You begin to feel the specialness of this place when you hear the lilt and drone of a bagpipe and see the Old Course itself, for the first time.
Scotland is home to about 500
courses. There are historic British Open links with familiar, haunting names. Carnoustie. Turnberry. Troon.
There are rural nine-hole courses. And one 12-hole course. There are new layouts, too. The emerald of these is Loch Lomond Golf Club near Glasgow. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, it is the best inland course in Scotland and picture-postcard beautiful.
But the Old Course stands alone, a dowager queen. Nature is her architect. There isn't a tree on it. The wide fairways pitch and roll like the North Sea. Dotted with deep pot bunkers, the place looks like a moonscape, with grass.
Watson, among others, was unimpressed when he first saw it. All grow to admire and respect its unique challenge.
"You're free to choose whatever path you like. You can hit whatever shot you want," says Ben Crenshaw, the Masters champion. "It's the most democratic course in the world."
Nicklaus won at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978. "There is no place in the world," he says, "that I would rather win a championship."
St. Andrews is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. It's No. 17, the Road Hole, maybe the toughest par four in the world.
St. Andrews is a tribute to golf in life, and death.
Rev. David Sinclair, minister at Martyrs Church of St. Andrews and my landlord this week, says he never has stepped foot on the Old Course. But he expects to someday.
Not to golf, but to solemnly carry out the final wish of a member of his flock who has asked "that 'is ashes b' spread they-ehrr."
Where: St. Andrews, Scotland
Course: St. Andrews Golf Club, Old Course (6,933 yards, par 72)
When: Today through Sunday
TV: Today and tomorrow (9 a.m., ESPN); Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (ABC); Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (ABC)
Winner's share: $198,938
Defending champion: Nick Price