Tent City: Open campground spreads golf beyond the elites
TROON, Scotland (AP) Rows and rows of tents cover a smooth, grassy field. Fathers and sons kick around a soccer ball. Others are simply lounging in their folding chairs, sipping on a beer and soaking up some rays.
This might pass for a NASCAR infield.
Instead, it's a rugby club-turned-campground less than a mile from Royal Troon.
Golf, it turns out, isn't just for the elites.
For the first time, the R&A is giving a small group of fans the chance to camp out during the British Open, making things much more affordable for families and young adults.
When Aileen McCormack was looking for a place to stay along with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, the cheapest place would've set them back more than $5,000.
The campsite is free. In fact, the R&A is providing tents sleeping up to six people, lanterns, air mattresses, toilets and showering facilities. The only condition is that someone in each party must have a junior ticket to the Open.
''Everything's provided,'' McCormack said Wednesday on the eve of the opening round, checking out a sprawling tent that her family has already turned into its own. ''Unbelievable.''
For the R&A, this is a way to spread the game - long associated with the wealthy and privileged - to those who don't necessarily have the financial means to stay in overpriced hotels that are the norm during Open week. In particular, the focus is on making the sport more attractive to young people.
''It's all about encouraging the next generation of golfer,'' said Tom Critchley, project manager for the campground. ''Your parents can bring you along and enjoy a weekend at the Open. It costs a lot of money to come to the golf. This is making it easier for the families who want to come and enjoy it. Then, hopefully, the kids will grow up remembering how great the Open was, and they'll come back again and again.''
The campground has been set up at the Marr Rugby Club, which lies at the end of a narrow, hedge-lined lane just off the main drag leading into Troon.
In all, the tents can hold up to 500 people, and they're fully booked for the weekend. While the bulk of the campers are from Scotland and England, some will be coming in from Spain and Germany, others from as far away as the United States and Canada.
For safety reasons, no outdoor grilling is allowed. But there's an expansive, covered area where food and drinks are sold, providing a sort of beer-hall feel to the otherwise quiet surroundings. Two areas have been set aside to play soccer, complete with a pair of small goals on each pitch. There's also a volleyball net and a spot where duffers can try their hand pitching golf balls through targets of tires.
Rebecca Dixon is staying at the campground with her boyfriend, James Wass.
''The accommodation prices are crazy otherwise,'' the 21-year-old Dixon said. ''To open it up to students is a really good idea.''
While all are here primarily to attend golf's oldest major championship, the campground provides something to look forward to each evening. There's a convivial atmosphere among the 20-somethings, who clearly relish the chance to hang out with people their own age in laid-back surroundings rather than some stuffy hotel.
No need to dress up or arrange dinner reservations. Just pull up a chair and start a conversation with someone in the tent next to yours.
''It's really fun,'' the 22-year-old Wass said. ''There were a lot of people out playing football together, having drinks together.''
Of course, there's one potential drawback to camping: the weather. That's no small consideration in Scotland, where strong winds and heavy rains are as much a part of the lifestyle as haggis, and temperatures often struggle to get out of the 60s even during the long summer days.
In that regard, the first night went well for Wass and Dixon.
''It didn't rain, which was good,'' he said. ''It was a bit chilly in the evening, then it was really warm in the morning. So the tent did its job.''
After morning rains Wednesday, the sun broke through the clouds in the afternoon, bathing the campground in warm, soothing beams. McCormack's son-in-law, Paul Breslin, struck up an impromptu soccer game with his sons, 12-year-old Liam and 8-year-old Aidan. Her husband, Thomas McCormack, sat in front of their tent, inflating one of the air mattresses the family would be sleeping on.
McCormack has been to the Open before, but he usually stayed far from the course and was often at the mercy of buses and trains to get around. Now, he can simply walk to Royal Troon each day.
''There's even a path made right down to the course for us, down through the fields,'' he said. ''It's only a 10-minute walk down there. Absolutely brilliant.''
On a separate row of tents, Greg Wood had just checked with his son, Thomas. They hustled to get their living quarters squared away, and then headed off in hopes of catching a few players on the final day of practice before Thursday's opening round.
Greg Wood sees no downside to bunking in a tent for the weekend.
Not even the persnickety weather.
''We're used to it,'' he said. ''It's part of coming to the Open.''
Now, camping is too.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .