ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Teachers led a gaggle of preschoolers in bright yellow slickers through the rain Wednesday on a field trip that had nothing to do with the golf about to take place just a well struck 3-wood away.
Up the street, tourists gawked at the ruins of St. Andrews Castle, built in the 13th century on the edge of the North Sea and destroyed and rebuilt several times as the Scots and English battled over control of land that would one day become the most hallowed in a game that had yet to be invented.
There's nothing in golf quite like the birthplace of golf, the venerable Old Course at St. Andrews, where Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and 154 others will tee it up Thursday in the British Open. There's also nothing like a town of 16,000 so integrated with the course that it is closed and turns into a park every Sunday, where people bring their dogs to walk the ancient fairways or cross down to the chilly beach below.
Step off the 18th green at St. Andrews, and there's a row of pubs, hotels and golf shops just a short chip away. Things are so close that players teeing off on the 17th hole actually aim over the Old Course Hotel — where the rooms are named after Open champions — to try and hit the narrow fairway.
During Open week it's not unusual to see some of the best players in the world in local restaurants or just out for a walk. Late Tuesday evening, Bernhard Langer and his family strolled about, glancing over across the street where golf fans spilled out into the streets with pints of beer from the Dunvegan Hotel and pub.
The pub was especially crowded on this night because word was Arnold Palmer was going to make an appearance, like he did the last time the Open was here in 2010. The king never arrived, though his wife, Kit, did stop by.
Want to see a piece of golf history? The British golf museum sits behind the 18th green, with displays of golf memorabilia dating back to the game's origins here. Estimates vary who first choked on a 3-foot putt, but golf was said to be played here as early as the 15th century, with St. Andrews itself established in 1754.
A special feature this week is a display of Tom Watson's five claret jug trophies for winning the Open. Watson is playing in his final Open this week, something that had him a bit wistful Wednesday on the eve of the Open.
"It's such a part of the fabric of life here in Scotland, the game of golf," he said. "(Even) people who don't play the game understand it."
St. Andrews, though, isn't just a golf town. School isn't in session during the summer, but the University of St. Andrews bills itself as the third oldest university in the world, dating back to 1410.
Prince William met Kate Middleton while both studied there, and the rest is royal history.
There might be some royals in the crowd this week, though for some the best players are royalty themselves. At the Pizza Express restaurant on a cobblestone street by the university, a server proudly brought out a hat given to him early in the week by the caddie for Tiger Woods.
"See, it's signed by Tiger himself," he said, showing the Nike hat off. "I looked it up on Google to make sure it was really his."
Even on a week where huge grandstands are brought in to handle the big crowds and police are on special alert, it's still easy to get near the action without a ticket. Tourists can stroll behind the 18th green, and anyone can peek over the crowd from the row of shops and rooms lining the 18th fairway to get a glimpse of play.
Sit very long at the Starbucks just two blocks away, and you'll surely see weekend golfers on the golf trip of their lives carrying their clubs to play one of the other six courses run by the St. Andrews Links.
You'll also be able to experience a very Scottish tradition, a dish called haggis. Not for the faint of stomach, it's sheep's heart, liver and lungs mixed in with oatmeal and spices for those long winter nights.
At the Blue Stane pub just up the street from the old course, you can even get it on a bun with cheese, a haggis melt, for about $7.
"I have had it," Spieth said of the national dish. "I don't mind it."