SPRINGFIELD — The pictures on Matt Morris’ TV screen weren’t as vivid as the ones racing through his mind.
While watching the world’s best golfers complete in the British Open at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, Morris’ thoughts centered on an overseas course he got to play in the summer of 2006.
“I’ve got a picture of it hanging in my office,” Morris, Springfield’s city manager, said Friday morning. “It was an absolute treat.”
Morris was referring to a photograph of him and friend Chris Epperson standing on the famous Swilcan Bridge at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland.
Eighteen-time major champion Jack Nicklaus waved farewell to professional golf while standing on the bridge during the 2005 British Open.
“I fell in love with (St. Andrews) the first day I played it,” said Nicklaus, who won the British Open at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978. “There’s just no other golf course that is even remotely close.”
Morris agrees wholeheartedly.
“That’s the home of golf,” he said.
Golf has been played at St. Andrews for more than 600 years. It has hosted the 149-year-old British Open 29 times, including the one won by Collin Morikawa on Sunday. The 30th edition at the Old Course is set next year.
At the time of his memorable round at the iconic venue, Morris and Epperson were members of the Armstrong Atlantic State University golf team.
“We had a former teammate by the name of David Roger who lives in Glasgow — he’s from Glasgow,” Morris said. “I don’t even know how we worked it out but Chris came to me one morning in the summertime and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Scotland and visit David?’
‘I said, ‘Absolutely!’ We were going play some golf but I had no idea we would be able to get on (St. Andrews).”
After acquiring a passport in expedited fashion, Morris and Epperson headed across the Atlanta Ocean. The spent a few days in London before traveling to Scotland.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Morris said. “I don’t really think I knew how much I appreciated it until now — thinking back on it and how lucky I was to get to go there.”
Roger gave Morris and Epperson a taste of links-style golf at a few lesser-known courses before taking them to their ultimate destination.
“Playing the game over there, we never saw a golf cart. We never rode in golf cart,” Morris said. “They walked everywhere.”
Another unique aspect of golf in Scotland is the level of camaraderie after a round.
“Most of them are community oriented,” Morris said. “When you get done playing, you go in the clubhouse and have a beer with the locals. It’s just an awesome atmosphere.”
The atmosphere wasn’t nearly as rarefied as what was to come, however.
“David mentioned one morning, ‘You guys think you might want to go to the Old Course?,’” Morris recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but if we call there is no chance we will get on.’ Then David said, ‘Let me call.’
“David had a very thick Scottish accent. He called over there and gave them our handicap and they were like, ‘OK, you can play tomorrow.’ I think it was like at 9:30 or 10 o’clock in the morning.”
Roger dropped Morris and Epperson off at the Old Course the next day and said, “Enjoy your day.”
Did they ever!
“It was mind blowing,” Morris said.
The excited Americans didn’t get to enter the clubhouse but they got to experience everything else the Old Course has to offer, including nervousness. Still, both achieved the goal of a sub-80 score on a beautiful day.
“The way that golf course is set up — the first and 18th holes are truly in the middle of town,” Morris said. “There are people everywhere. There are cars.
“There is a road that runs between one and 18 that is a public road and you have to wait for cars to stop driving. Everybody kind of stops and it’s like, ‘All right, it’s time for you to hit your tee shot.’ It was nerve-racking going down one and coming up 18.”
The overwhelming history at the Old Course added to Morris’ anxiety.
“Jack Nicklaus has won there and Tiger (Woods) has won there,” Morris said. “The whole time we were playing I could feel those shots. I could see the shots that they hit in my mind because I was standing right there.”
Morris’ favorite golfer, Arnold Palmer, lost the 1960 British Open at the Old Course by a single stroke to Kel Nagle. Palmer’s hard-charging performance is credited with reigniting the importance of the event on the worldwide golf scene.
Palmer won the British Open in 1961 at Royal Birkdale and in 1962 at Troon Golf Club. He waved goodbye to the British Open while standing on the Swilcan Bridge in 1995.
“That’s why we had our picture taken there,” Morris said. “Just about every major player that I know has had their picture taken on that bridge. It was just surreal.”
Morris enjoyed the challenge of links golf.
“You get to be so much more creative than what happens in the United States,” he said. “Most courses around here, you hit it as far as you can and you have a wedge or a short iron to the green. Over there, especially when the wind gets to blowing or the rain is coming down, you have to be super creative on how you hit golf shots.
“I read a quote that Rory McIlroy had in the paper or on the (TV) news (Thursday). That’s what he was saying. You get to be more creative and you have to focus much more on where you want to hit the golf ball instead of your swing.
“In that environment, all we could think about was the history and trying to take it all in.”