Nothing, not even the diversion of The Masters, is going to drown out the latest round of arguments on the changes made to the legendary Road Hole at St. Andrews ahead of this year’s Open Championship. To recap, a new 17th tee has been installed which will increase the yardage from 455 to 490 yards.
“The Old Course is golf’s Holy Grail,” protested Christy O’Connor Jr., who was among those in town for last week’s World Forum of Golf Course Architects. “I don’t know what they were thinking of here…The 17th doesn’t need any extra length to bring a man to his knees, especially when the wind blows.”
Though O’Connor knew what the R&A had said of the threat from the Road Bunker and the road behind the green having been reduced as players hit ever shorter irons for their seconds, he was unmoved.
This two-time winner of the British Senior Open champion began by pointing to how Jack Nicklaus shared his views on not meddling with the links. He had played with Nicklaus during the course of the St Andrews’ Opens of 1970 and 1978, both of which the great man won. And in 2000, he had played with him on the three practice days. “The one subject of conversation which cropped up every time,” said the Irishman, “was that the Old Course, like Augusta, should largely be left alone.”
The controversial new teeing area, which at this stage in the season looks a whole lot greener than the rest of the wintry links, is situated on the Eden practice ground rather than the Old Course itself. In other words, it is so positioned as to call for the golfer to hit across the right-hand edge of the 16th green and to risk a still tighter line across the sheds and the back of the Old Course Hotel.
O’Connor’s criticisms, which included concerns over the effect the new tee could have on the pace of play, were expanded upon by such well-known architects as Robin Hiseman, Ronan Branigan and Jonathan Gaunt. Having first made the point that no architects had been involved in the adjustment, the three said that they would be picking their words with care. “We are wary of saying it was a ridiculous change – but what we can say is that it’s not one we would have been likely to recommend in 1,000 years,” advanced one.
“So crude as to be ridiculous,” ventured another, with his companions identifying ‘crude’ as the optimum word.
Branigan, a 2 handicap, described what happened when he had played the hole. (He was round in 66). At a time when all the talk was of the man whose ball had soared clean over the hotel, he watched the fellow who teed up ahead of him hit “a decent enough shot” which carried on a moderate left-to-right wind into the hotel garden. In the circumstances, Branigan hit rather farther left than he intended. His ball finished in the rough but, as he and his companions stressed, the width of the fairway for someone taking the supposedly safe line was no more than 20 yards.
“Everything tells you to hit left – and yet you hit left and you are penalized,” he said.
“It’s not the philosophy of the Old Course to catch a man in rough; it’s not what it’s all about,” he continued.
Gaunt echoed O’Connor’s view about the pace of play, saying that he anticipated that many of the Open contestants would choose to tackle the hole via the second fairway if the wind was playing up.
Hiseman described the addition as one which no one would have needed to contemplate had the R&A and the USGA, who do so much so well, made a better fist of staying on top of the equipment issue. He had written an article some years ago in which he had voiced fears that the Old Course might one day become redundant as the players hit farther off the tee.
It was at this point that one Tom Mackenzie chipped in with a different point of view. The designer of Skibo Castle in the North of Scotland felt constrained to deliver a compliment of sorts. He said he saw the new tee as “a necessary evil.” Mackenzie believes that it will have the effect the R&A seek in forcing players to take a longer iron for their seconds.
Yet there was one point on which all the architects were agreed.
When asked if they would venture out on to the Old Course Hotel balconies during this year’s Open, each jumped back at the mere suggestion. “No way,” they chorused.
The next question was one from the group to this correspondent.
Had she not noticed the man working on the hotel roof?
Apparently, he was in the throes of replacing tiles that had been dislodged by the latest spate of errant tee shots.