ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Would you put fire engine red paint on the Green Monster?
Or draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa?
Some icons you just don’t mess with so why, pray tell, are they messing with the Road Hole?
The 17th on the Old Course at St. Andrews is the most famous and most difficult par 4 in all of golf. The Open Championship has been won there – and lost – more often than Old Tom Morris walked down to the sea.
Golfers know all about the Road Hole and the Road Hole Bunker. The tee shot is over a railroad shed and annex of the stately Old Course Hotel. Yes, that’s correct. It’s over the building. Not around it or almost over it but directly over it. And, yes, the hotel has many large, breakable windows.
Once past the challenging drive, there is a sliver of fairway to contend with, the most fearsome rough on the course, the bottomless greenside Road Hole Bunker on the left and, finally, the road itself on the right. Tom Watson’s chances for an Open Championship crashed on that road in 1984.
Forty yards were added to the Road Hole for this milestone 150th anniversary of The Open, making the hole 495 yards from the tournament tee. On the surface, that borders on impertinence. The Road Hole, like the whole of the Old Course, is sacred in Scotland. To suggest it needs embellishment of any sort is silly.
The Road Hole has always had teeth, always been a hole where you take your par 4 and scamper gleefully off to the 18th tee, leaving a monster par 4 behind for a drivable 357-yarder even if it means encountering the Valley of Sin at the last.
“If you make a 4 (at the 17th), you can never be upset with that,” Mark Calcavecchia said.
But there is method to the madness of pushing back the 17th tee. Even icons can become vulnerable given the passage of time and advancement of technology.
“I think it’s very necessary with the distance the golf ball goes today,” said Watson, a five-time winner of the Claret Jug.
Watson won it at Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield, Troon and Birkdale. He could never win on the Old Course.
“They’ve taken real good statistics as far as where people drove the ball in the last Open Championship here in 2005,” Watson said. “I concur. They had to add some length to the golf course.”
The annex wall is green – the same shade as Fenway Park – but only half the height of the famous 37-foot tall Green Monster. The words Old Course Hotel are on the building. They serve as a target for golfers. Pick your letter, aim your drive.
“Anywhere over ‘Old’ is a good line,” said Englishman Lee Westwood, who figures it now requires two more clubs to reach the green with the approach. “And not much further (right) than L in the ‘hotel.’”
Precise, but hardly Hoganesque.
The first time Ben Hogan teed it up at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, he stood on the ninth tee looking for a clue. The ninth required a blind drive toward the El Royale, a prominent hotel off in the distance with a marquee to match its splendor.
“Aim for the L,” advised Hogan’s caddie, identifying the skinny letter as the best line.
“Which L?” Hogan responded.
Golf in Scotland can never be so exact. There are too many bumps and hollows, too many twists to the plot (and jangling nerves) when the oldest major championship is the prize.
“It’s the most demanding driver shot,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the man behind the lengthening. “It’s not one where there is a bailout to the left. It certainly is a stiff test.”
Arnold Palmer played The Open on the Old Course in 1960 before winning the next two at Birkdale and Troon. The play of Kel Nagle made an impression 50 years ago.
“I felt like I played pretty well, and I know Kel Nagle played very well, because he beat me,” Palmer said.
“As to the technology and the changes, I’m not sure that it makes a great deal of difference to the outcome of this championship, other than the fact that (the course) is in magnificent condition. I suppose in 1960 we didn’t expect much more than what we got, and it was good. It was a challenge. We played the small ball. A lot of things were a little different.
“Sometimes you don’t really need to make so many big changes to a golf course like this. The mystique of this golf course is the fact that you have to know where you’re going, and you have to hit it in those spots.”
Palmer is confident the Old Course will never become obsolete.
“It will weather the storm for many years to come,” he said. “I think they’ll probably do some things down through the years, 50 years from now. What will they do to this golf course to make it different? Not a hell of a lot. They’ll lengthen some more holes, they’ll back the tees up, they’ll make the greens a little bit faster and they’ll do some things to make the fairways a little more magnificent.
“But it will be St. Andrews.”
Just as it will always be the Road Hole. No matter how it is adorned.