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Road Hole

The Road Hole, Old Course, St. Andrews

[Photo: Dom Furore, Golf World]

The Open Championship began today in St. Andrews. (We in the US may call it the British Open, to distinguish it from the US Open, but its proper name is The Open Championship. Fair enough. It came first.) Between the Open and the Tour de France, who has time to miss soccer? The World Cup may have ended four days ago, but I’m still suffering from sports overload.

I had once imagined that we’d make it over to Scotland this summer to attend the Open. Six years ago, we stayed with our Glaswegian friends and commuted down to Troon by train for that year’s championship at Royal Troon (won by Todd Hamilton in a playoff over Ernie Els, with Phil Mickelson just a stroke back). But once the Glaswegian contingent decided to come to visit us this summer, arriving two days after the Open ends, it no longer made much sense for us to head over there.

The Open Championship rotates among a fixed set of historic Scottish and English courses (and, in 1951, Portrush, Northern Ireland) on an irregular basis, irregular except for The Old Course at St. Andrews, which since 1990 has served as host every fifth year. (The pattern for St. Andrews prior to 1990 was irregular indeed: 1873, 1876, 1879, 1882, 1885, 1888, 1891, 1895, 1900, 1905, 1910, 1921, 1927, 1933, 1939, 1946, 1955, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1970, 1978, 1984, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005. Perhaps it is destined to be irregular yet again.) I had this year’s visit to St. Andrews marked on our calendar for a 2010 visit since we left Troon in 2004. Now we’ll wait until 2015.

I did have the good fortune to attend the 1990 Open at St. Andrews. This was during a three-week visit to Scotland that Gail, Joel, and I made just after his third birthday, following a month in Aarhus, Denmark and a week in Paris. We had gone from Glasgow to visit our friends in Edinburgh the very days that the tournament was being played. I arranged to meet our Glaswegian friend’s brother at the St. Andrews train station so we could watch the golf on day two. Gail didn’t yet know that she loved watching golf and seeing great courses. What she did know was that she couldn’t leave three-year-old Joel in Edinburgh without her, so she stayed behind and spent the day with him and Carol.

We all had a great time. The weather was unusually good, sunny and at times hot. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman fought all day and ended up in a tie atop the leaderboard. (The next day, in a preview of the 1995 Masters, Faldo would shoot 67 to Norman’s 76, a lethal blow. Ultimately, Faldo would win by 5 strokes over Payne Stewart, with Ian Woosnam and Jodie Mudd another stroke back, and Norman and Ian Baker-Finch still another behind.)

As exciting as the golf was just being able to walk the course. It has been much written about. I can hardly add to the wonderment better expressed by others, the explanations of its uniqueness and its influence on the game. What I do want to mention, a day into this year’s tournament, is the revision to the course made for the current championship on its most famous hole, the 17th or Road Hole. Golf World had a good article about it by golf writer and golf course expert Ron Whitten in last week’s issue.

The underlying issue is how to address the changes in club and golf ball technology – as well as player fitness — that allow today’s players to hit balls much farther than their not-so-long-ago predecessors. Great courses all over the world have been revised to address this, in an attempt to ensure that the original designers’ intents are not lost, in terms of the challenges the holes were intended to present to the players.

But change the Old Course?

Whitten explains that after the 2005 Open at St. Andrews, the Royal and Ancient (the governing body of British golf and organizer of the championship) “spent two years examining the course. During one such walk Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, expressed his desire to have more players use driver off the 17th tee. So Moir suggested widening the fairway a bit on the left, and backing off the severity of the rough on the right, for the 2010 Open.”

“Peter also commented that nobody goes onto the road anymore,” [St. Andrews director of greenkeeping] Moir said, “so I suggested lengthening the hole to the point where players would again be approaching the green with mid to long irons, or even woods, depending upon the wind. That was the idea behind the new tee. Nothing nefarious.” . . .

. . . the R&A issued a press release last fall quoting Dawson: “Over the years, we have seen the threat from the road behind the green, and to a lesser extent the Road Bunker, diminished as players have been hitting shorter irons for their approach shots, allowing them to avoid these hazards more easily. This change will ensure that the hole plays as it was originally intended.”

The changes have been a source of controversy among not just golfers but golf course architects, as the article details. And this brings me to an idea I quite liked.

One [architect] proposed circulating a petition — called Resolution 17 in honor of the besmirched hole — urging the R&A (and the USGA) to once and for all reduce the maximum distance of the golf ball. A contingent from the Federation of Scandinavian Golf Course Architects suggested development of an environmental golf ball — an e-ball — that would respond at a declining rate of distance to increased physical power at impact, in order to shorten courses, cut maintenance costs, reduce chemical use, increase pace of play and narrow the gap between advanced players and the rest of the golf world.

Whitten has much more to say. The article is worth a look.

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