A controversial new tee on the Old Course's 17th hole has players talking — and sweating

Wednesday July 7th, 2010
The Road Hole with the daunting new championship tee box.
Trevor Johnston

The Royal & Ancient announced just one course change for the 2010 Open: a new back tee at the par-4 17th, the famed Road Hole. Set on the practice range of the St. Andrews Links Trust (formerly part of the Eden course), the new tee extends the hole 35 yards to a beefy 495. "I don't know why they want to do that," two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen said of the addition. "I don't think it's the right thing." Adds course architect Bill Coore: "It's not like people have been making all kinds of birdies." Indeed the Road Hole played to a punishing 4.626 stroke average at the 2005 British Open, making it one of the toughest holes in golf. Did the R&A really need to tighten the screws?

\n"The 17th was played at the same yardage in 1900 as it was in 2005 and this fueled our belief that the formidable challenge of this iconic hole should be returned for the Open," Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, said in October. He failed to note, however, that for more than 100 years the hole played as a par-5. And that before the mid-1800s, there were no railway sheds at the corner of the drive. And that before the 1960s, there was no hotel. So, then, what do the players make of the new-look 17th? We asked them ...

\nTHE TEE SHOT
\nFrom the new tee, more players will be forced to hit driver to set up a manageable approach. "It's not sacrilege because the hole was probably 460 yards in the 1970s, right?" says defending Open champion Stewart Cink. "Players are now averaging about 25 yards longer than they were back then, so why not add a little to it? It's gonna play a good drive and a long iron now. I don't think it's a shame the R&A has done it."

\nLANDING ZONE
\nTo ease the difficulty of the tee shot, the left side of the fairway has been widened slightly. "They needed to do that to accommodate driver," says two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington. "If you look at the old photographs, there used to be another 20 yards of fairway. It didn't bottleneck like it does now. Years ago, it opened up."

HOW THEY'LL PLAY IT
\nA longer approach increases the threat of the Road Bunker and the road behind the green. "I liked it the way it was before," says Paul Casey, the World's No. 8. "Even in benign conditions, hitting a 9-iron into 17 is intimidating. If you have a short iron in your hand, you feel you have to take it on. Now I will probably try to settle for a chip and a putt. It's almost become an unofficial par-5."

\nTHE VERDICT
\nOnly time will tell if the new tee has hijacked the hole, but let's keep things in perspective — it's not as if they've bulldozed the hotel and dug a moat around the green. As Coore says, "As long as they can maintain the angle of the tee shot with the new tee, it shouldn't change the integrity of the hole."

ROAD WORK
A timeline of the other recent changes to No. 17

In 2005 ... R&A adds a triangle of rough to the left side of the landing area, compelling a straighter line to the hole, more layups off the tee.

From 2004-'05 ... Road Hole Bunker extended three-and-a-half feet to the right, oval shape restored. New contours around the bunker induce more balls to topple in, but reshaped sand floor allows for easier escapes.

From 2002-'04 ... St. Andrews Links Trust deepens the Road Hole bunker and reduces its size, rendering it more circular.

In the 1990S ... Old Course Hotel adds a three-story wing of suites. Some contend this forces players to drive it further left. Crushed-gravel-and-stone road behind the green paved over. Fewer quirky bounces (good and bad), easier recoveries result.

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