Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tell the average golfer, upon approaching the 17th at The Old Course, that he must back up 40 yards, and he would probably break out in nervous perspiration.
It is, after all, one of the most infamously difficult holes in golf.
But when the pros learned of the change for this summer's Open Championship — they will tee off squarely behind the Old Course Hotel — most of them likely shrugged and thought, "same difference." Some perhaps even breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the whole story.
When the Associated Press reported on the lengthening of the 17th late last month, the move was characterized as a potentially controversial one that could make the Road Hole an absolute circus. It will now play 490 yards and will still include the perils of the Road Hole bunker and the road itself.
But here in St. Andrews, those in the know figure the change will not make much difference. Instead of hitting a 3- or 4-iron off the tee, the pros could hit driver to the same spot. In fact, the change came about not as a way to make the hole more difficult, but as a way to create more give and take.
In 2005, the rough on the right, near the Jigger Inn and adjacent to the typical landing area, was grown out. According to Gordon Moir, director of greenkeeping for St. Andrews Links, the pros didn't like it.
"The players were critical of 17 in 2005 in the fact that to try to get golfers to keep left, the rough on the right hand side, (the R&A) asked us to let that grow," Moir said. "So when we let it grow, it became thick and lush. It was a lost ball if you were in there. By the time we saw that was a problem, it was too late in the day to do anything about it."
The players figured out that hitting the ball in the right rough could mean re-teeing, so they just avoided the potential problem.
On a course walk sometime after the 2005 Open, Moir suggested to R&A secretary Peter Dawson that the tee could be moved back and the rough on the right could be kept at bay — give and take. Less risk to the right, more players hitting driver off the tee, more excitement in general.
"Eventually (Dawson) came to us on one of our walks and said, 'I'm really considering doing that,'" Moir said. "He wanted to get some opinion from some players. That started the process. He canvased opinion off a couple of players, and their feedback was fairly positive. After The Dunhill Cup, it was all systems go to build that tee box."
All systems go for pros to smash a driver off the tee. And just in case, the R&A helped The Old Course Hotel put in errant-Titleist-proof glass in the suites that face the 17th tee. But if the players can avoid bouncing one off the hotel, the extra 40 yards on the 17th will mostly mean a little longer walk.
And, by the way, it's still not a good idea to go left.
"The rough on the left side will be as it's always been," Moir said. "But we'll make sure there's enough fairway on the left side because they've got 40 yards longer to hit the ball."
Then the real fun will begin as the players make the critical choice of playing to the front of the green or challenging the Road Hole bunker — and maybe the road — by taking a shot at the pin tucked on the left side of the green.
"It'll all be risk and reward," Moir said. "We're lucky because we've got the Dunhill Championship, so you can see the top players play it every year. The thing that's become obvious in the last four or five years is that, while some people are still going in the bunker, very few people are going on the road. The distance control with the shorter clubs is so much better."
The more things change, the more the Road Hole will battle players as it always has.

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