Changes to the Old Course at St. Andrews: Much Ado About Nothing

Changes to the Old Course at St. Andrews: Much Ado About Nothing

Proposed new changes to the Old Course include new contouring in front of the "Road Hole" green.
Bob Martin/SI

Lay down your arms. The coming changes to the Old Course at St. Andrews aren't worth fighting about. Hey, I'm as much of a purist and golf history geek as anybody. I cherish every minute I've spent on or near the Old Course, and I practically hyperventilated at the first tee upon my maiden voyage in 1992. That said, none of the proposed alterations faze me one bit. That's because for all of its tradition and role as the most hallowed ground in the sport, the Old Course is also all about change. It has witnessed — and mostly embraced — hundreds of modifications over the past several centuries. The latest refinements will ultimately make little difference in how the Old Course at St. Andrews is played and enjoyed.

Is it fair to question the motives of the R&A and the Links Trust in making these changes? Sure. It's pretty simple though, and those regulating bodies are clear: They want to preserve the integrity as well as the legacy of the Old Course as a championship venue for generations to come. Personally, I've never understood the USGA's (unstated) mission, lately joined by the R&A (and others) regarding the preservation of par at its National Open venues. Boo-hoo, hurt egos — somebody shot 20-under-par on our course. Who cares? The only thing that really matters to me is whether the game's best were tested properly. On links courses with firm fairways and no wind, you're going to see more and more 63s and 20-unders. Links courses with no wind are defenseless — and can't really be called proper tests for the pros. Yet, each of the Open rota layouts have proved that when there's sufficient (normal) wind, an even-par round is a pretty good score. So, despite the paranoia surrounding par here, I don't think there's any malice afoot from these two organizations.

You can also question the specifics of the changes, as well as the architect handling them. As to the latter, it's undeniable that some of Martin Hawtree's work has been controversial and at times heavily criticized, notably for his wildly out-of-character new 17th green at Royal Birkdale. Yet, he's been lauded as well, most recently for his original design of Trump International Scotland. Whatever your opinion of Hawtree and his work, he's been the R&A's go-to guy in recent years, so he's earned the street cred to tinker with the Old Course.

As far as the specifics go, the most controversy so far has revolved around the par-3 11th and the par-4 17th, the infamous Road Hole. Regarding the 17th, the official press release stated: "The work will widen the Road Bunker on the 17th hole by half a metre at the right hand side and recontour a small portion of the front of the green to enable it to gather more approach shots landing in that area."

How dare they impose their will on the 17th hole! Ah, but history tells us otherwise. Let's go back to 1764, when the hole took on a semblance of its present form after four holes were combined into two and the total was reduced from 22 to the present number of 18. A course plan from 1821 displayed a perfectly straight "normal" hole. Play started from an area near the current first tee. The course then followed a clockwise rotation, using ground that today mostly makes up the incoming nine. In 1848, head professional Allan Robertson created the new green complex we have today, including the Road bunker. In the 1850s, a railway line from Leuchers was established. Links Station, the stationmaster's house (now called the Jigger Inn), sidings and sheds obstructed the 17th fairway, with the sheds intruding into the direct line of play off the tee, resulting in a new, completely blind drive.

Jump forward to 1968, when the Old Course Hotel (under the name British Railways Hotel) was erected where the sheds used to be. It too protruded into play. In the late 1990s, the crushed gravel and stone road behind the green that was definitely in play was paved over, resulting in fewer quirky bounces and easier recoveries. For the 2010 Open, they added a new back tee, completely outside the Old Course boundaries, stretching the hole by 35 yards. And, as the chief executive of the R&A, Peter Dawson, pointed out today, they change the Road bunker practically every single year, or at least for every single championship. Yet, none of these changes altered our fear, respect or affection for the Road Hole.

Jack Nicklaus, twice an Open winner at St. Andrews, today pooh-poohed the current hue and cry over the refinements, stating that they won't change the nature of the course. He literally checked off the changes he recalled in his lifetime, going hole-by-hole, mostly acknowledging new back tees, but commenting on other aspects of the design changes as well.

Tiger Woods, also a two-time Open champion at the Old Course, and who — like Nicklaus — calls St. Andrews his favorite course, was similarly unmoved. He told the media in Los Angeles yesterday that he agreed with some of the changes, such as those in the works at the second and at the ninth holes, but wouldn't go as far as endorsing those at 17, claiming "I think 17 is hard enough as it is. I don't think we need to make that bunker any deeper or bigger."

Privately, Tiger told me on Monday that lowering the back-left portion of the green at the par-3 11th wouldn't make any difference to him. "You'd have to be stupid to fire at that pin, because anything over the green, and you've got nothing. Guys are still going to take the middle of the green. That's why you see so many three-putts there."

I'm always wistful — and occasionally angry — when supposedly well-intended folks meddle with classic courses just to keep them "relevant" for Tour pros. However, in the case of the current row over the changes at the Old Course, I'm siding with Jack and Tiger. Mustache on the Mona Lisa? More like meh.