As world weighs in on Old Course changes, opinions vary for St. Andrews locals

The Old Course at St. Andrews, shown here during the 2010 British Open, is currently undergoing a renovation.
Robert Beck / SI

Andrew Donaldson, a lifelong resident of St. Andrews, Scotland, manages a golf-merchandise shop just around the corner from the Old Course's 18th green. He says he's "horrified" by the controversial renovations currently underway on the game's most storied sod.

Niall Scott is a communications officer at the University of St. Andrews, who, if he cranes his neck just so, can see the first tee of his beloved links from his office window. He says critics of the remodeling should pipe down and have a little faith in the decision-making of the St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the 600-year-old links. "They know every hump and hollow," he says. "They know what they're doing." Paul Moffat, who runs a St. Andrews B&B and regularly tees it up on the O.C., isn't too bothered one way or the other by the changes, but thinks it's wise to take a wait-and-see approach. "Until we play it," he says, "we won't know exactly what to think."

(PASSOV: Fury over Old Course changes much ado about nothing)

That's a small sample of local reaction to the spate of changes the Links Trust, in partnership with the R&A, is implementing to tighten the screws on the Old Course in advance of the 2015 British Open. But the diversity of opinions speaks to the thorniness of the undertaking and why tampering with one of Mother Nature's masterworks is not a job for the meek. Under the direction of English designer Martin Hawtree, nine holes on the Old Course will be modified by the end of next winter. Bunkers will be filled and added, greens recontoured and natural undulations altered. My Golf Magazine colleague Joe Passov says the refinements "will ultimately make little difference in how the Old Course is played and enjoyed," but his is a dissenting voice in golf circles. Many scribes and architecture buffs are incensed — if not personally offended — by the renovation, describing it as "unconvincing," a "desecration" and "an act of staggering arrogance."

Seconding those opinions, at least to some degree, is the shop manager Donaldson, who got his first look at the torn-up Old Course last Sunday. "There's machinery out there that you would see at building sites — bulldozers, all that kind of stuff," he said in a telephone interview. "They're obviously going into this in a major way." Donaldson grew up in St. Andrews and has played the links hundreds of times, once zipping around in 67, he says. He played to scratch in his heyday and has won a few local tournaments on the windblown Old Course. What he saw on Sunday troubled him.

At the par-4 4th, he spotted workers filling a pair of bunkers 20 or so yards short of the green and replacing them with two greenside bunkers. "It's a tough hole already," Donaldson said, "so it doesn't really need bunkers at the green." (The meaty, 480-yard 4th was the fourth-toughest hole at the 2010 British Open, playing a quarter stroke over par.)

More alarming still to Donaldson was the new-look green at the par-3 11th. "They're flattening the top half of that, which I think is a bit disgraceful," he said. "It's like somebody chopped the top left side off the green; it's going to look strange." Previously that section of the green sloped severely from back to front; leveling it, the logic goes, will create more hole locations. Here's the problem, Donaldson says: "When you're downwind, you need that slope; it's like a backstop almost. If you go over the back, then you're way down the slope, 10 feet or so, with no shot basically."

Another sticking point with Donaldson, he says, is how the Links Trust kept residents in the dark during the planning stages. "A lot of people like me didn't really hear about it until the last minute," he said. "You see, the golf courses here are all public, so they're owned by the public, basically. They're counsel courses, so there should be a public consultation before anything major happens — that's how most people would feel. And there really hasn't been. It seems they just bypassed the public, who have the right to walk on the course, whether they play golf or not."

An innkeeper in town who has been playing the Old Course for 30 years, but who asked to remain anonymous for fear of upsetting his friends and associates, corroborated Donaldson's account. "There was no public consultation at all," he said. "They just did it. But that's life and you get on with it." (Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, told the BBC this week that the alterations were, in fact, roundly embraced by the townspeople.)

Backroom politicking aside, the innkeeper said that he sees plenty of positives in the renovation. "It will make the course much more challenging and much more interesting," he said, looking ahead to the 2015 Open. "It won't just be a walk in the park as it can be without any wind." He also praised the much-maligned reconstruction of the 11th green for opening up "two, maybe three" more pin positions, and scoffed at so-called traditionalists who believe that the Old Course is untouchable. "If you want to talk about tradition, there was not one single piece of gorse on the Old Course going back 30 years, yet there's gorse there now," he said. "And now they're complaining about the gorse going away."

Indeed, the Old Course has been a near-constant work-in-progress. Tees have been added to accommodate modern bombers. The famous Road Hole bunker is rebuilt just about every year. Native grasses come and go. But this latest plan is more sweeping, more involved. It's one thing to shave down a bunker or squeeze in a new tee; it's quite another to rework natural contours that formed over thousands of years.

Niall Scott is not offended by the meddling. He loves the Old Course as much as the next Fifer but says he's "slightly bemused" by the uproar. "I had a wry smile at Ian Poulter's comment that it's like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa," said Scott, the director of corporate communications for the University of St. Andrews and a 14-handicap. "I disagree. I think it's more like giving our famous Old Lady some discreet plastic surgery."

Emily Griffiths, captain of the ladies golf team at the University of St. Andrews, agrees, and believes the surgery was much needed to keep the course viable for competitive play. She also notes the Catch-22 in which the course's kingpins seem to have found themselves. "Typically the R&A are criticized for being stuck in their ways," says Griffiths, who is also president of the St. Andrews Athletic Union, "and now they're doing something which is moving with the times and they're getting complaints the other way."

Generally, though, Griffiths believes most residents are supportive of the Old Course makeover. "If it was that damaging, there would have been uproar in the local golf clubs, and there hasn't been," she said.

Scott believes the controversy has actually become a bigger story outside of St. Andrews than it is within. That's difficult to gauge, but news of the overhaul has certainly been cause for much fury and grandstanding in the golf media. It's also clear that not everyone in St. Andrews is riveted by the evolving drama. A bartender named Jim, who answered the phone earlier this week at the St. Andrews gastro pub The One Under, knew nothing of the course changes. A saleswoman at The Golf Shop of St. Andrews, a golf gear and collectibles store a two-minute walk from the course, was also unaware of any rancor, although she admitted she doesn't "pay much attention to the sports reports."

Scott does read the sports pages, and he's quick to point out that just a couple years ago critics were bemoaning how effortlessly Louis Oosthuizen dismantled the Old Course en route to his 16-under-par romp at the 2010 British Open. "A lot of the golfing press was full of articles about the fact that the Old Lady had become too easy," Scott said. "They were honestly asking the question, Was it appropriate to play the Open at the Old Course anymore? The Links Trust, I think, responded very thoughtfully to that."

A final verdict on that assessment can't fairly be issued until after the 2015 Open, when the game's best players have faced the retooled Old Course under major-championship conditions. In the meantime, every shovel-full of sod and bag-full of sand that is removed from or added to the world's most famous course will continue to fuel grill-room debates from Perth to Pebble Beach.

Paul Moffat isn't likely to join the fray. An 11-handicap and the owner of the St. Andrews B&B Six Murray Park, Moffat says he's happy enough to play his weekly round at the Old Course and let the chips — or changes, as it were — fall where they may. "I'm grateful that they stay on top of the course," he said of the Old Course's minders, "just as long as they don't change what the course is about."