The Magic Kingdom

Instead of being bludgeoned into oblivion by modern players and their equipment, the Old Course proved to be as fine a major championship test as ever

July 22, 2005

Two hours after Tiger Woods had putted out at the Old Course, people wandered contentedly about the first and 18th fairways, making practice swings, running with their children, taking in how the green expanse is so wondrously framed by an extended wall of craggy architecture. Cooled by the calmest of zephyrs amid the gentle light, they seemed in silent agreement that somehow the ground they stood on was magical.

That St. Andrews, in its 27th hosting of the oldest major championship, would once again emerge as not only the most romantic but arguably the most competitively compelling venue in the game was, frankly, amazing. This was to be the year that would finally prove the Old Course was too old for big-time golf. Apparently marginalized at the 2000 championship, where Woods achieved a record score of 19-under 269 with hardly an uncomfortable moment, the old girl was teed up to get bombed back into the bygone age of balata.

"To be honest, I had a bit of that fear," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson confided after the championship. "I did expect the record to be challenged or broken."

The litany had been building since the completion of last year's championship at Royal Troon: The players are too strong, the driver heads too big, the ball far too hot, the links ground too firm. A longer-than-ever Woods, not to mention Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, would reduce the Old Course to a pitch-and-putt. The only defense would be a high wind and, perhaps, unavoidably silly conditions reminiscent of another course that proved too short for the modern game, Shinnecock Hills. Everyone silently braced for a royal and ancient embarrassment.

Well, the wind didn't really blow—at least never more than 20 miles per hour—and the R&A, to its credit, didn't go off the deep end on its setup. And yet the Old Course not only held its own, it produced yet another classic championship.

Let's count the ways. As has happened at St. Andrews too often to be an accident, the best player in the world won. Indeed, the last seven times the Open has been held at the Old Course, the winners have been Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus again, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Woods and Woods again. Throw in predecessors that include Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson and Bobby Locke, and you have the greatest list of champions any course has ever produced.

The leader board was similarly representative. Among those finishing in the top 15, nine were former major champions, seven of them at least twice. "She separates the wheat from the chaff," said Thomson, who won there in 1955. "If you play well, you will be rewarded. If you don't, it slaughters you. It's the best course that has ever been."

Even in relatively benign conditions, no new milestones were set. David Frost tied the 18-hole championship course record of 65, but even as 59 of the 80 finishers were under or at par, there were only 16 scores better than 68 all week. And only one player, Woods, finished double figures under par. How did it happen?

First, give the R&A credit. The 164 yards of added length—bringing the total to 7,279 yards, the par remaining at 72—was intelligently applied. The stated purpose—to put the course's 112 bunkers more into play—was achieved. According to the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, the field found more than a third as many bunkers as it did in 2000. Woods, who famously missed them all in 2000, hit into four.

By all accounts, the R&A's excesses were relatively few. There was some noise about the tee on the 480-yard fourth hole being pushed so far back that some players couldn't reach the fairway, but it was muted. Fred Couples called the new tees "fantastic." And a mistake was made by placing deep hay to the right of the 17th fairway. It was the first time long grass had been grown in an area that had always been the reward for the aggressive, hotel-hugging line off the tee. R&A chief Dawson later conceded that the extra growth was "probably not the smartest thing," but fortunately it did not play havoc with any of the contenders. In the end the 17th, always the hardest hole at St. Andrews, actually played easier than it had in 2000, with a 4.63 average compared to 4.71.

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