Golf CoursesNovember 29, 2012

Nothing New Here

Change comes to the Old Course at St. Andrews -- as it always has

Talk about a tempest in a pot bunker! In the wake of the announcement by the St. Andrews Links Trust that it had hired golf architect Martin Hawtree to perform modest changes to half the holes on the Old Course at St. Andrews in preparation for the 2015 Open Championship, golf architect Tom Doak, who described himself as "horrified" over the news, circulated a petition urging his competitors to join him in expressing moral outrage over the besmirchment of what he called "sacred ground."

Officials of the American Society of Golf Course Architects debated whether to issue a statement condemning the changes, or at least expressing stern indignation. A couple of architects urged me to write a shame-on-you column directed at the Links Trust. I declined, because, as I told them, it's not a crusade that I think has merit.

Sacred ground? The Old Course was built on sand, not carved in stone. It's a golf course to be played, not a monument to be worshiped from afar. Yes, it's a marvelous wellspring of design ideas -- I've long said that all golf architecture is a reaction in favor of or against what exists at the Old Course. But if you've studied the course at all, you know it, like Augusta National, has been changing all the time.

Related: Aerial photos of The Old Course

Golf architect Scott MacPherson wrote a tremendous book, St. Andrews, The Evolution of the Old Course: The Impact on Golf of Time, Tradition & Technology, documenting that the Old Course has been tinkered with forever, from creation of the Home Hole green and Valley of Sin atop a cemetery in 1887 to installation of new championship tees on adjoining courses in the 2000s. Yes, no bunker has been added or removed since 1949, but I don't remember architects picketing in the 1990s when nearly all the bunkers of the Old Course were rebuilt into deeper, cookie-cutter ovals with near-vertical rivetted walls of turf.

What I find ironic about the whole protest is that most of these architects have on more than one occasion faced down angry club members who didn't want the architect to change a damn thing at their precious country-club course. Each architect patiently tried to explain all the wonderful (and mostly logical) reasons changes needed to be made. Suddenly, Doak et al. have become the angry constituents. Will they never take another remodeling job after their St. Andrews stand? Or if they do, will they see the sheer hypocrisy of their position? (Don't bother telling me that the Old Course is more important than that local country club. It might be to me, but not to those members, it's not.)

Related: Changes to the Old Course draw criticism

What's this all about, anyway? A few new dips and humps around a few Old Course greens? OK, they're shaving a section of the back-left of the Eden green at No. 11 to create new pin positions. That's a steep green that, as MacPherson pointed out, probably stimped around 4 in Old Tom Morris' day. Even at a benign 10.5 on a Stimpmeter for the Open, the 11th needed more pin placements. Architects ought to be happy that the Links Trust hired one of their own to make that subtle change.

Yes, there will also be a new bunker on the ninth. If any architect doesn't think the ninth, probably the flattest, most featureless, most boring hole in championship golf, couldn't use an improvement, then he lacks not just imagination but credibility.

What this is really about is the architects' ongoing war against technology. The Old Course has become their Maginot Line, and now that it has been breached they realize the only ammunition left is a war cry: "Don't change the Old Course, change the golf ball!"

Sorry, designers, but it's too little, too late. The golf ball isn't going to be rolled back to some arbitrary configuration. (MacPherson makes a compelling argument in his book why a rollback of the ball could keep the Old Course competitive, but he's a realist. He also suggests another way is to abolish par, and yet another way is, yes, to remodel the course.)

Related: How well do you know the British Open rota?

The golf-ball genie done escaped her bottle a long time ago, and I'm fine with that. It's called progress. Started when the gutta percha replaced the feathery, and it has changed golf courses ever since.

That's why I find the protest pointless. Without change, golf architects wouldn't have any reason to be in business.