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A Modern Approach To An Ancient Course

British Open 2022: A deep-dive look at the subtle but ongoing evolution of the Old Course

Through flyover footage, one can see ways the Old Course has been altered to stay relevant in the new millenium
July 11, 2022

Seven years ago—only seven!—Peter Dawson, the retiring CEO of the R&A on the eve of the 28th playing of the Open Championship at the Old Course, initially dismissed a question of whether the venerable links were on the brink of extinction.

Forced to elaborate, Dawson emphasized that the Old Course has held up for generations, and that golf’s governing bodies will work to ensure it “will last well into the future as a strong challenge.”

Seven years later, Dawson has moved on, the ruling bodies have floated a more aggressive line of ideas on controlling the driving distance of the pros and the Old Course stands again at the crosshairs, essentially unchanged from what it was seven years ago, or in actual effect, forever. Will it still be enough to test the best?

Seven years ago, the short-hitting Zach Johnson won at St. Andrews with a 15-under-par score that would have won all but two previous Opens played at the Old Course dating back to when before “par” was even a thing. Of the last seven Opens played at the Old Course since 1984, double-digits under par has won the title six times. Since the turn of the century and the introduction of solid core balls and titanium drivers to elite men’s professional golf, the average winning score at Old Course Open Championships has been 16 under, and the prospect of record low scores is only a couple of benign summer days away.

Jordan Spieth said as much at the Genesis Scottish Open last week. Asked if the Old Course might now be too easy, he barely hedged. “I think it might be,” he said. “I think if it's like it was this morning out here [calm], it's just a wedge contest, really. The back nine just doesn't show the same teeth that it normally does.

“But I don't know what else necessarily could be done. You know, it was not necessarily built for today's technology. But I think that even a nice ten to 15 miles an hour would do something to it.”

Given its historic place, the perception is that the Old Course has just sat there unchanged all these centuries as golfers and their tools have gotten better. In truth, though, it has evolved, almost constantly. According to Scott Macpherson, a golf course architect who has studied the Old Course through all its changes for his book The Evolution of the Old Course, the introduction of the Haskell ball led to a lengthening of the course by roughly 200 yards. By the 1920s, a map done by Alister Mackenzie showed the yardage to be nearly 6,600 yards. By the 1940s, it was over 6,800 yards and well above 6,900 yards in the 1960s. But since 2000, and the modern ball and club era, it’s added nearly 400 yards. Throughout, tees have been lengthened or repositioned at new angles, even stretched outside the normal boundaries of the original links itself, adjustments that might seem grotesque to some while others might call it a natural evolution.

“It’s trying to find a sensitive way to do it that will protect the integrity of the course,” Macpherson said recently on his podcast Golf Design Matters.

Every Hole At The Old Course

Golf Digest's Architecture Editor Emeritus, Ron Whitten, narrates this spectacular hole by hole drone tour of The Old Course at St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland.

But as Golf Digest’s veteran Old Course observer John Huggan has pointed out, all those new tees will have competitors at the 150th Open walking an extra 2,000 yards back and forth. That’s a far cry from a course where in its early days the tee for the next hole was just two club lengths from the actual hole of the last.

What’s telling of course is that since the 2015 Open, there have been no dramatic changes other than a longer tee at the par-three 8th hole that was used for the Senior British Open in 2018. It is as if the R&A wants the distance question that has bubbled up since the last visit to St. Andrews to be settled once and for all by how the Old Course stands up to the game’s elite players now. Or, perhaps, how it doesn’t.

No. 2: Par 4, 452 yards

While even the iconic first and 18th holes have changed over the last two centuries (there used to be a giant bunker in the center of the mammoth, 129-yard-wide fairway), the changes in the middle of the course are more extensive. Most recently, that starts with the second hole, where the new tee installed for the 2005 Open has taken the once 400-yard par four and stretched it to 452 yards and pushed the tee essentially onto a portion of The Himalayas, the putting course to the right of the Old Course’s first fairway as shown in this flyover video.

But as is the case throughout the Old Course’s changes, the reason isn’t a lengthening for lengthening’s sake. Rather, it’s about the iconic 112 bunkers and their relevance in the modern game. When the 2nd hole was stretched, the main motivation was to restore the effectiveness of Cheape’s Bunker, which has been around since the 1800s. Though its size has dwindled over time, it was rebuilt in 2017 to restore some aggressiveness, or what Macpherson recently referred to in an article for Through the Green magazine as “waiting to ambush errant balls like black holes swallowing stars.”

“A player’s fear of the bunkers at St. Andrews stems largely from the knowledge that the length of their captivity by any one of the sandy hostage-takers is influenced by factors out of their control,” Macpherson wrote. “Elite golfers are highly adept and skilful, but the bunkers vary in depth, shape and size, and the severity of the imprisonment is determined by a stronger, more cosmic and unpredictable force deeply interwoven into the fabric of life and golf – that of chance.”

Cheape’s bunker found itself about 250 yards from the tee for much of the second hole’s modern existence, but now it’s more like 300 yards to carry from the longer tee as shown in this flyover clip.

Its larger size and more penal revetted face might take driver out of players’ hands, but PGA Tour ShotLink data indicates 98 percent of players have recorded at least one drive this year that carried 300 or more yards, making its new distance from the tee already questionable. Of course, there are accounts that Bobby Jones while winning the 1927 Open played the second hole, then 401 yards, with “a pitch to the green.” And in 2005, its first year at its longest, current length, Tiger Woods hit a 3-wood off the tee in the final round that bounded nearly the length of Cheape’s but ended up safely in the middle of the fairway, never threatening it. Its scoring average, which jumped in the 2005 and 2010 Opens, actually played easier in 2015 at 452 yards than it did in 2000 at 411 yards. Still, as Macpherson writes, “with a strong sea breeze it could become a menace,” particularly as the second hole in the four-hole aggregate playoff.

As always with a links but especially at the Old Course, it’s the wind that provides the main challenge. The lengthening of holes, the squeezing of fairways, the growing of rough, even expanding bunkers and contouring the surrounding troughs that serve to draw balls into them may all be window-dressing without the omnipresent unseen hazard that is the wind flow off St. Andrews Bay. According to weather statistics, the wind blows 6-20 miles per hour almost a third of the time in St. Andrews in the month of July. But more than 10 percent of the time it is relatively calm. Still, at the 2015 Open at St. Andrews, play was suspended for an entire day while the wind blew at 40 miles per hour.

No. 4: Par 4, 480 yards

Wind or not, the changes to the Old Course have a direct and simple motivation. As Dawson said back in 2005, “We want to reinstate the old decisions players had to make.” An even stronger case in point is the fourth tee for the 150th Open, which will be nearly a full football field longer than it was for the 35th Open in 1895 as this flyover video shows.

The tee has moved back three times since that 1895 Open, all in an effort to force players to decide how to navigate a patch of hillocks and gorse that separates the safer left side of the fairway from the more aggressive and rewarding right side.

When more than 30 yards were added to this hole, named Ginger Beer, for the 1946 Open, players that had easily flown the trouble in the 1939 Open now found themselves squarely in the middle of it. Now, at 480 yards, No. 4 opens with the old uncertainty of a lengthy carry, now at 290 yards. Still, the leaders in the last three Opens had little difficulty in flying over that trouble, Tiger Woods even carrying it with his old 3-wood. The 4th hole has played consistently over par in large part because of a mound that fronts the green and a bunker short right that has gotten closer to the putting surface in recent years. Approach shots are rarely played aggressively here.

No. 14: Par 5, 614 yards

Even the longest hole on the course, the par-5 14th, might not provide the trouble it should, despite playing 614 yards, or 50 yards longer than it did 25 years ago. The hole is famous for the collection of bunkers known as the Beardies that guard the left side and the enormous pit called Hell Bunker that thwarts all but the best or most conservative second shots. But again, the changes in tee length and location have changed the effectiveness of these hazards, the fear factor has become almost a non-factor, except when the wind blows. In the 2015 Open, when the wind was up for three of the four rounds, it was one of only five par five holes on the PGA Tour that year with a scoring average over par. “It’s such a spooky tee shot when the wind’s this way,” golf commentator Ken Brown noted at the time.

In the early days, players had to fly tee shots on the 14th over the Beardies, but too often now they are almost like a garnish on the hole, Macpherson said. It is rare that the Old Course adds a bunker these days, but he believes a fourth added to the Beardies could inject some fear back into the tee shot. Instead, players now club down to more easily navigate the out of bounds up the right, but somewhat uncharacteristically for a links, there’s rough along an out-of-bounds stone wall that further pinches the fairway, presumably to push a player’s aim more toward the Beardies.

Another 200 yards or so beyond the Beardies is Hell Bunker, but it, too, seems only a minor distraction these days. Players often can safely and easily play to the 5th fairway, although that often leaves a blind third shot. And while Jack Nicklaus famously took four whacks to get out of Hell in 1995, he only found himself in there after a poor shot with a 4-wood, not a club any current player is likely using on that hole. As Macpherson writes, “Today, this bunker is a museum piece for modern professionals with their 200 mph ball speeds and towering shots, so Hell is all but reserved for mortals and tourists.”

No. 17: Par 4, 495 yards

The meanest and perhaps most controversially altered is the legendary 17th, the Road Hole. It’s been the toughest hole on the PGA Tour each year the Open has been played at St. Andrews, and in 2015, it averaged 4.655, a higher score to par than any hole played anywhere in the last seven years. While it played at 450 yards or more for over a century, the Road Hole was a par 5 into the 1950s. It’s probably why Ben Crenshaw once said, “The reason the Road Hole is the greatest par-4 in the world is because it's a par-5."

Long a fearsome hole, when Rory McIlroy hit a 7-iron into the green to make birdie at the 2009 Dunhill Links Championship, the 17th was clearly playing differently than when Tom Watson had to go at it with a 2-iron and made bogey to lose the 1984 Open. But when the R&A decided to push the tee nearly 40 yards back and to the right for the 2010 Open, it had to go beyond the course’s previous out of bounds to find room. In fact, left of the current tee are the out of bounds stakes for the 16th hole.

In a way, the 17th typifies the way the Old Course has had to wrestle with the issue of distance perhaps more impractically than any famous course in the world. The current championship layout now occupies sections of the neighboring New and Eden courses,the Himalayas putting course and in the case of the tee at 17, the grounds of the St. Andrews Links Golf Academy. From the sky, the 17th hole today looks like a mistake. The tee is blocked by a hotel while the fairway angles blindly and unreceptively away from any reasonable line off the tee. Throw in the addition of meaty rough to the left, and a road and a stone wall behind an impossibly pinched green shape, and you have a hole that seems like it was cut out of Robin Williams’ famous golf monologue.

All this is before we get to the disaster-inducing Road Hole bunker. The most severe pot bunker on the property, the Road Hole pit appears on maps of the Old Course dating to the 1830s at least. Its location hasn’t changed but the size, shape and depth have fluctuated over the last 50 years. You could see out of it in the 1870s, as you could in the 1970s, but over the last 50 years it’s gotten small enough to be barely the size of a water closet and then increasingly wider and deeper. Now, not only can a player not see the green once he’s in the bunker, any approach shot coming from the middle or left of center almost routinely is played out to the right away from the bunker, particularly when the flag is cut just over the bunker in the middle of the green (like it will be in the final round of the Open).

And while its actual size is only a couple feet wider for this Open than past versions, the slopes around the bunker catch shots (and some putts), funneling them into the sand and up against its tall revetted face like the kind of hazard you might see at Captain Hook’s Adventure Golf & Arcade.

But it is hard to say the 17th hole is contrived to be so devilish when, for the most part, it’s been that way before Old Tom Morris re-designed the course. And in large part that’s true of all the holes at the Old Course. The tweaks have come, as Macpherson says, because “the Old Course, and design in general, is always a response to what’s happening in other parts of the golf sector. When the Haskell ball came out, what did the Old Course do in response to this new powerful ball? They extended the Old Course by roughly 200 yards. And there’s certainly been periods where the Old Course has had these increases and then there’s been a plateau for some period of time, and then there’s another change.”

But Macpherson believes that average driving distances today are approximately 80 yards greater than they were a century ago. If that is true, he thinks the Old Course would have to stretch to at least 7,800 yards to offer the same challenge. But that kind of real estate is no longer possible, of course. He thinks ball and club technology has taken more than a bite out of the Old Course. Rather, it’s left it with little bite, and not just for elite players. He noted amateur and former pro tennis star Tim Henman made birdie recently at the 17th with a 6-iron. A recent study of recreational golfers by ShotScope, the stat-tracking GPS game-analytics system, showed the Old Course to be the third easiest on the Open rota (only Troon and St. George’s are easier), and showed that all but scratch handicap players beat net par when they play the Old Course. Not only that, average golfers are four times more successful getting up and down from the Road Hole bunker than they are missing the green long.

Macpherson played and caddied at St. Andrews for almost a quarter century. He says his 3-handicap isn’t always tested by the Old Course these days.

“I am certainly not tearing it up, and when the wind blows it can be very tricky, but it is pretty ‘gettable’ for many golfers these days, and I’ve seen that happen.” he said. “So I am not convinced it is monumentally difficult nowadays. I just don’t think the course holds the terrors it once did. Maybe that's a good thing. Certainly it’s very playable for golfers of all abilities. Even my 11-year-old son, who played it on a cold and wet day last November, got around and had fun.”

Like former Open champion Lawrie, Macpherson believes a very low score is possible at the Old Course this year, even something in the 50s. But as he laments the declining challenge, he also recognizes something else at work beyond technology. “Do you think there’s a case to abandon par at this point, and think well, actually we can’t extend the Old Course in any reasonable way so let’s not even try?

“These are the best golfers in the world with the technology they’re currently allowed to use so let’s put to one side this concept of par, which was invented in 1891, and let these guys just play the best golf they can. And if they shoot 58, so be it. Congratulations to them.”

Of course, Macpherson also knows that’s not how the ruling bodies see a major championship test. He knows the R&A will want rigor as much from its venue as from its champion. Whether the former can be provided or the latter required remains to be seen, but if the answer at the 150th Open turns out to be an anti-climactic and resounding “No,” it seems likely now there will be fundamental changes to ensure it never happens again—changes this time that may not involve the course. But so it is with the Old Course and change. Sometimes it is forced upon it, sometimes it forces that change upon the game.