British OpenJuly 15, 2010

Lasting Impression

The Valley Of Sin is the Old Course's final, and perhaps most recognizable, challenge

Angel Cabrera putts through the Valley of Sin.

Angel Cabrera putts through the Valley of Sin.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The weather wasn't fit for man or beast on the eve of the British Open, but Paul Casey spent some time on the 18th hole, anyway, working on bump-and-run shots through the Valley of Sin, the deep hollow that guards the green of the 357-yard par 4.

Casey found the soggy practice time worth it during the first round, when he finessed a 6-iron from about 40 yards on No. 18 to set up a birdie putt from three feet and finish off an opening 69. "I put that shot down to the practice I had," Casey said. "I had the read figured and it was all about the weight, the distance, and I got it spot on. I think my caddie told me it was 41 yards, but the yardage doesn't matter -- that shot's all touch. There are a lot of features on the Old Course that make relatively simple holes very tough. The Valley of Sin is a treat."

Casey birdied the 18th hole again Friday to shoot another 69 and at six-under 138 put himself in contention for the weekend, when the teasingly short home hole -- the most famous drivable par 4 in golf and inspiration for many to follow -- again figures to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the Open as it has so many times.

That largely is due to the eight-foot-deep swale, the most famous depression of any course anywhere in the world. "It can be depressing as well," Swede Robert Karlsson quipped. "On Thursday, I hit my tee shot left, then my second shot hit the flagstick and bounced back into the Valley of Sin. It looked like it would be a good birdie chance and ended up being a very difficult par."

Karlsson and the other two golfers in his pairing made birdies Friday in different ways. Karlsson with a pitch and a putt from 60 yards; Toru Taniguchi got up-and-down from just outside the valley; Dustin Johnson hit a sterling driver and two-putted from 15 feet. A couple of groups earlier, Vijay Singh approached from about 15 yards from the green's edge but didn't judge the greenward slope correctly and his ball trundled back off the front. Singh then holed his 35-foot putt from off the green for a 3.

The sequence of events recalled, in a mild way, the most famous stroke every played involving the Valley of Sin: Costantino Rocca's 65-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the 1995 Open to tie John Daly after the Italian seemed to have blown it by badly chunking a chip like a nervous 25-handicapper. Rocca fell face-first on the ground, and the gallery -- which included scores of people in the windows and balconies of buildings adjacent to the ancient links -- erupted. The only thing that would have made Rocca's brilliant comeback better is if he had won the playoff, but Daly prevailed convincingly.

Golfers have been negotiating the Valley of Sin since the British Open was contested at St. Andrews for the first time in 1873. There was no provision for relief from casual water in the rules of the day. A deluge filled the gulch and players had to either play their ball or take a one-stroke penalty.

For the challenge at the 18th green at that Open and every subsequent one, golfers can blame Tom Morris, for whom the hole was named and who turned the finisher into roughly the design that now exists. Prior to the work Morris did in the late-1860s, the home green was situated 30 to 40 yards in front of the current putting surface. After Old Tom's "redesign," the green was located beyond the Valley of Sin, which according to authors David Malcolm and Peter E. Crabtree in Tom Morris: The Colossus of Golf, 1821-1908 was a vestige of a gully that ran from town toward the sea.

"At the Spring Meeting of the Royal and Ancient in May 1869, the new Home green came into play to general acclaim, but it would take another twenty years for the 18th green to expand to what it is today," Malcolm and Crabtree write. "In 1869 it was less than half its present size with the hole sited, as it is now for every major championship, above 'The Valley of Sin.' "

Golf sins certainly have been committed on the beguiling 18th, which is so different from what came to be considered proper for a finishing hole in 20th century architecture: a brutish par 4 where birdies are scarce. They seldom are rare at the Old Course's closer -- and eagles, such as Nick Faldo's in the first round en route to victory in the 1990 British Open, happen, too -- but the hole has been very punishing to some.

No finish was harder to watch than Leo Diegel's 72nd-hole bogey in the 1933 British Open. Diegel reached the green in two shots and needed two putts to get into a playoff with Denny Shute and Craig Wood. Diegel stroked an excellent lag putt, but whiffed his par effort from close range.

History repeated itself in the 1970 Open when Doug Sanders missed a 30-inch par putt that would have given him a victory over Jack Nicklaus, who beat him the next day in a playoff with a birdie-3 at Tom Morris In the fourth round, however, Nicklaus had given Sanders an opening by three-putting from the Valley of Sin, proving even golf gods aren't immune to its challenge.

When this British Open winds up late Sunday afternoon, snug to the auld toon, all a golfer can hope for is to mimic Tony Lema when he won the Open at the Old Course in 1964. Lema led by four strokes with one hole left, which made his 50-yard, bump-and-run with a 7-iron through the Valley of Sin a bit easier than it might have been. Lema's ball finished 18 inches from the hole. His only worry then was making it through a surging gallery that used to be allowed to envelop the man who was on the verge of winning the Open the way teenyboppers swarmed the Beatles.

Playing the last hole at St. Andrews, about to join ghosts and legends on the claret jug, a man's mind is crowded enough as it is. He doesn't need the company.