PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Teed Off

By Ron Whitten Photos by Dom Furore
July 05, 2010

During the concluding session of the 2010 World Forum of Golf Architects last March in St. Andrews, Scotland, Dr. Steve Otto, the R&A's director of research and testing, was explaining his years of measuring drives of average handicap golfers. Their average driving distance in 2000 was 207 yards, he said. In 2008 it was only one yard longer, at 208.

Statistics showed the average drive by European Tour players was 287 yards in 2003 and down a yard to 286 yards in 2009. American PGA Tour statistics were similar, he said: 287 yards in 2003, 288 yards in 2009. Otto's conclusion: The idea that the golf ball is getting longer is a myth.

The 100-plus architects assembled for the conference started grumbling. They had just played the Old Course, and they had seen the measures the R&A had taken over the past decade to keep the course competitive for British Opens. Back tees on certain holes are now beyond the boundaries of the links. One installed on the second hole in 2004 is positioned on the edge of the roly-poly practice putting course known as the Himalayas. A new one added the same year on the sixth was hacked from a patch of gorse that previously imperiled golfers on the New Course next door, and the back tee on the par-4 13th sits on a fairway of the adjacent Eden Course.

American course designer Tom Doak rose and challenged Otto. "If the distance a golf ball [travels] hasn't changed in the last 10 years," he asked, "then why did the R&A find it necessary to lengthen the Road Hole?"

Back-benchers murmured support. The infamous 17th, called the Road Hole because its long, diagonal plateau green is perched above an old paved road that is considered part of the links, is sacred to golf architects. It played at the same length in the 2005 Open -- 455 yards -- as it did in the Open of 1900. Despite the evolution from hickory to steel to graphite shafts, from gutta percha to Haskell to balata balls, no one thought it necessary to extend the 17th. Until now. For the 2010 Open, a new championship tee lengthens the par 4 to 495 yards.

Scottish golf architect Robin Hiseman stood up to drive home the point. "Isn't it ironic," he said, "that the new tee on 17 is in the same practice range where the R&A has spent the last eight years collecting data that tells us the ball isn't going farther?"

Many in the crowd were harumphing. Otto tried to calm them. "The change to 17 is due more to strategic reasons than driving distance," he said. That didn't help. Golf architects know design strategy; scientists don't.

Gordon Moir, director of greenkeeping at St. Andrews, stepped to the microphone to quell the revolt. He admitted they had made a mistake trying to toughen the 17th for the 2005 Open by growing a deep band of ryegrass to the right of the fairway.

"To avoid those rubbish grasses, players used 3-irons and 4-irons off the tee, which was not our intent," he said. Following that Open, the R&A spent two years examining the course. During one such walk Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, expressed his desire to have more players use driver off the 17th tee. So Moir suggested widening the fairway a bit on the left, and backing off the severity of the rough on the right, for the 2010 Open.

"Peter also commented that nobody goes onto the road anymore," Moir said, "so I suggested lengthening the hole to the point where players would again be approaching the green with mid to long irons, or even woods, depending upon the wind. That was the idea behind the new tee. Nothing nefarious."

In July 2009, Moir showed the proposed British Open tee to former Open champions Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington, both of whom, he said, gave their approval.

That didn't satisfy most of the architects in the room. One proposed circulating a petition -- called Resolution 17 in honor of the besmirched hole -- urging the R&A (and the USGA) to once and for all reduce the maximum distance of the golf ball. A contingent from the Federation of Scandinavian Golf Course Architects suggested development of an environmental golf ball -- an e-ball -- that would respond at a declining rate of distance to increased physical power at impact, in order to shorten courses, cut maintenance costs, reduce chemical use, increase pace of play and narrow the gap between advanced players and the rest of the golf world.

"We're in a battle against technology," American architect Rick Phelps told his colleagues, "and we need to develop a war-room strategy and come out firing." No question, the Road Hole was the hot-button issue at the architects forum. At the end of the discussion, one thing was clear: Nobody had paid much attention to the history of the Road Hole.

Yes, the hole was the same length in the 2005 Open as it was in 1900, but it was a par 5 in 1900 and played that way until the 1964 British Open. Some of the premier players who have won Opens at St. Andrews -- Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, even Tiger Woods -- still think the smart way to play the hole is as a three-shotter. If the hole is really a par 4½, as Jack Nicklaus (a two-time champ at St. Andrews) calls it, then 495 yards doesn't seem so outrageous.

It's not as if the 17th tee hasn't been moved before. Mostly it has been moved up. It played as a 466-yard par 5 in 1939, but for the Opens of 1946, 1955, 1957, 1960 and 1964, it played at just 453 yards, and as a par 4 only in '64. Golfers routinely reached the green in two in those days. In 1960, Arnold Palmer hit the green during the first three rounds with a 6-iron, and three-putted for par each time. Only in the last round did he hit over the green with a 5-iron, then get up and down for a birdie. He lost the championship by one shot to Kel Nagle, who played the hole six under for the week.

The idea of lengthening the Road Hole is not new. In 1964 three-time Open champion-turned-golf architect Henry Cotton proposed building a tee in just about the precise spot where the new championship tee now exists. (Instead, the R&A reduced its par.) Cotton lamented how the entire hole had been softened up and prettified. "The terrors of the Road Hole have gone," he wrote. "There are no pot holes in the macadam road surface, no steep step-up to the grass curb and the bank of the green is smooth. It used to be foot-holds and holes, making a run-up a matter of chance."

But if many architects are oblivious to the Road Hole's past, so is the R&A, which issued a press release last fall quoting Dawson: "Over the years, we have seen the threat from the road behind the green, and to a lesser extent the Road Bunker, diminished as players have been hitting shorter irons for their approach shots, allowing them to avoid these hazards more easily. This change will ensure that the hole plays as it was originally intended."

As originally intended? The hole has been around since play was conducted with sticks carved from tree limbs and balls stuffed with feathers. Nothing at St. Andrews plays as originally intended.

Yes, golfers have been hitting shorter irons into 17. In his 1995 victory John Daly routinely hit a wedge second shot to the green. But, still, he played the hole three over for the week. In his 2000 rout of the field, Tiger Woods, who finished 19 under, played the 17th in two over. In the 2005 Open, again won by Woods, the average score on the Road Hole for the week was 4.628 strokes.

It raises the question: Just how tough does the R&A want the Road Hole to play? It seems to have held its own for decades.

All the protests and petitions over the lengthening of the Road Hole won't really amount to much. Architects have less chance of persuading the game's governing bodies to roll back the golf ball than they do convincing golfers to give up metal woods, irrigated turf and air conditioning in the clubhouse.

Change occurs every time that St. Andrews hosts an Open, and any tumult and shouting over it will soon dissipate. Does anyone recall the furor over the reshaping and relocation of the Road Hole bunker prior to the 2005 Open? A few purists, maybe. For the rest, it's just history.

As will be the new championship tee on 17. After this year's Open, Moir says, the tee will be taken out of use and the area returned to the practice range. It is not likely the tee will even be used for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship this October.

Which is an indication that the tee was simply a temporary fix for a problem that probably doesn't exist.


Parting Shots: Jack Nicklaus' farewell in '05 included his final chances to solve the 17th hole's blind tee shot over a shed by the Old Course Hotel (Andrew Redington/Getty Images).