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Top tour pros are back at St. Andrews. So what’s different about the Old Course they’ll face now compared to The Open in July?

September 27, 2022
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Players putt out on the 18th green as the sun sets on The Old Course prior to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

Richard Heathcote

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — A little more than three months on from the 150th Open Championship, the ever-moving caravan that is professional golf is back at the Old Course in St. Andrews. But don’t expect this week’s Dunhill Links Championship to look anything like the game’s oldest major. Quite apart from the fact that the event is modelled on the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and also involves rounds over Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, conditions overhead and underfoot will bear little resemblance to those Cameron Smith handled better than anyone else earlier this year.

For one thing, the weather is likely going to contrast more than a little. Enduring the remnants of Hurricane Ian, temperatures in Scotland have plummeted over the last few days. Gone are the shorts and t-shirts seen during the warn July afternoons the R&A was blessed with, replaced by woolly hats and hoodies. If the forecast is to be believed— never a sure thing in Caledonia—the Dunhill field is likely to be buffeted by strong breezes over the coming days, as well suffering through a series of heavy showers.

Given all of that on top of the natural cooling that comes with autumn’s arrival, the Old Course will be a lot greener and softer than it was in July. So it will play a little longer for a strong field that contains Rory McIlroy, Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry, Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari, Danny Willett and just about every other leading member of the DP World Tour. Also in the field are Louis Oosthuizen, Talor Gooch and nine other LIV Golf members after a late scratch from Patrick Reed.

But length, as the world knows by now, is hardly the most fearsome aspect of the game for those at the sharp end of the sport. Still, although the course may be softer than it was in the summer, landing the ball short and running it up will still be a useful shot to own. Which will keep watching purists happy. The flighting of the shot and the bounce and roll of the ball after landing will remain the extra dimensions that makes links golf the most interesting form of the game.

Besides, when the wind is up, pure yardage means next to nothing. Into the wind, a 130-yard shot can become a 3-iron punch. Downwind, a 250-yard shot can be as little as a 7-iron. Look for some “interesting” clubbing that will owe more to instinct, feel and visualization than to exactly how much ground lies between ball and target. In the conditions likely to prevail this week, the yardage will be reduced to a mere starting point, before the real discussion and decision-making begins.

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Cooler temperatures will be something players like Rory McIlroy will have to adjust to at the Old Course compared to July's sunny conditions during The 150th Open.

Jan Kruger

As for the scoring, as long as the weather isn’t too severe, the numbers are likely to be lower than we saw at the Open—where fears of course records, or #59Watches were numerous. Eight-under-par 64s by Smith and runner-up Cameron Young turned out to be the best scores that week. But previous Dunhill Links Championships have been marked by some startling numbers. Most notably, former Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher shot a course-record 61 in 2017, a round that included a three-putt par on the 18th hole.

Again though, the vulnerability of a softened Old Course has more to do with the format of this week’s tournament than anything else. Play over the first three days is notoriously slow, each professional paired with an amateur partner. Rounds typically take up to six hours to complete. But it could be worse. Were the DP World Tour officials to employ the sorts of severe pin positions we saw at the Open, those times would likely creep towards seven hours. So it is that the flags will invariably flutter in the middle of the vast putting surfaces, at least for the first three days.

That sort of thing hasn’t always gone down well with the better players, of course. Benevolent course set-ups do tend to multiply the number of potential winners. You might recall McIlroy sounding off about this in the wake of his T-26 finish in the 2019 Dunhill.

“I'm honestly sick of coming back to Europe and shooting 15-under par and finishing about 30th,” said the Northern Irishman, who partnered his father, Gerry, in the team event (as he will again this week). “I don't think the courses are set up hard enough. There's no penalty for bad shots. It's tough when you come back and it's like that. I don't feel like good golf is as well regarded as it should be.”

While McIlroy’s point might well have some validity, practicality and the lack of expertise inherent in the amateurs leaves the Old Course a little more susceptible to low scoring than usual. If the wind abates even a little, Fisher’s record could well be in jeopardy.