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The unique challenge that players face at Royal Troon's Postage Stamp hole

July 15, 2016

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TROON, Scotland — The Postage Stamp, also known as the 123-yard eighth hole, is always a default story when the Open Championship comes to Troon.   It’s the shortest hole on the Open rota, and the shortest that will be played in any major championship this year. It possesses a deep history and guarantees moments of delight and disaster, not to mention stunning topography that makes it by far the most scenic hole on an otherwise dour links.   So far this year, it’s also been a pivotal one.

Phil Mickelson’s two birdies—both after superbly wrought wedge shots that threatened the hole—have provided the margin between leading and trailing after 36 holes.   “I just love that hole,” Mickelson said on Friday. “It’s a hole you’ve got to be very cautious on, and as the pin gets further back, I’ll be more cautious. But I just felt like the conditions were right. I kind of saw the shot the last two days and I got a little bit more aggressive to that pin than is probably smart, but it’s paid off.”   On the other extreme, Bubba Watson, who started the championship five under par through seven holes, made an unplanned visit to the infamous Coffin Bunker that caused a momentum killing triple-bogey 6 on Thursday.   “I hit one bad tee shot all day and it was just at the wrong hole,” Watson lamented. “It cost me dear. I love the golf hole, but it has been killing me all week, even in practice.”

RELATED: Our writer makes the LONG walk to the short par-3 eighth at Troon   Perhaps that’s the best definition of a great hole—one that inspires love even as it wreaks havoc. The architecture is both harmonious and clearly defines (and encourages) the ideal shot. The green sits just to the right of an immense sand-dune hillock and is framed by five bunkers, two of which will catch just about any ball that rolls off the step slope on the right. The 420-square-foot green would, according to Golfbidder, require 81,290 actual postage stamps to cover. But it’s still extremely small, only 12 yards wide at the front and 10 yards wide at the back.

“Challenging a player for his precision as opposed to solely length is a lost art. The Postage Stamp is a perfect example." —Phil Mickelson

But like any temptress, it’s also scary. The short shot must be threaded through a narrow channel on the left center of the green, so that the natural slope won’t take it off the surface to the right, where big numbers can lurk. Too far left, however, brings in the Coffin, which can evince even bigger numbers.   In many ways, golf’s shortest holes (those 155 yards and shorter) are a course’s most memorable. They have the most colorful names; Troon’s eighth is also known as “The Wee Beastie.” All levels of golfers can play them with a sense of hope as the best chance on a championship course for a 2.


Ross Kinnaird/R&A

They are often, too, the most aesthetically pleasing. Because they are small, the design features are more concentrated, creating a composition that is easier to see all at once.   We know ones made famous by big events. At the top end of yardage at 155 yards is the 12th at Augusta National. Then there’s the 17th at TPC Sawgrass at about 145 yards. But others less accessible are arguably greater masterpieces, among them the 15th at Cypress Point (143 yards), the 10th at Pine Valley (145 yards) and the seventh at Pebble Beach (109 yards). Lesser known but possibly even better are the 15th at Kingston Heath (155 yards), the 15th at Los Angeles North (145 yards), the fifth at Bandon Trails (124 yards) or the rock-walled third hole at Ventana Canyon (107 yards).   When you hit a good shot on these holes, you feel as if you are painted a mental image comparable to master water-colorist Harry Rountree’s classic rendition of the Postage Stamp. Like the tee shot on the 18th hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews against the backdrop of the R&A clubhouse, it stays in the memory.   Of course, all that romance goes out of the Postage Stamp in the heat of competition. At his first British Open in 1923, Gene Sarazen made a double-bogey 5 at the eighth to lose the claret jug by a shot to Arthur Havers. In his 50thand final British Open at age 71 in 1973, Sarazen made a hole-in-one with a 5-iron. Still, he said he’d always be haunted by the Postage Stamp.

RELATED: A hole-by-hole tour of Royal Troon   When Greg Norman shot his course-record 64 in 1989 but lost in a playoff, the eighth was the only bogey on his card. In 1997, Tiger Woods took a triple-bogey 6.   “You could throw it on, really,” says Colin Montgomerie, who grew up at Troon (although he didn’t get a chance to play the Postage Stamp until he was 18). “On paper you think of it as a birdie chance, but it’s a potential card wrecker. Always was and always will be.”   The week before the Open, while playing in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, Mickelson captured the longing many of today’s best players have for holes that demand touch and feel more than power. “Challenging a player for his precision as opposed to solely length is a lost art,” said Mickelson. “The Postage Stamp is a perfect example of how you can challenge the best players in the world. I would love to see that implemented more.”   If he can hold his lead for two more rounds, almost necessarily with continued good play at the eighth, that  view will gain even more currency.