What's going on at the Old Course (and should we be worried)?
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Despite—or perhaps because of—its historic trend-setting position in the world of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews will forever be a polarizing subject. Many love and appreciate the unique mixture of strategic subtleties and often-frustrating challenges the most famous 18 holes on the planet presents. Yet, as renowned course designer Alister Mackenzie (Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne) pointed out in his seminal work, The Spirit of St. Andrews, “when St. Andrews is at its best, it is always attacked most viciously.”
Some insist the Home of Golf has always evolved, changed and adapted over time, in tune with the sport itself. Just as many, though, stand firm that the Old Course must be an immovable monument to all that is best in the game Scotland gave to the world. And then there are still others who see a mixture of those two views as the way ahead.
All this is a debate set to continue if the evidence of a bracing stroll around the ancient links just the other day is anything to go by.
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“Analyze the holes on the Old Course,” Mackenzie wrote. “There is hardly a hole where the correct line is direct from tee to green.”
Indeed, at its heart, the Old Course is a fascinating test, portraying golf in its most interesting and free-thinking form. Every aspect of the game is on display, and every aspect of the player examined, mentally and physically. Because of the enormous width available from the tee, each hole demands and rewards strategic thought, the position of the pin dictating the best placement of the tee shot and, in turn, the most propitious angle of attack into the flag. Moving the pin by as little as five yards can, on occasion, make an 80-yard difference in the location of the ideal drive. Distance can often be advantageous, too, but not disproportionately. The battle between power and placement was, for long enough, pretty much a fair fight.
Things are changing though. Or seem to be.
While the vast fairway width for which the Old Course is famous—and which is one part of its inherent appeal—remains largely in place, my latest visit showed things ain’t quite what they used to be. Changes that started taking root in the last two decades have become more glaring in recent years. Some examples:
• At its narrowest point around 130 yards from the green, the 17th fairway is now a mere 22 paces across. That seems awfully claustrophobic for what many already deem to be the “hardest hole on the planet.”
• Equally perplexing is the close proximity of the creeping rough line only three or four yards left of the cluster of three bunkers that contains the famous “Principal’s Nose” on the par-4 16th. This on a hole Mackenzie once described as “ideal” and “subtle.”
• On the par-5 14th (“Long”), the semi-rough adjacent to the out-of-bounds wall on the right extends outwards as much as 12 paces before the fairway begins, greater than what has traditionally been seen. Given that the line to the green becomes ever more advantageous the further right one goes, this decision seems only to punish the bravest players.
• On the par-4 sixth, all six of the “fairway” bunkers on the right side are in the rough.
• On the ninth, three of the four bunkers on the left side are outside the fairway boundary.
• On the par-5 fifth, as many as three of the many bunkers on the right are in the rough.
All told, on as many as 10 holes, fairway bunkers sit beyond the fairway lines. Individually, each change seems relatively minor. But in the aggregate, they lend themselves to the obvious questions: What is going on here? And why?
Less than two decades ago, then-head-greenkeeper Eddie Adams said that, apart from the first and 18th holes, where the Swilcan Burn traverses the shared fairway, he wanted golfers to be able to “putt all the way round the Old Course” if they so wished. Sadly, those days now appear gone, although Gordon Moir, Director of Greenkeeping at St. Andrews, insists this is nothing new.
“Nothing has been changed since the last  Open,” Moir declared. “The bunkers on the right of the fifth and sixth have been like that for a long time, maybe 10 or 15 years. Some of them are so far off-line I can never remember them being anywhere else but in the rough. It is something we look at with the R&A before an Open. But for general play nothing has changed recently.
“As for the rough on the 16th, it was put in place for the 2010 Open. The R&A didn’t want players to be able to simply knock the ball down as far as they wanted left of the Principal’s Nose. The feeling was that, if they wanted to lay-up short they would have to do so right of the bunkers and closer to the fence.”
Still, despite Moir’s protestations (perhaps significantly he would not weigh in on whether he actually approved or disapproved of the rough/bunkers relationship) the changes seem to run contrary to the original ethos of the Old Course.
So, again, what is going on? And why?
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During a February press briefing, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers formally revealed what had long been assumed, that the 2021 Open Championship—the 150th playing of the golf’s oldest event—would be played over the Old Course at St. Andrews. Where else?
But that announcement came four months on from a Dunhill Links Championship in which England’s Ross Fisher had a putt for 59 on golf’s most iconic 18th green. Another player, Victor Dubuisson, shot 63 that day, while 18 men got round in 67 or less and 46 of the 68-man final-day field broke 70.
At that same February briefing, Slumbers acknowledged a growing unease by the R&A and USGA at what he labelled an “unusual and concerning” increase in driving distances within the professional game. “A line in the sand has been crossed,” Slumbers concluded.
Naturally, those in favor of a curbing the “excessive” distances leading professionals can hit shots these days were pleased at the governing bodies’ pronouncement (reiterated in March with the release of a joint R&A/USGA report outlining the average driving statistics on key pro tours), having long been calling for action in this ever-controversial area.
Equally swift, of course, was the response of those who feel that the current state of play at the highest level is perfectly fine. Titleist, TaylorMade, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America were all quick to join forces in their quest to maintain the status quo.
With no specific proposals on how they might assuage their concerns, you wonder why the R&A and USGA went public with their newly found disquiet. The governing bodies appear far away from acting on the matter, so why open themselves up to the potential backlash?
Then again, perhaps what’s going on at the Old Course is a response, a slow, singular one given its impact on just one course but a symbolic one, too.
Back to the Dunhill. Even allowing for the fact that the Old Course, softer in October than it normally is in July, is more susceptible to low scoring at that time of year (and that the on-course presence of amateurs on the last day of the European Tour event presumably accounted for easier pin positions) are the R&A officials worried that scoring in the chase for the claret jug in 2021 might just get out of hand? Whatever the circumstances, the signs are that the Old Course, at least in benign conditions, is becoming alarmingly easy for the game’s elite.
No one in authority is owning up to such heretic thoughts. But it would be naive to think that they have not crossed at least a few influential minds. Today, power is fast overwhelming placement in its importance on an Old Course that is, to these eyes—and clearly those of others within the R&A— is careening headlong into potential obsolescence as far as hosting the Open Championship is concerned.
There have been hints over the years. As far back as 2000, Tiger Woods won the Open Championship by eight shots and never visited any of the Old Course’s famous bunkers. Such a feat was a tribute to the talent and shot-making of the man who was then, by a distance, the game’s leading practitioner. But it was also a warning signal. While Woods’ exceptional ability was surely a factor in his grass-only triumph, so was the obvious fact that many of the previously intimidating bunkers were no longer in play, especially for the longer hitters.
Action was taken. As has already been the case in 2015, the 2021 Open at St. Andrews will see players driving from tees located on the Old Course, the New Course, the Eden Course, the Himalayas putting course and, in the case of the previously fearsome Road Hole, a field to the right of the 16th fairway. Take that aforementioned stroll round the Old and the walks between the previous green and the next tee amount to more than 1,000 yards. And that is only half way. After the often long (and annoying) walk back and to the right at many holes, that yardage must be retraced just to get back to where the tee used to be. The next time R&A officials bemoan the pace of play on the Old Course, they should keep that self-inflicted factor in mind.
Another bell-weather event comes this summer when the Old Course for the first time hosts the Senior British Open. What damage will the game’s finest players 50 and older do—many of whom still hit it just as far as they did in their glory days? And how might this affect the set-up down the road?
Weirdly, of course, golf, in contrast to the approach pursued by the likes of baseball, cricket, tennis and the javelin, is the only game that has “protected” the equipment at the expense of the venues. Back in the day, Mackenzie warned that there is “no limit to science.” How right he was. But surely even he was not prescient enough to imagine what was coming and the continuing damage it would do to the 18 holes he described as “the only first-class course in the game.”