Adam Lawrence reports on a tour of the controversial renovations with R&A boss Peter Dawson.
“If you are going to insist that the course hasn't changed and shouldn't be touched, we are going to have a difficult conversation,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson greets me with a smile, as we arrive by the second green of the Old Course at St Andrews on a cold December morning.
Dawson has taken a lot of flak in the two weeks since the St Andrews Links Trust announced that a set of alterations, overseen by architect Martin Hawtree, would be made to the iconic course, even more so when it became clear that the work had begun within hours of the announcement. A number of high profile golfers, including five times Open champion Peter Thomson, fellow legend Gary Player and current star Ian Poulter have been critical of the decision to alter the Old Course, as have many golf architects.
But, though he acknowledges the communication of the works could have been handled better – “We were perhaps a little distracted by the announcement of the ban on anchoring” – Dawson is firm in his belief that the works will improve the course, both for day to day play and in championship mode, and that, far from being untouched for hundreds of years, the course has repeatedly been changed, though he agrees that the current works are the biggest in a century. And, although he is happy to confirm that the impetus from the works came from the R&A's Championship Committee, he is at pains to explain that toughening the course for the professionals is not the sole goal of the works. Of the filling up of the hollow in the middle of the seventh fairway, he said: “That is something the Links Trust has been keen to do for many years. It collected so many balls, and was thus so full of divots that it had to be roped off and played as ground under repair for a large part of the year, which was a bit of an embarrassment.”
We began our tour on the second hole, where two pot bunkers have been added at the front right of the green, and two old bunkers, dating from between 1905-1932, and positioned around thirty yards from the green, have been filled in, and the area behind the new bunkers, to the right of the green, has been gently contoured to make recovery shots from that side a little more difficult. “Those areas were completely flat, and we're certain they had been levelled at some point in the past, perhaps for the construction of a tee. The same is true on some of the other holes where we plan to add contour by the side of the greens,” said Dawson. When the pin is placed on the right side of the green – which it has not been in previous Opens, though it is a common position for daily play – the best line of approach will be from the centre left of the fairway, near to Cheape's bunker, he believes. The remarkable set of contours in front of the green mean that a player who drives up the right could still bank his approach off the slopes and into the pin, but the shot will be extremely difficult. Even from the preferred angle, the opening is narrow.
These bunkers will clearly make the hole harder for everyday golfers when the pin is close to them. Will they do the same for the pros? Dawson says yes, arguing that when the greens are Open-hard, even the best in the world will not be able to play a hit and stick shot at that flag. Only 2015 will reveal the truth.
On the fourth hole, the low dune formation that creates the left edge of the fairway in the drive zone is planned to be reduced next winter. “Personally I am not sure about that change, and I'm glad it isn't in the first phase, so we have more chance to think about it,” said Dawson. “The impetus has come from the greenkeepers – it was covered in rough during the 2005 Open, and the result was that almost nobody tried to hit their drive up the right. To create more width, we shaved the bank down in 2010, but it is very steep, and the greens staff have difficulty mowing it at that height.”
The most controversial change has been the reduction in the slope of the back left corner of the famous eleventh green, with the aim of retuning the famous 'Bobby Jones' pin to use. “That pin is only used in winter at the moment,” said Dawson. “It's not just a question of being unusable at Open speeds – it can't be used even when the greens are at normal summer pace. The green would have to be slowed to six or seven on the Stimpmeter to make that pin usable.” He argues that, while maintaining one green slightly slower than the others might be viable, this is just too great a difference. The slope into Hill bunker will be kept shaved right down, increasing its gathering effect, he says.
The work to the green has clearly been done with great care. The existing high point in the back ridge, slightly to the left of the normal rear pin, is untouched, while to the left, the bank has been gradually lowered. The green surface itself appears slightly scalloped, softening the slope in the pinning area. It is unarguably a great pin, but should such an ancient green have been dug up to return it to use?
The final obvious change this winter is the reshaping of the Road bunker. “That bunker is rebuilt every year, and until now it has been left largely to the greens staff, which is why it has changed slightly each time,” said Dawson. “This time, we concluded we'd decide exactly how we wanted it and map it digitally so it can be replicated exactly. It is about getting the balance of risk and reward right. If the bunker is so tough that getting out is virtually impossible, then fewer people will take it on. We want more people in the bunker, not fewer.” The widening to the right is frankly relatively uncontroversial – it will now gather shots from slightly further out. To my eye more surprising is the addition of a slight gathering contour on the left side of the bunker, presumably to make the shot to the back left of the green – a route popularised in the 1990s by Nick Faldo – more challenging. This looks fine from the fairway, but from the eighteenth tee, a slight mound can be seen, which appears a little out of place.
A more detailed report on GCA's tour of the Old Course works will appear in the next issue of the magazine, to be published in January.