Leading golf architects around the world have responded with astonishment to Friday's announcement from the St Andrews Links Trust that extensive redesign work will be carried out on the Old Course in advance of the 2015 Open Championship.
The plans, which have been drawn up by architect Martin Hawtree, call for work on nine of the course's holes, including alterations to the iconic eleventh and seventeenth greens. A number of bunkers are planned to be added, moved or removed, and the scheme also includes recontouring the surrounds several greens. Changes to the course on this scale have not been contemplated since John Low oversaw the rebunkering of the opening nine holes between 1905-1908.
It is the alterations to the eleventh green that have caused the most controversy. The green – hailed as one of the world's greatest par threes, and replicated on hundreds of courses around the world – has become an issue at recent Opens due to its extreme slopes and exposed position, hard against the Eden estuary.
Hawtree's plan calls for the back left section of the green to be softened, with the intention of returning a famous old pin position to use. It was this hole location that foxed Bobby Jones in the 1921 Open, when he hit his tee shot into Hill bunker and was unable to escape, leading to his ignominious withdrawal from the championship. The pin is still sometimes used in day to day play, but the slope of the green in that area, believed to be around 4.5 per cent, makes it unusable when green speeds reach the level the R&A seeks for Open play.
Tom Doak, principal of Renaissance Golf Design, and one of the era's top course designers, is leading the opposition to the proposed changes. Doak, who spent several months living in St Andrews, studying and caddying on the Old Course at the start of his career, is proposing a petition of course architects, and has already received support from many leading industry figures, including American Society of Golf Course Architects' president Bob Cupp. “I have felt for many years that the Old Course was sacred ground to golf architects, as it was to Old Tom Morris, CB Macdonald, Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie before us,” Doak wrote on golfclubatlas.com. “It has been untouched architecturally since 1920, and I believe that it should remain so. I don't believe it should be impossible to change the Old Course, or any other historic course. But I think it should be a lot harder than it currently is, where only the management of the club and any consulting architect they hire have to agree. I think the default position should be that such an international treasure should be guarded, and that there should be a high burden of proof that changes need to be made, before they can be made.”
Cupp, replying to Doak's suggestion of a petition of golf course architects against the changes, said: “This is tantamount to redesigning Chartres [cathedral]. The historic significance of those forms is immense, something that should be preserved at all cost, even if it is some low scores.” Graham Papworth, current president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects, has also offered his support to Doak's campaign.
But architect Scott Macpherson, whose book St Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course is regarded as the most comprehensive survey of the course, took a slightly different view. “Preservation is a sticky road,” he told GCA. “It's changing anyway – grass is growing, gorse is growing, bunkers are eroding. I'm pretty relaxed about some of the changes to the golf course, but I'm more worried about changing green contours.” Macpherson also pointed out that, despite significant work on the golf course during the past century and more, this would represent the first time that a named designer has left his imprint. “There is no architect credited for any of the alterations since Old Tom built the first and eighteenth greens in 1870,” he said. “Colt was on greens committee for a long time, but his name isn't attached to any alterations, and I spent a long time looking for such things in the historical papers.”