The Old Course: a glorious anomaly


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

St Andrews, and especially the Old Course, is a glorious anomaly. Even among golf architecture purists, few people would applaud a new course on which a substantial proportion of the hazards were invisible to the golfer, and for safety reasons a routing with little or no separation between holes would never be allowed to be built now anyway. A high proportion of golfers – ranging from legends like Bobby Jones to plenty of ordinary players – that have not fallen in love with the Old Course at first sight for precisely this kind of reason.

But few who take the trouble to learn about the course fail eventually to succumb to its charms.Much of the joy of St Andrews lies in its subtlety. There are huge, intimidating hazards to be found – bunkers such as Hell being the most obvious – but in an era when golfers are often presented with shots that offer only triumph or disaster, the existence of shades of grey is much appreciated.

But in the age of power play, subtlety alone may not be enough. Both the R&A and the St Andrews Links Trust deny that Tiger Woods' winning score of 269, 19 under par, for the 2000 Open prompted them to attempt to toughen up the links.

And it must be said that Woods' total was only one lower than Nick Faldo's 1990 score. But the Old Course has been vulnerable to low scoring for many years, if the turf is not firm and the wind is not blowing, and, although the R&A does not view par as a sacred number in quite the same way as its colleagues at the USGA, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the authorities viewed the prospect of a score more than 20 shots under the card winning the Championship as being undesirable.

Five new tees have been constructed, lengthening the course to 7,279 yards. There has been some muttering from St Andrews purists that some are rather contrived – the new tee on the second hole, for example, is located on the Himalayas putting green beside the first fairway, and the walk back from the thirteenth green to the new fourteenth tee is hardly in keeping with the original spirit of the Old Course, on which golfers originally teed up their balls within two clubs length of the previous hole. Links Superintendent Gordon Moir understands this complaint, saying: "We could stretch the course further on some holes, but then the walks back would be longer." R&A boss Peter Dawson has made the same point. Slow play is a constant problem on the Old Course, given the narrow strip of land the holes share – and further walking back could only exacerbate the problem.

Generally the alterations are about bringing key hazards back into play. Cheape's bunker had ceased to threaten the drive on the second hole, but the new tee should make the tee shot more of a strategic choice. Playing left and short of the bunker will leave a more difficult second shot, but the drive down the right hand side will be strictly for the brave. The lengthened fourteenth hole – now more than ever, at 618 yards, justifying its name of Long – could potentially play in a completely different way to recent Opens.

The course may have been lengthened, but as many architects have said, length alone cannot defend a golf course. The carry over the Beardies at the fourteenth, for example, is now 295 yards, and for some longer hitters, this is likely to be perfectly achievable, especially if the wind is behind. But according to Gordon Moir, the aim was never to make the Elysian Fields completely unattainable, rather just to make the golfer think. "We want the guy to have to stand on the tee and choose, as golfers have always had to," he says. "Latterly players have just flown over the hazards without a second thought." Against the wind, the hole will be a genuine challenge: the drive will have to be threaded between the Beardies and the out of bounds wall, and the carry over Hell bunker will threaten the second.

Perhaps the most interesting of the changes are at the short par four twelfth hole. The extra 34 yards may not put the small fairway bunkers back into play except for shorter hitters, but the work carried out on the bunker lips, rendering them invisible from the tee, goes against modern conventions in golf design, which emphasises that all hazards should be on show. This is, one suspects, more in keeping with the essence of St Andrews.

Architect David Kidd, currently working at St Andrews constructing the new Course No. 7 is complimentary about the work. "One of the guys on my crew got lucky in the ballot, so we went out and played the Old Course last night," he told GCA in early June. "The course is looking fantastic, the greens are great and the new tees, especially the one on the fourteenth, are just awesome. As for the course as a whole, I just marvel at the slopes. It makes me more determined to be creative with my designs, not to worry about pushing limits."

Martin Ebert takes a similar view. "Playing golf on the Old Course is more like playing over a landscape than over a golf course, and that landscape can provide the inspiration for the contouring of even the dullest piece of land," he says. "One of my fantasies as an architect is to be given a piece of very flat, sandy ground upon which to design a course. I would take the most talented shapers I have had the pleasure of working with and walk them around the Old Course, to soak up the wonderful humps, hollows, rolls and swales. The way they meld together is an education every time you are fortunate enough to walk or play the Old Course."

Whether by accident or design, the Old Course emphasises strategic golf over all else. "Some may think that the course is more a test of the putting and short game bearing in mind the large greens and absence of rough but that is not borne out by the quality of the winners of the Open at St Andrews," says Ebert. "The best golfers seem to come out on top. The best ball strikers avoid the bunkers most successfully – as Tiger did in 2000 – and get closer to the flag more often to reduce the inevitable three putts.

"Refreshingly, there is almost a complete absence of rough around the greens. A putter is often the most sensible club to play. I found it most interesting to watch golfers practise for the 2000 Open. They would throw a few balls down around the greens and try their lob wedges to begin with.When the firmness of the greens and the sloping nature of some of them made it difficult to get the ball close, they changed their strategy to using lower played seven and five irons and some even started using the putter."

Allan Robertson, the father of professional golf, was responsible for widening the course to its present size in the 1840s, and it was this widening that created the strategic possibilities that exist round the Old Course to this day. The width of the course, narrow by normal standards, yet wide given the fact that holes share the same land in both directions, gives the golfer far more options on how to play holes. "The safer side to favour is the left, except for the ninth, tenth and possibly the eleventh holes. However, it is generally the case that the further left you play the harder the second shots to the greens are," says Ebert. The fact that, at St Andrews as on many other older links courses, so many of the hazards are not obvious except to the golfer who has made a careful study of the terrain, puts even greater emphasis on thought and strategy – and less on pure brawn.

According to Ross McMurray of European Golf Design, it was St Andrews, and the Old Course in particular, that inspired the great architects of the early twentieth century; the likes of Harry Colt, Tom Simpson and Alister Mackenzie, and it continues to inspire both architects and golfers today. Take the legendary Road Hole, for example. Look at a plan of the hole in isolation, and the task seems relatively clear, if difficult: drive over the corner of the hotel in timehonoured fashion, hugging the right side of the fairway if possible, then rifle the second up onto the false fronted green, avoiding the siren calls of both bunker and road. But in practice, the sheer difficulty of executing this plan has led to any number of different ways of playing the hole. Amateurs are often advised to regard it as a par five, playing the second short and right of the green and hoping for a chip and putt to make four (plenty of professionals have taken this cautious but arguably sensible route too). Alternatively, many golfers, feeling the green is more approachable from back left have played their second shots towards the eighteenth tee, and tried to chip back along the green, using the slope on the back of the Road bunker to get close to the flag. And still others simply shoot for the green and either achieve the ultimate success or, more likely, see their decent score vanish in the sand or on the road, or even both.

Some commentators have suggested that the eighteenth is no fit finishing hole for such a course. Kyle Phillips, who, in the process of building the wonderful links of Kingsbarns, just down the road, has spent more time in St Andrews than most, doesn't agree. Phillips agrees that a classic finishing hole is more normally long and difficult, but adds that, as with San Francisco's Olympic Club, closing with a fairly short par four – an obvious potential birdie hole – can make for exciting conclusions to championships.

Certainly the memories of Tom Morris's green are of players who have challenged the hole – Seve Ballesteros's pumping first in 1984 being such a vivid example. Maybe the strategic question is relatively simple compared to what has come before, but on the other hand, perhaps it isn't. The total absence of hazards – other than the road - on that huge expanse of fairway asks the golfer one question: from where do I want to play my second? With the greater length of today's players, perhaps the thought of driving the green and putting for eagle in front of the clubhouse will come into mind – Jack Nicklaus drove into the Valley of Sin in 1970, after all.Who will best solve the puzzles of St Andrews this year? We shall know soon enough.

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.