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Lengthening restores Road Hole's true test

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Iain Carter | 17:21 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

The proverbial moustache on the Mona Lisa or a necessary change? Has the Old Course's most famous hole been vandalised or restored to former glory? This is the main debating point in the build up to the 150th anniversary Open at St Andrews.

Europe's two most recent major winners are at odds over the biggest change to the Old Course for the 2010 Championship. One thinks potential drama has been ripped away by extending the famous 17th, the other believes the move was vital to protect the integrity of the hole.

Less than a month on from his US Open triumph at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell bemoaned the R&A's decision to borrow part of a neighbouring driving range to extend the Road Hole by 40 yards.

"A lot of guys are not going to like it," said McDowell. "It's long, it's tough. I don't dislike it but it's ridiculously difficult. I don't think it was needed. It's a great hole."

Now measuring 495 yards, the drive is over the mocked-up railway sheds that are part of the Old Course Hotel complex. The fairway that runs around the hotel is the target, with some of the thickest rough on the course guarding the left side. There is more room down the right but that threatens to bring out-of-bounds into play.

"It's horrible to see one of the legendary holes in golf just falling victim to modern technology. I thought it was tricky anyway and I don't think it needed another 40 yards," McDowell added. He's also concerned that players will not take on the pin and it'll lead to negative golf.

But for others, leaving the hole untouched in the modern era is as absurd as sending out a former champion, Paul Lawrie, in the dawn patrol opening group on Thursday morning.

Certainly two-time winner Padraig Harrington disagrees with McDowell's view, describing the extension of the 17th hole as "superb".

Tom Watson putts on the 17th green during a practice round for The Open.jpgTom Watson putts on the 17th green during his practice round on Monday. Picture: Reuters

Anyone who has watched Dunhill Links Championships on the European Tour will have been struck at how little drama this iconic hole has generated in recent years. The road at the back of the green is generally only in play for the hapless amateurs and it has not been the examination that ultimately undid Tom Watson's Open bid in 1984.

"You always want to make sure that the guy who wins the Open Championship is tested at some stage down the stretch," Harrington said. "There's nobody going to get through 17 without thinking about it, that's for sure."

This week players are expecting to have to hit at least a five iron into the green which is guarded by the infamous Road Hole bunker, although the hazard is not as severe as it was when Tsuneyuki "Tommy" Nakajima putted into it and then took four shots to escape to end his chances in 1978.

David Duval suffered similarly in 2000 in his pursuit of Tiger Woods but since then the steep face of the bunker has been reduced.

Even so it remains a daunting obstacle that players will be keen to avoid. Expect plenty to lay up to the front right of the green and then rely on their short games, or even aim for the 18th tee and access the green from there.

Harrington doesn't believe the extension of the hole for this year's championship is in any way sacrilegious to the golfing gods. "I know 17 is very high-profile but this is the modern game. It has to change at some stage and that's part of golf. All golf courses, and this one particularly, have evolved over the course of time."

Watson has also backed the change. "It needed to happen," he told last week's 5 live Golf and Lee Westwood is another to lend support to the R&A's move.

The restoration of the 17th to its former toughness could be one of the defining aspects of this Open and that is surely as it should be.

There's a certain irony that it will take the level of composure shown by McDowell in winning his US Open at Pebble Beach to overcome its dangers come late Sunday afternoon. And that probably won't be lost on the leading critic of the change.


  • Comment number 1.

    Have to agree that having a tough 17th is a good move, as before this point where is the danger coming down the back 9 for the leader to test his nerves on. I think it adds a dimension knowing that the 17th is lying in wait, this will keep it alive right down to the end. Sawgrass has the same appeal with the 17th island green, players have said they start thinking about that hole from the 12th onwards and it makes a special contribution. Hope this move does this to St Andrews. I'm going on Friday, can't wait.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yep, I'd agree with Rankis, 17 is an iconic hole and has not really tested the proessionals as much in recent years as it has in the past. Guys these days hit the ball 20/30 yards longer on average than even 10 years ago so I think the changes will make the 17th a fantastic penultimate hole. The bunker in front of the green has been made less difficult as well so it is a little bit fairer in that respect. Certainly come Sunday afternoon 17 will undoubtedly lead to some very exciting drama. Even with a 2 or 3 shot lead anything can happen which makes for a great finish!

  • Comment number 3.

    As a 19 handicap hacker I managed to putt into the bunker on the Road hole and a chance for a beautiful bogey turned into an ugly 10 via the road, but at least I experienced the whole "Road hole experience"!

    Pros always complain, this hole should not be a 9 iron into green. It is the right decision.

  • Comment number 4.

    Tim Henman made a birdie at the 17th in last years Dunhill Links Championship. They had to extend it.

  • Comment number 5.

    I played in the 1980 Amateur and remember hitting 4/5 irons into that green. I'm 30 years older and am hitting an 8/9 into it. This change has been due for 30years.

  • Comment number 6.

    The hole had to be modified, these guys hit the ball so high and so long that a once great hole was being reduced to pitch and putt. Majors should test the player’s right until the last putt so I'm glad this modification has occurred. Modern professional golfers are always moaning if they are taken out of their comfort zone, remember a few years ago Jack Nicklaus at his tournament tried to make landing in the bunkers a real penalty by removing every other tooth from bunker rakes and not giving the players perfect lies, they all complained so loudly to the PGA tour commissioner that he had to have a quite word with Nicklaus and get the rakes replaced, that is what you are up against when trying to change anything in professional golf, well done the R&A and lets see some drama come Sunday not a procession.

  • Comment number 7.

    Surely winning a Major should be the toughest thing you can do as a golfer, so you should be given the toughest test you can and the 17th and back 9 as a whole weren't up to the test. Hopefully now with this extension it can reclaim it's former glory. He says players will play negative golf but you'll still see a few have a go and that's the way it should be. You shouldn't have everyone being able to go for the green with an 8 or 9 iron, how is that a tough test? As people playing off 4 or 5 handicaps (like I believe Henman does) can make birdie there then it needs to change.

  • Comment number 8.

    studied at st andrews for 4yrs and played the old course a lot. at st andrews (and most other links courses) the wind and the ground conditions matter more than just distance. if there is no wind or the ground is soft it is pretty easy, just see the average score for par5's on most pga tour events (about 4.5). if there is wind and the ground is running then the course becomes far more interesting. it takes guts from the r&a to set up the course this way as many holes (even those well over 400yrds) become drive-able and can look defenceless.

    by the way (not a paid plug) find, buy and read "the spirit of st andrews". it explains mackenzie's course design philosophy (he designed augusta with bobby jones and gave the old course a tweak in the 30's). perfect if slightly geeky companion to this week!

  • Comment number 9.

    There are others way of making holes more difficult, tucking away the pin and narrowing the fairways with intermediate or low rough where most power hitters land the drivers thus forcing them to hit some smaller of the tee.

    It really pisses me off when the governing body are always resorting to lengthening golf course which really should be last resort measure. Both Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines were short for the last 2 US Opens but the winning score was level and 1 under par.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm generally against lengthening for the sake of it - it tends to play into the hands of the very players they're trying to defend courses against. The problem with other means of defence is that they force a player to take an iron or rescue off the tee. Fine in many cases, but the players are so accurate with those clubs, that it removes the risk of the wayward drive. The Road Hole is the ultimate test at St. Andrews (if not anywhere) and I don't want to see someone hitting a 4 iron for position off the tee, then a medium iron. I want them to be forced to use driver, with the risk that entails, and still have a medium / long iron to the green. That's how the hole's supposed to be played, so I support these changes.

  • Comment number 11.

    At the World Forum of Golf Course Architects held in St Andrews in March 2010 the new 17th tee being prepared for the Open was seen as a symptom of a greater problem for golf. In the following letter respected golf course architects highlight the problems with clarity:


    For the 2010 Open Championship the R&A has addressed the eroded playing character of the 17th hole at St Andrews by moving the tee beyond the boundaries of the Old Course and onto the driving range. While this may solve the problem for this Open, the problems for the game of golf of excessive golf ball distance remain!

    The increased distance the modern golf ball travels has created major issues for golf in relation to the ENVIRONMENT, SAFETY and COST (including the opportunity cost of TIME spent on the golf course). Excessive golf ball distance has also had significant adverse affects as regards golf’s ARCHITECTURAL & CULTURAL HERITAGE:

    • The greater length that the ball travels has created a demand for longer golf courses. The increased acreage required for new golf courses has amplified the environmental impact of golf course construction and maintenance, with greater inputs of fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and water required.

    • Increased golf ball distance has increased the danger golfers, greenkeepers and the public face. On the same angles of dispersion, golf balls travel a greater distance, creating safety problems on and around old golf courses and the need for greater safety margins on new golf courses.

    • Land is one of the most important factors for the creation of new golf courses. As the next wave of golf course construction will be in the developing and highly populated world, excessive golf ball distance is a barrier to actual and responsible golf course development. The extra need for environmentally sensitive materials along with greater quantities of capital and labour for golf course development and maintenance greatly increases the cost of golf.

    • The extra distance walked on long courses forces up the average time per round. Four and five hour rounds are driving many potential golfers away from the game.

    • In total, the excessive length the golf ball now travels directly challenges the future development and sustainability of golf.

    • This says nothing of the architectural values of our classic courses, denuded by golf ball length just as the famous Road Hole has demonstrated.

    These negative length factors were highlighted during the recently held World Forum of Golf Architects in St. Andrews. A vast majority of the 180 delegates were in favour of further rectifying steps to be taken, beyond the ‘v’ groove changes then reported by the R&A and USGA representatives.

    The undersigned believe this is the right time for the golf community (i.e.players, golf architects, course owners, tournament spectators and playing equipment manufacturers) to give our ruling bodies full support for ball and equipment measures that will help make golf sustainable and flourish in the 21st century. We believe measures should be taken to ‘ROLL BACK THE BALL’!

    Peter Nordwall FSGA, President of FSGA (Federation of Scandinavian Golf Course Architects)
    Graham Papworth SAGCA, President of the SAGCA (Society of Australian Golf Course Architects)
    Ken and TK Sato JSGCA, Board Members of JSGCA (Japanese Society of Golf Course Architects)
    Jonathan Gaunt EIGCA, Senior Member and Nick Norton EIGCA Graduate (European Institute of Golf Course Architects)
    David McLay Kidd, Principal of DMK Golf Design
    James I Kidd, Director of DMK Golf Design
    Donald Steel, Past President of British Association of Golf Course Architects, Association of Golf Writers and English Golf Union
    Malcolm Campbell, Golf Writer & Chairman of the Links Association
    Hurdzan Fry, Environmental Golf Design

  • Comment number 12.

    If players are hitting the ball too far then surely the obvious thing to do is to modify the clubs or balls - not the courses!!

    It's just like the way they make bicycles with saddles so hard that you have to buy special shorts with foam inside (rather than modifying the saddles). They're tackling the result of the problem, not the cause of the problem.

  • Comment number 13.

    3 years ago, I was lucky enough to play The Old Course, and was even luckier to get a birdie on 17 - drive, 6 iron, putt. Admittedly, the flag was in a generous position, but I'm not a long hitter (12 handicap)and was surprised at the lack of challenge of the hole! So, the pro's need to be challenged by a tough hole, especially in the closing moments of the greatest major at the greatest course. Bear in mind the 18th isn't exactly tough and most players will drive it, so the 17th has to be the challenge.

    Mind you, after the birdie, I persuaded my caddie to let me try and get out of the Road Hole Bunker. Took my 4 attempts - no-one wants to go in there!

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree that something needed to be done, but isn't lengthening the course just a little short sighted? When will it all stop.

    As has already been mentioned the problem is the equipment not the courses. When aluminium bats came along in baseball they were banned pretty quickly in the major leagues. Amateurs and the general public can still play with them but not the pro's. The powers that be in golf should do the same with the current balls and oversize headed clubs. Allow us weekend hackers to buy and use whatever we want but introduce regulations limiting the equipment pro golfers can use.

  • Comment number 15.

    Dont mention changing the equipment, you will have the poor souls bleating, only got to look at the World Cup and the ball !!!!!! The poor souls there were hapless when it came to shooting,

    Golf courses have become victim to technology and then of course, you have the problem of the rough, dont grow that otherwise the poor souls will really be up in arms.

    One of the reasons why the likes of Norman and Watson have been in contention these last few years is that they grew up when golf courses were golf courses and not the carpets these poor souls now want.

  • Comment number 16.

    To number 14 I think most people agree that something needs to be done about the equipment but it will take years for the rulers to do anything about the problem. Each company wants to be the one whose clubs can hit the ball the furthest or whose balls travel the furthest so they will constantly try to puch the boundaries and limits. Sadly this is why the designs keep having to change to counter act that, the only answer is to have dog legs for every hole and trees lining the fairways so players can only drive the ball so far!

  • Comment number 17.

    A great decision to extend the 17th. This wonderful penultimate hole is now even greater. While they were at it they should have made some changes to 9 and 10, two of the weakest holes in championship golf.

  • Comment number 18.

    Concur with many of the other comments. We played a couple of years ago, no real wind, hit a good drive tightish to the right hand side and was left with a wedge into the green (the pro tee was only 20 yds back from where the plebs play). It really needs wind, rain and rough to make it a challenge for these guys...and new golf balls! Improvements in technology might result in them teeing up 17 from the actual driving range bays if something is not done...

    I'm praying for a good dose of true Scottish weather to sort them out

  • Comment number 19.

    Forecast for Saturday - 35mph wind out of the south west! The true Scottish weather will let St Andrews bare it's teeth!

  • Comment number 20.

    The ball has to change, and its easy to do. Limit the number of dimples, or impose a standard dimple pattern. As well as reducing the distance, it will allow the ball to fly in a more curly fashion. I hate how straight it goes now ! 25 odd years ago I was 16 years old and playing off 2...I didn't even carry a driver it was too difficult. I'm now 42, and can't putt for toffee, can't chip, and I'm still off 2. All because the driver is so easy to hit. I used to have to start the ball outside the line of the green when there was a cross wind...not now.

    Personally, I'd roll back the ball, and go back to wooden woods.


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