Lengthening restores Road Hole's true test
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 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.