Golf

Why tinker with The Old Course?

Ernie Els of South Africa
Ernie Els drives off the 18th tee at The Old Course.
GolfWeek Bradley S. Klein
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If they really want to protect par at The Old Course at St. Andrews, all they need to do is buy a big wind fan. Or at least make sure that the one the Big Guy upstairs provided is humming along nicely for the one week every five years when the British Open returns to the Scottish town.

Obviously, this is a busy week for the esteemed Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. In conjunction with the US Golf Association, the R&A, which is based at St. Andrews and serves as the governing body for rules and championships worldwide except in the United States and Mexico, is about to announce its decision on whether to ban the anchoring of long putters. Got to protect tradition, especially in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that using the long-necked goose of a putter doesn’t really look like a golf swing.

So why, if the R&A, is so tradition-bound with this club, does it feel the need to change the sacred Old Course, to the point where it has started changing bunkers, undulations and flattening out a portion of the 11th green to recapture a hole location or two?

No golf course remains unaltered. Nature creates new erosion patterns that shift sands and soil. Agronomic techniques come along that make it possible to manage turfgrass in ways unimaginable more than a century ago when St. Andrews greenkeeper Old Tom Morris relied upon a handful of laborers and a top-dressing program limited to “more sand” tossed from a wheelbarrow.

It’s just the pace of change at St. Andrews has been glacial. It’s understandable if the R&A Championship Committee, working with the management staff at the Links Trust, and in conjunction with consulting architect Martin Hawtree, propose to add a bunker short left of the drivable green at the par-4 ninth hole. Nothing new there, in principle, though it surely gives pause that the last time a bunker was added — called Boase’s, and placed right center of the fairway landing area, 70 yards short of the green — was in 1920. Back then, the hole played 307 yards. Now it’s 352 from the medal tees.

Of course it would have helped had the R&A (and the USGA) been more assiduous in protecting the game by monitoring equipment advances. Its tendency to close the barn door after the horse has escaped has forced the R&A, in the case of The Old Course, to add back tees wherever it could, including at least two places that technically were out of bounds. That has forced a long walk back from green to tee, destroying the subtle integrity of what had been an intimate routing.

In an effort to toughen the course and reduce the likelihood of the world’s best players shooting 59, the R&A Championship Committee undertook temporary measures that included narrowing the 17th hole to a plank walk when the design called for wide play and optional angles into the most demanding green on the course. Now it is in the process of widening the famed Road Hole bunker. And all of this in the name of making the course more demanding for the British Open, which also will make it far more demanding for everyday public golfers during the intervening 259 weeks of play.

Had there been a Stimpmeter in the old days, the greens would have registered around 4 or 5. Now they are regularly maintained at 10, and upwards of 11 in championship play. Small wonder the 5 percent slope at the back left of the famed Eden Hole, the par-3 11th, is not pinnable for championships. Of course, the maintenance staff could just keep this green at a slower speed than the rest of the greens at St. Andrews. But that would require the world’s best players to pay attention to the ground game during practice rounds and adjust their putting routines.

Obviously, that’s too much to ask. So instead, Hawtree has been commissioned to reduce the slope of that section of green. That’s not a complicated project. But it is an arrogant approach to design, and one that deserves far more public consideration and debate.

Instead, the R&A Championship Committee, working quietly with the Links Trust, has announced its intent to do surgery. This is no way to run a golf course, and certainly no way to preserve the “trust” inherent in a custodial relationship. The town of St. Andrews effectively has ceded control of a treasured asset to a private group running its own golf championship.

I don’t know if these changes are needed. What I do know is the reasons given for making them are unconvincing and not enough basis for tinkering with sacred ground.

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