John Huggan: Dawson’s case for Old Course changes

Peter Dawson is ready for his final Championship in charge. Picture: Getty Images
Peter Dawson is ready for his final Championship in charge. Picture: Getty Images
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LET’S forget our differences and see what is happening on the ground at the home of golf, writes John Huggan

Especially for regular readers, it will come as no surprise to learn how this column has often annoyed the chief executive of the R&A. Over the 15-and-a-bit years Peter Dawson has sat in what must be golf’s greatest office high above the first tee on the Old Course at St Andrews, he more than once has voiced irritation at criticism levelled at the organisation he heads.

There was the Royal & Ancient Golf Club’s (now formerly) all-male membership, of course. The R&A’s shameful inactivity in the area of club and ball technology has been another regular source of disagreement. And, now and then, other stuff has come up. During a press conference at a past St Andrews Open Championship, Dawson was asked about the clearly inappropriate rough up the right side of the iconic Road Hole. “Ah yes,” he said sarcastically, “the John Huggan question.”

More recently, the soon-to-be-retired Dawson (he will depart his job in September) has found cause to dispute another assertion made by this column. Namely, that the changes made to the Old Course for this week’s Open were unnecessary and merely the consequence of the R&A’s inability to control the nonsensical distances modern golf balls fly when struck by frying-pan drivers wielded by leading professionals.

“We need to be sure, without in any way changing the character of the course, that the Home of Golf remains an appropriate test for the modern player,” says Dawson in response. “That’s what it is about. The modern player is getting better and better and so the test we set at championship level needs to be stiffened. Having said that, the Old Course didn’t need much doing to it.

“All of the changes are the result of much observation at the Open and the Dunhill Links Championship – and a few hundred Sunday morning dog walks of course. And yes, shortening the ball would be the equivalent of lengthening the course. But we, unfortunately, don’t have the luxury of being a single-issue organisation.”

So there was only one solution. Last month, we took a trip round golf’s most famous venue and Dawson explained the thinking behind what we will see over the next few days. It would be fair to say agreement was soon reached over the quality of the work done by the estimable green staff. But not over whether the changes should have been made in the first place. That debate will continue, possibly forever, but here, in his own words, is Dawson’s reasoning.

2nd Two new bunkers short and right of the green “The tee here is an example of a change we made some time ago. It wasn’t all about making the drive harder; it was about getting a longer club in the player’s hands for the second shot.

“At St Andrews, it makes a huge difference when your ball is coming into a green high rather than low. So I want them to be hitting a 4-iron rather than an 8-iron. The problem now is that the course is as long as it is ever going to be.

“The big change on this hole is the new bunkers to the right of the green. At the 2000 Open we had two bunkers miles from the green that had no real relevance to the play. So what we have done is fill in the old ones and introduce two new bunkers greenside and, behind them on what used to be dead-flat ground, there is now some undulation.

“We did this because, whenever the pin was to the right on the green, the challenge was diminished. All you had to do was miss the green to the right and you had a flat putt. It wasn’t demanding in any way. Plus, it was so flat I suspect it wasn’t natural. It looked like it was constructed. It was probably a tee at one time.

“What we won’t do is put the pin just over the bunkers. The traditional strategy at St Andrews is ‘easy drive up the left, challenging drive up the right’. So where the pin will be is at the bottom of the slope on the green. If you drive left you can’t get at it, the ball will either kick off into the bunkers or into the new undulations. Having said that, three pins out of four in the Open will be on the left and high side of the green.”

3rd New bunkers on right side

“We wanted to make the drive up the right side more ‘risk and reward’. The bunkers were ‘too short’, and weren’t really in play for the top players. So we took out the shortest one and moved it closer to the green.

“We felt that was important. While we never want to make the right side too risky, it had become too easy to hit up there and have the best angle into the flag. It depends where we put the pin, but we want the players to take on the bunkers if they want to get an advantage for the next shot. The farthest of the three bunkers is now about 290 yards from the tee.

“All we’ve really done is restore the element of risk. What we haven’t done is eliminate any incentive to try. If we did that it would be awful and everyone would play the hole the same way, up the left. Which is exactly what we don’t want to see. If everyone hits left on every hole – towards those playing in the opposite direction – it will take forever to get round.

“The biggest problem is that the players wait on the double greens for others to putt on the opposite hole.”

4th New undulation right of the green

“The large hump in the middle of the fairway will be untouched, the grass the length that nature dictates. Back in the old days, when this hole was a par-5, there were bunkers miles back from the green. They made some sense back then, but they’re not in play now. So we filled them in. A new bunker is now in place short and right of the green.

“As on the second hole, the ground to the right of the putting surface was very flat and easy, unless the pin was towards the back of the green. We’ve sculpted that area and now that it is bedded in it looks very natural, albeit it’s a little more extreme than at the second.

“Again, it’s all about encouraging the players to drive the ball up the right side. Not many took it on last time. But the benefit now will be greater. Coming from the left will bring the bunker and the new ‘humps and bumps’ into play. So a drive up the right side is going to be better than before.”

6th One that didn’t happen, one that did – and one that should have

“I actually wanted to make a change here, but after discussions with the Links Trust, we decided against it. I wanted another bunker on the left side of the fairway, on what is now a slight upslope. My thinking was that this is one of the few holes where driving left or right doesn’t matter for the second shot. So tightening up the drive on that side might be a good idea.

“As for the fact that the bunkers on the right side are actually in the rough, that has been the case in all my time here. But I do accept that balls should be able to run into the sand more than they do at the moment. The bunkers on the right of the 5th are all ‘in the fairway’ so this is maybe something we should look at.

“And again we have introduced a few ripples to what was very flat ground on the right side of the green. I have to think that, in each case, all three areas were tees back in the day.”

7th Dip filled in

“The dip in the fairway – it was about ten feet wide – has been levelled. Actually it is now slightly convex rather than concave. You’d never know where it used to be. It was a mess before, a mass of divot holes. And to answer your point about asking the players to hit from less-than-perfect lies now and then, not every change has been made for the Open. We wanted the day-to-day players to get some benefit too. Besides, the state of the dip was an embarrassment.”

9th New bunker

“Again, this is an attempt to introduce more of a risk-reward aspect to the hole. So there is a new bunker, short and left of the green. It’s right on the edge of the rough, so balls will feed into it if they are heading that way. Ernie Els is just one player who has already expressed his approval.

“The bunker is just over 300 yards from the tee. But I still want to see players having a go with their drivers from the tee. I want to encourage that – rather than laying up short of the bunkers in the middle of the fairway – but I also want there to be more danger if they do decide to go that route.”

11th Slope on green softened

“This is the only change we have made in order to get more pin positions. Some might say we could just have slowed the green – you for example – but I am of the philosophy that if the players are enjoying the course we will have a good Open and if they are not, we don’t. This green would have to run at six or seven on the Stimpmeter to make it work as it was before. I think that might have attracted some hostile reaction from players and media.

“What we have now is a green that will still be puttable in a high wind, which it wasn’t before. It was this green that caused the suspension of play back in 2010. We also have a lot more pin positions. Before we had to stick the pin behind the Strath Bunker. Now we can have it back-left, near the Hill Bunker, one that no one ever went in at the last Open. A back right pin position is also available, so the hole has a lot more variety to it.”

15th Sculpted humps at back of green

“The thinking here was that, especially with the pin at the rear of the green, all a player had to do was ‘club up’. Even if the ball did go over the green, it was just a straightforward putt over flat ground back to the pin. Now, it will be a lot trickier to get up and down in two shots to save par.”

16th Move the tee up and a wee bit more rough?

“This hole has always made me a little unhappy, ever since we moved the tee back. I just don’t think the players play the hole as it should be played. They just lay up short of the Principal’s Nose and Deacon Sime beyond, then hit from there. No one plays to the right, down the line of the fence any more.

“In order to get more players ‘taking on’ the shot down the right side, I’d like to see the tee moved forward along with more rough on the left to stop any kind of slack lay-up tee-shot hit way left being OK. To that end, the start of the rough is now 20 yards or so nearer the tee than it was. I don’t want to make the green driveable – the second shot is too good for that – but more reward for the brave drive is a good idea, I think.”

17th Road hole bunker remodelled

“The old joke here is that the line off the tee is the ‘O’ in ‘Old Course Hotel’. But the only changes here are much nearer the green, around the Road Hole Bunker, although the rough on the left has been thinned out a bit since 2010. Ideally it will be a half-shot penalty.

“The bunker has been altered many times over the years. If you look at film from past Opens it is amazing to see how much it has altered. Back in 1970 Doug Sanders played a wonderful shot from the sand to save his par in the last round. And when he did, you could see the top half of his body.

“Three decades later, of course, David Duval got stuck against the face and basically couldn’t get out. It was too severe. So now we have something that is between those two extremes.

“The ground left of the bunker has also been remodelled so that more balls will feed into the sand. Going ‘long and left’ won’t be quite as easy as it has been in the past.”