John Huggan: The Old Course comes up short

Dustin Johnson lost the place after a promising start, with a 75 in the third round. Picture: Getty

Dustin Johnson lost the place after a promising start, with a 75 in the third round. Picture: Getty

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But Open was longest ever as other Johnson, Zach, sprang a surprise in an anti-climax, writes John Huggan

SO, the 144th Open Championship – the longest ever at five days and 76 holes – is in the record books. We got ourselves a surprising winner. There was some typical – at least in the eyes of our colonial cousins – Scottish weather. And happily, more than a few talking points emerged along the way. Let’s get to them:

1 THE CHAMPION GOLFER OF THE YEAR

Well, we all thought Johnson was going to win, didn’t we? But it was Dustin, not Zach, pictured below, who attracted most of the attention going into St Andrews. While the former played abysmally after a promising start – his 75 in the third round must surely qualify as the worst round of 2015 so far – the latter showed his finest qualities over the closing holes on Monday.

Quite simply, Johnson (Z) did the things champions do. He holed the putts that mattered. And he avoided the truly destructive shot, what swing coach Hank Haney calls “the big miss”.

Yes, Zach got a huge break on the 18th green in regulation when he made an outrageous 35-footer for birdie that ultimately got him into the play-off. But that’s also what winners do – they grab their opportunities.

2 THE PLAY-OFF

Forgetting for a moment the inherent dissatisfaction that comes with any kind of extra-hole scenario – sudden death is too random and a full 18 holes invariably tedious – this was a bit of an anti-climax. Yes, four holes is perhaps the only relatively satisfactory compromise available to the R&A. But while 1-2-17-18 on the Old Course is logistically obvious, it wasn’t really the best way to decide a championship of this magnitude.

Think about it. How many really challenging shots are there within those four holes? One, the second shot to the 17th. It was particularly noticeable – and no coincidence – that the best player in the play-off, Louis Oosthuizen, hit by far the best approach to the elusive Road Hole green. Otherwise, he was unable to assert his obvious superiority amid a plethora of lay-ups and wedge shots – a combination that played to Johnson’s limited strengths.

It would be way too harsh to say we got the “wrong” winner, but the prospect of identifying the “right” one was much diminished.

3 THE OLD COURSE (1)

For those who care about such things, 15 under par was no doubt a satisfactory winning score. Not too low and not too high. But walking around, questions came to mind about how golf’s most famous monument was set up by the bumbling R&A.

Appallingly and inappropriately, the Old Course surely has more long grass growing within its boundaries than at any time in its long history. With varying degrees of offensiveness, many bunkers are surrounded by rough. Plus, almost all of those wonderful hazards now appear man-made. So perfectly round are they, their faces close to vertical, they resemble doughnuts more than bunkers.

Of course, you can legitimately argue that none of the above matters when, as was the case with the two new bunkers right and short of the second green, the pin positions are so distant as to render their presence wholly superfluous. But here’s the thing. Everything the R&A did to prepare the Old Course for this Open was designed to make the ancient links more difficult. Not more interesting. Not more fun. Just more difficult.

Why is that, you ask? Because the modern golf ball hit by a frying-pan driver wielded by a leading professional goes way too far. And why is that? Because of the R&A’s utter incompetence in the realm of technological administration. Not that they will be owning up to the charge any time soon.

4 THE OLD COURSE (2)

Following in the not-so-admirable footsteps of the 2010 Open and the 2013 British Women’s Open, for the third major championship in succession play at St Andrews was stopped last week because of “high winds”. Which doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

Yes, it got a bit windy. But not enough to stop play on any of the local courses around the Auld Grey Toon. Everywhere in the vicinity of the Old Course golfers were out enjoying their golf in the bracing and challenging conditions. Only the Open was shut for play.

Why is that? Because combined with any sort of stiff breeze, the greens on the Old Course are too fast. And why are they too fast? Because speedy putting surfaces represent just another way for the R&A to keep the scores up on a course that is short by modern professional standards.

And why do they need to do such a thing? Because the modern golf ball hit by a frying-pan driver wielded by a leading professional goes way too far. And why is that? Because of the R&A’s utter incompetence in the realm of technological administration. Not that they will be owning up to the charge any time soon.

Heard any of that somewhere before?

5 THE OLD COURSE (3)

On the positive side of the ledger, the aforementioned winning score was a tribute to the enduring qualities of the Old Course. A leisurely trip through the end-of-event statistics was revealing. As many as eight holes – 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 18 – averaged under par for the week. And five more – 2, 8, 11, 12 and 14 – averaged only just over par.

In other words, last week there were as many as 13 of the 18 that could legitimately be classed “birdie holes”. Only five – 4, 13, 15, 16 and 17 – were genuinely “difficult”, with the Road Hole, as ever, the toughest of them all. The average there was 4.65, consistent with the figures from the previous four Opens at St Andrews. In other words (2), the R&A’s remodelling of the Road Hole bunker and its surrounds failed miserably in its pointless aim to make the hardest hole in the world even harder. Ha!

6 THE BBC COVERAGE

In the six days that have passed since the winning putt was holed, the Beeb has taken what might be termed a good kicking for the seemingly off-hand and uncaring way it presented the world’s most important golf event. Suffice to say, our national broadcaster deserved every bit of the prolonged opprobrium that has come its way. The coverage was pitiful.

One last thing though. Any and all of the criticism should be reserved for the suits behind the scenes. The commentary – besides a couple of notable lapses into ancient sexism by Peter Alliss – was admirable, especially that of Ken Brown, Andrew Cotter and host Hazel Irvine. Top pros, all of them.

7 THE RYDER CUP

Although we are a month or so away from the start of the qualifying period and 14 months distant from the next matches themselves, this Open provided a strong hint that the next European Ryder Cup team is likely to look markedly different from the last.

Players such as Eddie Pepperell, Tommy Fleetwood, Danny Willett, Andy Sullivan, Marc Warren and maybe Paul Casey all look strong candidates for Darren Clarke’s side. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. But throw in established names such as Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia and it starts to look like a pretty strong team. Let’s hope so.

8 THE GRANDSTAND BEHIND THE 18TH GREEN

This happens every year. At every Open the stand behind the final green sits all but empty nearly all week. Closed to the general public, it is reserved for those with the cash to pay extra for the privilege of showing up hardly at all. It is a disgrace, one that annually exposes the R&A for the elitist organisation it still is. Shame on those involved for openly displaying such contempt for real golf fans.

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