John Huggan: Old Course changes were unnecessary

The Road Bunker, the 17th Road Hole green and the 18th fairway on the Old Course at St Andrews.  Picture: Getty
The Road Bunker, the 17th Road Hole green and the 18th fairway on the Old Course at St Andrews. Picture: Getty
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FOUR months on from the worldwide stooshie provoked by proposed changes to golf’s most famous and historic venue, work on the first phase of what the St Andrews Links Trust and the R&A like to call “improvements” has been completed on the Old Course.

All that remains now is for what has variously been described as “a bad dream” and “madness” (five-time Open champion and R&A member Peter Thomson), “disgusting and embarrassing” (former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy) and “insane” (world No.11 Ian Poulter) to successfully bed in.

Specifically, alterations of varying hues have been made to the second, seventh, 11th and 17th holes. What all have in common, however, is that each – with the possible exception of re-contouring work on the seventh fairway – is clearly designed to make the Old Course more difficult for competitors in the Open Championship.

That fact makes even more perplexing the complicity of the Links Trust (which administers all seven St Andrews courses) in this R&A-driven project, one that highlights the failure of the game’s rules-making body to administer the technology-driven explosion in distance that has so diminished golf at the professional level since the turn of the century. In these times of ever-slower play, one would logically imagine that the last thing the Old Course needs is visitors hitting even more shots and so taking even longer to get round. But that’s just me, apparently.

“As part of the process undertaken before we gave permission for the work to begin, I visited each of the local clubs – the St Andrews Club, The New Club, St Rule, St Regulus and the R&A – to see what the members thought,” says Euan Loudon, chief executive of the Links Trust, pictured below. “Surprisingly, there was almost universal support.”

Loudon’s tour of the Auld Grey Toon was actually the last stage of an operation that began when R&A representatives arrived at his door. A course walk followed, Links Trust officials joining R&A chief executive Peter Dawson and Jim McArthur, chairman of the championship committee. But only after a detailed presentation by the R&A was a professional course designer, Martin Hawtree, engaged.

That last bit is interesting, if only because, back in December, Dawson said the following: “The proposals from Martin Hawtree should place more of a premium on accuracy and ball control while retaining the spirit and character of the Old Course.”

So who was actually behind this controversial saga?

“From my perspective, the R&A came to us with what they saw as the ‘big picture’,” says Loudon. “Martin was the detail man.”


“But we didn’t accept everything that was put to us,” continues Loudon. “For example, there was originally talk of a new bunker on the left side of the sixth hole, beyond the Coffin bunkers at driving distance. We rejected that idea. Such a bunker would alter the character of the hole.

“So I understand there are legitimate counter arguments, one that says ‘don’t ever tinker with the Old Course’, and another outlining the futility of trying to out-run technology.

“There was, however, no obligation on our part to go along with the R&A’s wishes. In fact, when they first came to us I don’t think there was any expectation in the minds of Peter and Jim that any of this was going to pass first base.”

OK, following that rather startling revelation, let’s look at exactly what has been done.

At the second, two bunkers short and right of the putting surface have been moved maybe 15 yards closer to the green. The previously flattish area of ground on that side has also been made a bit more “humpy and bumpy”. The reasoning for both is simple: in their previous locations the bunkers were pretty much out of play and a pitch/chip/putt from that side was “too easy”, at least in the minds of the great body of men known as the R&A. In other words, Dawson & Co (Course Architects) would like to place the pin on the right side of the green – behind the bunkers – at least once during the Open, thereby increasing the difficulty of the hole.

Here’s the thing though. Drives down the right side from the second tee have traditionally and practically (balls finishing on the parallel 17th fairway inevitably cause delay) offered the best angle into the green. That is common to almost every hole on the Old Course – left is safe, right is advantageous but risky. Now, though, when the pin is placed on the right side, the premium position for the approach shot will, by my estimation, be close to the reception area in the Old Course Hotel. Which makes sense only if this is seen as the logical extension of the curious policy pursued by the R&A in the last couple of Opens: if teeing grounds can be placed outside the boundaries of the course, why not fairways?

Change on the seventh hole has seen the large depression in the driving area filled in and a slight mound created. This will make the lives of the hard-pressed green keepers a bit easier. Where once there was a closely drawn area of divot holes, now the damage will be more widely spread. Which is all very well, but is that really a good enough reason to start messing with ground that has been unchanged for centuries on what is, after all, golf’s ultimate monument? Just asking.

On the 11th hole, the back left portion of the sloping green has been flattened to allow “more hole location options”. What the R&A failed to mention, however, was that the only reason pins couldn’t be “located” back there was that the green – at least during the Open – is too fast. Given that all 18 greens on any course can never be exactly the same speed, wouldn’t it be easier to cut the grass on the 11th a bit higher than, say, the relatively flat ninth? As Ogilvy pointed out in his scathing assessment of this particular change: “We’re the best golfers in the world, surely we can work out that the green is slower. We’re not that precious.”

Finally, at the world-renowned Road Hole, the infamous greenside bunker has been re-shaped and the ground to its immediate left now displays more pronounced “humps and bumps” than before. It must also be acknowledged that the work on the bunker itself is a credit to a clearly talented staff led by director of green keeping Gordon Moir and course manager Gordon McKie. Golf’s most notorious hazard is now exactly as it should be, the front lip high enough and the angle of the face steep enough to make life difficult for even the most highly skilled but, crucially, not impossible.

The motivation behind the re-contouring left of the bunker is that too many balls were finishing just short of the sand. Now, so the theory goes, more errant approaches will inexorably find their way into the bunker. Which is fine, but, yet again, an obvious question comes to mind: why does a par-4 that averaged closer to bogey than par at the last Open need to be made more difficult? And does it really have to be so tough and so penal that the average player is going to have a hard time enjoying it? Again, just asking.

“You make a good point,” acknowledges Loudon. “Those statistics were not part of our thinking. Maybe they should have been.”

Sadly, the real answer to virtually every question posed here is that none of these changes were needed per se. As Loudon admits, no one was beating a path to his door demanding work be done on any of the four holes cited here. And we’re not finished yet. We still have “phase two” – involving changes to the third, fourth, sixth, ninth and 15th – to look forward to.

History, one feels, will not be kind to the perpetrators of this folly. Committed in the name of progress, it is, in actuality, part of a pathetically transparent cover-up of administrative incompetence. Knock 30 yards off the ball and none of the above would be remotely necessary.