John Huggan: Sacrilege at St Andrews

Road to Hell: The Old Course's famous 17th hole ' the Road Hole ' bears the scars of alterations being carried out to make it tougher for the pros. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
Road to Hell: The Old Course's famous 17th hole ' the Road Hole ' bears the scars of alterations being carried out to make it tougher for the pros. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
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Golf’s shrine has been desecrated in an act of staggering arrogance by those meant to care for it

Whenever the various golf magazines across the globe publish their (usually wildly inaccurate) lists of the “100 Best Courses”, it has always been all but impossible to find the correct spot for the Old Course at St Andrews. The most famous and revered course in the world has forever been the most difficult to categorise or rank relative to its so-called peers.

Unique in both its style and the myriad challenges it presents to players of all standards, the ancient links to the west of the “Auld Grey Toun” is the model upon which all other courses across the globe have been built, a monument to all that is good about Scotland’s greatest-ever export. And so it has a mystical and unrepeatable quality. To rate its worth against mere copies is therefore akin to comparing Rory McIlroy with the average member at the world No.1’s home club of Holywood just outside Belfast. It can be done – and pleasure can be gained from both – but there is little doubt as to the identity of the more sophisticated, exciting and interesting golfer.

All of which is more than enough reason to suggest that the essential character of the Old Course should never be messed with. It must be left as it has always been, if only so that students of the game can make the pilgrimage to Fife and learn the very essence of “proper” golf.

Sadly, of course, recent events have overtaken that basic premise. In consultation with the Championship Committee of the R&A and course architect Martin Hawtree, the St Andrews Links Trust (the body that manages the seven courses in and around the town) have arbitrarily decided to make what appear to be significant changes to as many as nine holes on the Old Course. With an act of staggering arrogance, they have apparently deemed themselves better qualified than Mother Nature – which, in the case of the all-male R&A at least, is just another example of their rampant misogyny – when it comes to knowing what is best for golf’s shrine.

Even more depressingly, these obviously controversial moves were planned almost in secret and announced less than three days before the first shovel desecrated the sacred turf. Of course, such indecent haste only increased the level of outrage and disappointment felt throughout the world of golf. Even the least cynical have been hard pushed not to conclude that this was the unworthy action of scoundrels, especially as a precedent had already been set.

In stark contrast to what has transpired lately, an extensive consultation process was worked through in 2009, when alterations were made to the adjacent Jubilee course. Back then, Hawtree’s plans for the course were on public display for a full two weeks and director of greenkeeping Gordon Moir was regularly made available for questions. But this time? Nothing. Clearly, someone somewhere felt there was something to hide.

As to the motivation behind this startling departure from the norm, the R&A’s chief executive, Peter Dawson, trotted out the hoary old line that the Old Course just isn’t tough enough to challenge the very best players and their massive tee shots. “The Championship Committee felt there was an opportunity to stiffen its defences in some places to ensure it remains as challenging as ever to the professionals,” he said.

Which brings us, inexorably and inevitably, to the real reason why anyone would ever imagine change was required at the Old Course. And why at least some of those responsible for those changes – namely the R&A – felt the need for such subterfuge. Quite simply, they are feeling guilty about letting us all down. Or, if they are not, they should be.

If the R&A and their rulesmaking counterparts across the pond, the USGA, had been awake at the wheel over the last 20 years or so, then the game’s most iconic venue and countless other great tracks around the world would not have been stretched to within an inch of their lives. In fact, in the case of the Old Course, it has gone beyond even that. The 2010 Open was actually played on multiple courses – the Old, the New, the Eden, the Himalayas putting course and, on the Road Hole, from a newly constructed tee in a nearby field. It was embarrassing to witness, without even getting into the disgraceful growing of rough in some of the most historically inappropriate places.

So the problem is not that the Old Course is suddenly obsolete in the face of bigger, stronger, faster players, it is that the modern ball and the frying-pan-like driver heads need to be regulated. Knock 40 yards off the ball and reduce the size of the drivers and the problem goes away, leaving clubs free to spend money on things more important than new tees somewhere off in the wilderness.

Certainly, action in the area of distance would have been more appropriate last week than the relatively insignificant matter of “anchoring” when putting. While anything that limits the effectiveness of long and belly putters is to be welcomed, the effect those admittedly dreadful implements have had on the game – at any level – is negligible when measured against the untold and frightening amounts of cash spent unnecessarily on “toughening” courses. (Good luck, by the way, to rules officials everywhere when it comes to determining whether or not a player “intended” to anchor his putter or not).

Having said all that, it is with the St Andrews Links Trust that ultimate responsibility for the administration of the Old Course lies. Owned by the townspeople of St Andrews, the links are managed by eight nominated trustees (three from Fife council, three from the R&A, one from the Scottish government and, in an ex-officio capacity, the MP for North East Fife, Sir Menzies Campbell). Strangely, under the 
St Andrews Links Confirmation Act of 1974, no restrictions are placed on how the trustees manage the seven courses, including the Old Course.

Still, there is an inherent moral obligation implied in any such arrangement. The eight trustees are employed to act in the best interests of those who live in St Andrews, so it is safe to assume that they can best do so by keeping those local residents informed as to their actions, especially in matters of unusual importance. In this case, they have clearly failed in that basic duty.

Yes, it is true that the R&A and Links Trust consulted with five local clubs. But those clubs, being private, are merely stakeholders who do not own the links. Instead, the proposals should have been revealed to both the people of St Andrews and, surely, golfers all around the world. Had that been the case, it is clear from the general reaction across the globe that none of the digging and scraping currently defacing the Old Course would be taking place.

What a pity those responsible for this outrage, this debacle, did not take the time to read the learned words of the great Dr Mackenzie. Shame on them all.