“It’s only my opinion and carries no weight, but I will say ‘Forgive them Old Tom for they know not what they do,” raged Melvyn Hunter Morrow, when he heard the R&A will lengthen the iconic Road Hole – the 17th at The Old Course at St. Andrews – by building a new tee on part of the adjacent Eden Course. “Certainly, Peter Dawson seems totally in charge of a sinking ship,” he continued, venting to his colleagues on the discussion board of GolfClubAtlas.com, an internationally respected on-line think tank on the subject of golf design and which includes prominent architects and golf industry professionals among its members.
Morrow’s opinion actually carries considerable weight: He is the direct descendent of Old Tom Morris, the professional player, architect, and greenskeeper whose legacy and that of both the Old Course and the Open Championship are inextricably intertwined. The family has served that precious legacy with great altruism for decades.
Yet Morrow’s was not the only disillusioned voice. Some detractors lament the incessant intrusions to the adjacent courses in order to lengthen the Old Course. No less than five new tees (including the as yet un-built 17th), will be located on the design of another golf course.
“What’s annoying me the most is the seemingly uncaring desecration (okay, maybe a bit strong, but!) of the adjacent courses in the name of ‘improving’ the Old Course,” lamented Martin Bonnar, a fellow Scot. “Ah, but the Eden has been so raped and ravished, that another despoilment won’t hurt her any more, will it?” he finished acidly.
Others can’t understand why the R&A would need to do anything to the Road Hole in the first place. Every time the pro tours come, the 17th is not just the hardest hole on the golf course, it’s the hardest hole they play all year. In the three consecutive Open Championships – 1995, 2000, and 2005 – the Road Hole was the hardest hole that entire golf season. In fact, since 1995, the only hole that was ever played higher to par in any year was the 17th at Olympic in 1998, and that was due to Tom Meeks’s carelessness in setting the green speed.
“The Road Hole doesn’t need to be lengthened,” bleated one golf journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Road Hole played to a 4.626 scoring average last year. And in the last twenty years only one hole has been harder. Hit it in the greenside bunker – you’re dead,” he said, indicating the eight-foot deep pot which actually draws in many more shots since its surrounds sink into itself rather than repelling shots, making the bunker effectively much larger. “Hit it just a little too far, and you’re over the narrow green and in the road or against the wall – you’re dead,” he continued. “Look at the 2005 stats: It’s still the hardest hole in golf.”
But therein lies the problem, say some supporters of the move. During the last Open Championship, the R&A added rough to the left side of the Road Hole. It was an artificially induced solution to combat the advances in equipment technology. It wasn’t the same Road Hole it had been for many decades. It forced the players to club down off the tee, yet still have longer iron approaches, but was also decried as blasphemy by both purists and design experts alike.
The 2005 Road Hole didn’t play the way it was meant to play. For 100 years or more it had never been a center-line hole, but a strategic hole: the further left you played into the fat part of the fairway, the shallower the green became and the more the perilous Road Bunker came directly into the line of play. Take the Tiger’s line down the right – all the while flirting with out-of-bounds – and have a better angle, looking down the axis of the green and with the Road Bunker off to the left side.
Now, even further advances in the last five years have brought the problem to critical mass at many great courses around the globe, not just St. Andrews. Augusta National has also been the subject of pointed debate with the addition of rough to a course that never had or needed any a few short years ago. Rough was added to cut down on length, but it also eliminated options for playing strategies.
According to a recent study by Dave Pelz, before 2003, no more than 18 players ever averaged 290 yards off the tee. But since 2003, no less than 62 players have averaged at least 290 yards.
“In my 30+ years of teaching, I’ve never seen such a fundamental shift in the way the game is played than in the way PGA Tour players make even the longest courses play like a pitch and putt,” Pelz wrote to Golf Magazine this fall. Indeed, it seemed even the mighty Road Hole was destined to become driver-wedge. Hence the rough.
Supporters of the change back to a wider fairway and longer hole allege that at least the Road Hole’s admirable strategies will be restored. It’s clear why the R&A is making the change; the Road Hole does not play the way it used to. Sure, this particular change to the Road hole is a mere extension of the teeing ground, seemingly benign, but everyone agrees there is just no more room on the course for further length. But opponents are terrified that these simple changes may lead to more extensive alterations such as moving bunkers or re-shaping greens.
“Isn’t this an admission on their own part that they have lost control of the game of golf?” asked one golf fan. The writer of that comment refers to the nearly unlimited power wielded by equipment manufacturers who have balked at all efforts to curb the increasing distance afforded by modern equipment. The announcement that grooves will be rolled back from u-grooves to v-grooves next year met considerable blowback from manufacturers. Limits on the size of drivers – now at 460 cc – were equally unpopular. Even the Masters has discussed moving to a “Masters ball,” somewhere between 80 and 90 the length of a present-day golf ball triggering further response from equipment makers.
We may be seeing golf’s rejoinder to the Boston Tea Party, the event that will trigger hostilities between the equipment manufacturers on the one hand, and the USGA and R&A as golf’s rule-making bodies on the other. In an interview with Golf Obsever’s Jon Huggan, Peter Uihlein of Titleist hinted that equipment manufacturers might explore lawsuits to prevent further. His rationale is that he wants to ensure “due process” in decision making, but the ominous and potentially expensive threat has wielded great power thus far.
Something has to give. Modern courses taut machismo and unbelievable length, but cost exponentially more to build and maintain. Meanwhile strategic courses like the National Golf Links of America still confound even professional golfers with their randomly placed bunkers and strategic lines of attack and defense, and National is still less than 7,000 yards. Courses like National and St. Andrews demonstrate that maybe the old strategies are better defenses than center-line penal courses. Any more changes to The Old Course might necessarily dilute its strategic genius, an unforgivable blasphemy.
“I don’t really approve,” said one golf fan, “but anything has to be better than the stupid collar of rough across the fairway that just shrieked ‘WE ARE THE R&A AND WE HAVE SURRENDERED OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO GOVERN THIS GAME.’
“…yes I go alone with that and totally endorse it,” agreed Morrow sourly, every bit the laconic Scot. “However I would love to see them [the R&A] take real control and do what is required to save the game we know today as golf….The R&A are good at making money but very poor when it comes to knowing what they are doing…One day the penny may drop and they may remember that they once were in charge of the game. Regrettably I fear their days are numbered and quite rightly so.”
Both Jay and Golf Observer wish to thank Melvyn Morrow and GCA.com for their assistance with this article.