Seeing The Old Course Through Architectural Eyes
St. Andrews, Scotland—For the 29th time The Old Course at St. Andrews will serve as host for the 144th Open Championship.. The famed Old Course features 112 bunkers, the most famous being the Road bunker at the penultimate hole—the 17th. Not only is the bunker there ferocious, but the hole also adds insult to injury with an actual road and stonewall that awaits the too aggressive play.
Amazingly, when Tiger Woods won the 2000 Open, he never played once from any of the many bunkers scattered around the property.
The Old Course features seven double greens and is a traditional links in which a number of holes play away from the starting point—on nearly a straight line—before turning back for the remaining six holes.
The town is inexorably linked to the core of the course.
Architecturally speaking, The Old Course has evolved over centuries. Golf was first played here before Christopher Columbus had discovered America.
To get a better sense of what The Old Course provides, four American golf architects weigh in on the key elements tied to the course and how it may play this week for the world’s finest players.
Lester George: Golf course architect for 25 years, located in Richmond, VA. Member of the ASGCA since 2006, also retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel. Notable award-winning designs and renovations include Kinloch Golf Club, The Old White, Country Club of Florida, Ballyhack Golf Club, Independence Golf Club. www.georgegolfdesign.com.
Richard Mandell: Based in Pinehurst, North Carolina, is an Associate member of the ASGCA and has designed or renovated over 60 courses since 1992. Among his most prominent works are Skydoor Golf Club in China and Keller Golf Course in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Kelly Blake Moran: In 31 years he has collaborated with other professionals in design, permitting, and construction of 23 new golf courses, and renovation of 15 existing golf courses in five (5) countries. Can be reached at [email protected] or through his Website: www.kellyblakemoran.com.
Ian Andrew: Has been a golf course architect since 1989, a member of the ASGCA since 2004 and lives just outside Toronto. www.Andrewgolf.com.
MATT WARD: What was your first impression of The Old Course ?
IAN ANDREW: I walked the course years before I ever played there. I knew the strength of the course was found in subtle details and the way it played as opposed to how it looked. So I walked from bunker to bunker, green to green and started to accumulate ideas for future use. I was a very young architect at the time and it was like taking a master class in golf course architecture. If anything I was a little overwhelmed. It changed my design philosophy on what made great golf.
RICHARD MANDELL: My very first impression was excitement and curiosity. Of all the things one can say about the Old Course, it has such a specific design concept behind it that is rarely matched anywhere. Beyond the double greens, which I absolutely love, the idea of aggressive down the right side and conservative down the left side on almost all the holes is very innovative. The right side also brings out of bounds into play whereas the safe side keeps one within the golf course boundaries; the origins of risk/reward, which are rarely referenced in modern design.
LESTER GEORGE: I was most favorably impressed by the Old Course when I finally got to play it. It is absolutely one of the most fun golf courses I have ever played. I was particularly enthralled with how much it demands that you consider all the approaches to the hole. Going “to ground” became the preferred approach inside of eighty yards because of the wind, and it made for a really enjoyable experience.
KELLY BLAKE MORAN: The first time I saw and played the course I was impressed by the close proximity of the course to the town; it snuggled into the corner of the town; and, I expected the greens to be much more contoured when in fact many of the greens had plateaus that were somewhat level. That was a surprising discovery.
MW: A few years back the R&A instituted a number of course alterations on The Old Course. What was your take on the necessity of such actions ?
KBM: Purportedly, no material changes have been attempted in over 100 years. They have now treated this course like every other course in the world and risk tainting its special status. Probably the one change that on the surface seemed plausible was the taming of the slope on 11 green to make a pin area. However, if the slope is reduced then it is just another pin area protected by a bunker. The original slope in combination with the bunkers and broken ground around it is what made it special. A slower green speed would have been a better solution rather than to disturb the ground there.
RM: It seems to me that many of the changes were to create more pin placements. If the need to create more pin placements was in response to making the greens faster, then I am not happy with those changes because it does indeed affect the sanctity of the golf course and the principles of great golf architecture, one of which is fun greens as a result of interesting contours, not speedy greens. If we truly look to the Old Course as the home of golf, then it is a shame that the home of golf is compromising interest for the sake of fast greens for the professionals.
LG: At first I felt that it could be left alone. In a pure sense, it was one of the courses we could most rely on to be historic in its design and least corrupted by the modern game. However, I have come to understand that some of the changes were probably necessary. The one that sticks out in my mind was number 11 green. There were just not quite enough hole locations. Change is inevitable, and if going to be carried out, at least they let an accomplished architect conduct the work.
IA: If the R&A had simply addressed the ball it would never have spent 16 million lengthening every Open rota course to protect par. But even the changes themselves are so completely unnecessary because the low score always wins and it has never mattered what anyone shoots at The Open. But it only mattered to Peter Dawson. The Old Course changes were where they crossed the line for me. They were inconsequential to the outcome and defiled the most important piece of golf architecture the game has. They were arrogant to think they could improve upon what was there.
MW: If you could make one adjustment to The Old Course what would it be ?
LG: For me personally, I want to play it more. Architecturally, none.
IA: I’d be happy if they just stop tinkering with the course. If I had to pick one thing, I would remove the recently added two bunkers on the right of the 2nd green. I’ve collected ideas for decades and the 2nd green site was one of my “Essential 18” for future architects to see and understand before you practice golf course architecture.
KBM: I would reduce and eliminate much of the irrigation infrastructure with the intent of returning the course to something resembling what Bobby Jones found so endearing as evidenced by this comment from him: “I am happy now that I did not miss playing seaside golf when the greens were hard and unwatered and the fairways and putting surfaces like glass. Nothing resulting from man-made design can equal the testing qualities of such conditions.”
RM: It is what it is and that is a very special golf course through its history, place in the game, and that it truly is a different design concept. I am not saying it should never be touched, I am just not sure what one would do to the course to advance the game there. Adding tees and softening greens are two things that shouldn’t be done solely in the name of the Open Championship, though.
MW: For many first time visitors to The Old Course there is a sense the course is not as great as many have stated. Why do you think that is ?
IA: North Americans are very visually driven. They are caught off guard by the number of blind shots and the constant lack of definition. Good shots seem to get bad results and bad shots go without penalty. It simply doesn’t match the North American well-struck, well-rewarded style of architecture. They ask after, how can anything be good when chance is playing such a large role in the outcome? North American’s prefer an architectural roadmap.The Old Course is like a great work of literature. Each time you study the work, you begin to realize the book is even far more complex than you could have ever first imagined.
LG: Looks can be deceiving. The Old Course has to played to be completely appreciated. It was a game-changer for me. Bobby Jones, whose worst indiscretion in golf occurred when he walked off the course out of frustration, later said, “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews, and I would still have a rich and full life.” That says it all.
RM: I am afraid that it is because it just isn’t a pretty course in many ways. In addition, double greens and cris-crossing holes are so foreign to other courses that I think many think it is goofy golf despite these features being there long before any American parkland course, the USGA, Golf Channel, Greens Committees, or the PGA Tour.
KBM: It is difficult to absorb the entire landscape and make sense of where you are on the course in proximity to other holes and features. This creates a sense of disorientation and at first may be viewed as a negative. This course is unlike any course in the United States so it takes a few rounds at The Old Course to appreciate its qualities and to forget what you thought you knew a golf course should be like.
MW: What’s your impression of The Road Hole? Fan or foe ?
KBM: Playing the tee shot over a hotel advertisement is a bit of a compromise to recapture the original play over some sheds. I do like the strategy that incorporates different angles and challenges depending on whether you play with risk to the right side of the fairway or play safe to the left side of the fairway with some risk. The massive, winding slope through the front of the green is one of the great features ever incorporated into a putting green and is a perfect col for a narrow greens with a road and wall in back of it.
LG: Absolutely a FAN! The Road Hole is easily one of the best par four holes in the world. Intriguing, quirky, difficult, exhilarating, and rewarding—all wrapped up in the same package. A blind (left-to-right) drive over a building, a long second shot (right-to-left) around the most ferocious bunker on the course, to a green that is like a fortress, with a road and wall behind. It doesn’t get any better in my mind.
IA: You have the opportunity to take as an aggressive line as you dare down the right and be richly rewarded with position. You can also play a passive line left and play around your problems. After the aggressive tee shot you can show your skill and play a draw, short right, and use the ground contours removing the risk of the road beyond, or roll the bones and play a fade and have everything on the line in one swing. Sounds like one of the greatest holes in the game to me.
RM: I am a fan of the Road Hole. Tough as nails and playing over the corner of the Old Course Hotel makes it different.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.