The Old Course at St Andrews is a beautiful thing, golf’s Mona Lisa really. Images of the vast first/18th fairway are familiar to just about everyone who has ever played the game. And many who have not. More than that though, the Home of Golf is a masterclass, a course that demands a peerless range of skills. It’s not just how far shots are struck. It’s not just how straight they fly. It’s not just about how well a player chips or putts the ball. It’s all of those things, and so much more.
That is the beauty of the Old Course. The position of the flag determines strategy off the tee, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that each player will adopt the same strategy. There are options, whether a player decides to attack in an effort to make birdie, or if he is happy to leave a long two-putt for par across one of the vast greens. That decision will determine the line off the tee, which is the charm, the essence and the nature of the Old Course.
Perhaps the best of the myriad tests it presents is a demand for courage. The venue for the 150th Open remains a place where the brave can prosper, as it has been the previous 29 times it has hosted golf’s oldest championship. Take the iconic Road Hole, the 17th, a 495-yard (453-metre) par 4 where danger lurks on every shot. Two bold swings are asked for, just to make a regulation figure. Even the best must summon “it” under the severest pressure. And only the very best pass such a stringent examination of their talents.
All of which we will see next week. So long, that is, as Grant Moir, the R&A’s director–rules, does his job and sets-up the iconic links to encourage and enhance all of the things that make the Old Course great. It’s a challenge Moir, part of the set-up team at The Open since 2009, embraces.
“We all recognise that there is always a focus on how any Open venue will play,” says the 51-year-old Scot, a law graduate of the University of Edinburgh. “We do get second-guessed, and there is more of a focus on the Old Course than any other on the Open rota. There is always the question of how it will stand up to players at the highest level. So the focus is more intense here. But in the past the course has always found a way to challenge them.”
Indeed, one of the best things about the R&A’s stewardship of the Open is an apparent lack of concern over the winning score. What will be will be. Or, in more modern parlance, “it is what it is.” Which is, to be fair, perhaps the only attitude to adopt when conditions in the United Kingdom can vary so much hour-to-hour, never mind day-to-day.
So it is that the real key at The Open is not how many but just plain how scores are compiled. The arbitrary concept and line-in-the-sand that is par is almost irrelevant. The task instead is to provoke the best players in the world into displaying their peerless talents to the most evocative extent – no matter the winning number.
Augusta National does almost annually at the Masters. Those who watched Tiger Woods play Royal Melbourne at the 2019 Presidents Cup saw maybe the best player ever separate himself from all others on an Old Course-like stage that perfectly illustrated and encouraged his shot-making superiority. That is what St Andrews has always done, maybe better than anywhere else on the planet. It is no coincidence that Woods has twice claimed the claret jug at golf’s most historic venue.
“On any given day we want to present the course in a challenging way,” Moir says. “But absolutely accepting that there is a point where we can only do so much. Then you just have to let the players play. And at some point in time, someone will have a very low score. We’re not too concerned with scores on any given day. Or the winning score.”
Ah, but this year is a little different. Spurred on by the distance advances in the modern game, and given favourable weather, there are some who forecast the potential for scores to be of the record variety, even a few that could begin with a 5. As many as six par 4s will be in range of turbo-charged tee shots. The closing 18th is one of those. Down even a slight prevailing breeze, the 361-yarder (330 metres) is these days little more than a long par 3 for the game’s elite.
“I fear for the Old Course at The Open,” says Colin Montgomerie, Scotland’s leading male golfer of the past 30 years. “If the wind doesn’t blow, a number of players are going to go extremely low. I guarantee the course record will be broken. We have players now actively considering driving the first green. That’s a serious issue… I have no problem with people shooting 61 and 62, but is that really Major championship golf? Especially when we look at how such scores are achieved.”
Six-time Major winner Phil Mickelson is another with concerns. “It’s possible we could see someone break 60,” says the 2013 Open champion. “I’ve seen some really low scores there.”
“I don’t know what the reaction would be to a sub-60 score,” Moir responds. “I haven’t really considered it. The lowest score in any Major for a long time was 63. Then Branden Grace shot 62 at Royal Birkdale five years ago. That was a good story, one that was always going to happen at some point. And it happened there. I don’t think we are necessarily preparing ourselves for any type of reaction based on the scoring.”
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Still, even with the prospect of possible sub-60 in the air, the prevailing hope is that the unpredictable Caledonian climate will instead do nothing but enhance the almost endless variety of questions asked by the Old Course. The word “strategic” gets used a lot in course descriptions these days, but the concept was invented at St Andrews.
“That’s the beauty of the Old Course,” Moir says, who uses the fourth hole as an example. “When the pin is way left on the green in a very challenging position. The easier tee shot is to hit left, towards the 15th fairway. But if you do that you are basically settling for, at best, a 20-yard putt for birdie. Or a two-putt par, which is a perfectly acceptable score. But taking on the challenge by hitting more to the right into a narrow part of the fairway brings the bunkers into play. That will give a more realistic opportunity to make birdie. But do you want to take that risk from the tee?”
Almost every hole on the Old Course asks similar questions. But perhaps nowhere are the choices made more important than on the 14th hole, one of the game’s great par 5s. The questions begin on the tee, but the most important is “Where do I want to be after two shots?” The answer isn’t always “right by the green”, which is protected by huge mounds directly in front.
“The closer you get to the green in two, the harder it might be to get a 5,” Moir says. “And almost impossible to get a 4. You have to weigh up your chances of finding the green in two, or going over the back. That’s fine. But if all you can do is finish 50 yards short of the green, then maybe it is better to go way left. That opens up the green, taking out the extreme contours just short. It’s the perfect example of options, debate and decision-making.”
Given the vastness of the fairways – and the greens – moving a pin by as little as five paces can make as much as a 50-step change in the ideal position from which to approach. And it is here that Moir and the R&A can have their biggest influence. There is even time for a little fun, one challenge finding a pin position that hasn’t been used before.
“In the past couple of Opens we have had a pin position on the fifth green that is 85 yards on,” he says with a smile. “That substantially increases the length of the hole. But it’s quite a thing to see on a hole position sheet, ‘85 on’ and, say, ‘23 from the right.’ But that is the joy of the Old Course. On another day we could have the pin only 20 yards on at the fifth, past the false front. To have the ability to vary the way the hole plays to that extent is great for us.
Moving the pin left or right at the fifth, says Moir, can have a similar influence. “Last time at the Open, we used a pin position I’m not aware has been seen before. We put the pin way left behind the bunkers which most people would see as being in play on the 13th. But that’s only a good position when the hole plays into the wind and is a three-shot hole. Downwind, everyone plays to the middle of the green and putts across. There isn’t a lot of interest or variety in that. So we need the right conditions to use certain pin positions. As much as I might want to use a certain pin position, I need the discipline to not use it when conditions are not right.”
The fifth is not where we will see Moir’s favourite pin position, however. Amid all of the options at his disposal, one is more the result of a shoulder shrug than deep thought. Watch carefully on the last day of The Open when the players reach the driveable par-4 ninth.
“The ninth is the flattest green on the course,” Moir says. “It might be one of the flattest on earth. But we have to accept that we have run out of ideas there. So, in the past couple of Opens we have stuck the pin literally in the middle of the green on the last day – center-center. It’s like, ‘There is no more we can do here chaps, on you go.’ If it’s reachable off the tee, eagles then become possibilities, which is not the worst thing at a good time in the round.”
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The sometimes-controversial subject of green speed regularly comes up at the Old Course. Play has been suspended at each of the past two St Andrews Opens, as well as at the 2013 Women’s Open there, when high winds made it impossible for balls to stay at rest.
Moir says sometimes the course just isn’t playable, especially when the wind is blowing strongly off the Eden Estuary. “That is a regular wind at St Andrews,” he says. “We checked to see if we had just been unlucky or whether that was a regular pattern. The answer is that, in the summer months, any significant winds always come from the south, south-west. And they are regular. So we weren’t unlucky. Those winds are not that unusual. We have to be mindful of that.”
Without those sorts of gusts, Moir is looking at green speeds of about 10.5 feet. That allows him to move in either direction based on the weather.
“When dealing with players at the highest level, firmness of greens is a key aspect of the challenge,” he says. “If they are not firm, which is not something we can control given the weather in this part of the world, then the option of going left and not having to worry so much about the ‘run-out’ on the approach is reduced. A firm course makes a huge difference in terms of the strategy the players will employ.”
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One area where the R&A might be open to criticism is the seemingly increasing amount of long grass on a course that was never supposed to have any. Former head greenskeeper Eddie Adams, now employed by the DP World Tour, once said that ideally and with the exception of the first and 18th, where the Swilcan Burn crosses the fairways, players should be able to putt their way round. Those days are gone, perhaps most noticeably (or egregiously, depending on one’s point of view) at the 16th and 17th holes.
Where once the cluster of bunkers known as the “Principal’s Nose” occupied a spot close to the middle of the 16th fairway, they now sit only a few paces from the left rough. It is fair to speculate that most players will lay-up short of the bunkers and play to the green from there. Attempting to drive through the narrow gap between the legendary hazard and the out-of-bounds fence to the right remains an option. But it is hard to imagine many taking on such a high-risk play.
“There is an argument for no rough at all on this course,” Moir says. “I can see that. But there is an element of how this course plays today, day in and day out. If it was just fairway with balls running everywhere, then pace of play would be a huge issue. There is already a lot of crossing here. There is also an element of resource in terms of being able to cut that much grass. They are already stretched. So there is a balance.”
And at the 16th?
“There is no doubt that we want players to take on the shot between the fence and the bunkers,” Moir says. “The sense was that it had become too easy to play short and left off the tee. It didn’t seem to meet the challenge of the hole. That is still an option, but the bold move is to go further on up the right side. That’s what we hope will happen… So even with the rough that he have there, the debates will still go on standing on the tee. We could still have three players in the same group playing the hole three different ways.”
A similar debate is easy to have when the subject is the rough left at the Road Hole. Some would like to see that long grass eliminated, the theory being that if a player wants to hit his tee shot way left he should be allowed to do so, with the understanding that the further left one goes, the worse the angle into the iconic green becomes.
Even then, of course, the world’s best players are still going to be tempted by the “hero shot” that could lead to birdie… or double-bogey… or worse. That potential contrast in scenarios, so the argument goes, has to be more interesting and exciting than watching players bunt balls forward from long grass, pitching onto the putting surface and making a 4 or a 5 every time.
“If we had no rough left of the 17th, it would get pretty chaotic,” Moir says. “From an agronomic point of view, we can’t decide to take the rough away with three weeks to go. That’s how the course has played ever since I can remember. We don’t want hack-out rough. We still want people to be able to hit the shot Seve Ballesteros so memorably hit onto the green en route to winning The Open in 1984. Or at least try to.”
No matter the length or location of the rough, nowhere on the Old Course is the classic “car crash” more likely to occur than on the second shot to the penultimate green. Minutes after Ballesteros found the putting surface 38 years ago, Tom Watson failed. In commentary, former PGA champion, the late, great Dave Marr, described Watson’s 2-iron from what seemed to be the perfect spot on the right side of the fairway as “the wrong shot with the wrong club at the wrong time”, the ball finishing hard against the eponymous wall beyond the green.
“What we want on the right-hand side by the green is that if the ball kicks off, there are a number of possibilities as to where it will end up,” Moir says. “The rough isn’t thick on the other side of the road, so shots could end up tight to the wall, just as Watson did. The bank between road and green will also be cut reasonably short. But it will be a bit tufty. That makes the bounce unpredictable. Bumping it up from road to green is possible, but you are never quite sure of the outcome.”
Which is pretty much the perfect description of so many shots on the Old Course. Like the source of the enigmatic smile on the face of Da Vinci’s masterpiece in the Louvre, her mysteries continue to both charm and perplex in equal measure. Let’s hope so anyway.
TOP/MAIN PHOTO: Dom Furore