Old Course Renovations Causing Uproar

The Old Course at St. Andrews (Photo: Scott MacLeod, FlagstickGolfPhotography.com)
The Old Course at St. Andrews is about to get some changes to the chagrin of many. (File Photo: Scott MacLeod)

You would think that with it being almost December there would not be a lot to talk about in golf these days.  No chance, it’s busier than ever and the chatter about the game is sure to only ramp up in the days ahead.

Much of that banter is on Twitter these days where golf talk has been centred on The Old Course at St. Andrews, the impending ruling on Anchoring Putters, and Qualifying Schools for both the PGA and LPGA Tours.  More on the putters and Q-Schools later but for today, let’s focus on what is happening at the Home of Golf.

Last Friday the St. Andrews Links Trust issued a press release that set the golf architecture world buzzing.  The Old Course is about to undergo a little tweaking.

You would think by the volume of the #savetheoldcourse campaign on Twitter that the Old Course still retained all the original features it did in the 1400’s but some of those on that bandwagon may need to take a history lesson or two.

Just seven years ago 90 bunkers were renovated at the Old Course and 160 yards were added.  It is but a small slice of the string of  alterations at the Old Course through the years.

In 1821 the Old Course measured but 3,189 yards out and the same back.  Today the course measures 7,305 yards (2010 Open Championship). Bunkers have been filled in and rebuilt over the years; the massive greens moved to having two holes on each in 1856 (seven double greens had been added in 1832), and the 18th green, it’s no original.  Old Tom Morris built that one himself in 1866.  He followed with a new first green four years later.  In 1904 at least thirteen bunkers were added in response to the new Haskell ball. And yes the course was once 22 holes but shortened to 18 in 1764.  The first tee used to actually sit where the British Golf Museum can be found today, before the R&A built their current clubhouse in 1854.  The first tee also used to be closer to Tom Morris’ Golf Shop, when the layout was played clockwise, opposite to what it is today.

Estimates based on the March Stones, which delineate the property boundaries, show that the property for the Old Course itself has expanded greatly over the years, widening it’s corridors massively.

These are just examples of how this treasure has changed through the years. Of course, each has been met with furor equal to what we have seen in the last few days.

One pundit even tried to compare it to the Mona Lisa, saying it had not been touched; why should the Old Course be?  I’ll leave you to discover for yourself just how much work has actually been done on the world’s most famous painting through the years.  Hint: more than you think.

I’m not saying it is right to make all these changes – it’s pretty narrow minded to make a decision on it based on a press release that came out a few days ago and the limits of my Old Course experience (although I walked it instead of playing it to get a real feel for it’s nuances just two years ago) but I’ll not join the crowd in making uninformed statements about the Old Course being completely true to it’s origins.  The heritage and history will never change but the course certainly has.  The same goes for other historic layouts around the world – the list is endless.

In preparation for the Old Course to host the 2015 Open Championship work has begun in the first of two stages of alterations.

Martin Hawtree was commissioned by the St. Andrews Links Trust which manages the Old Course and the other six courses at the Home of Golf, and The R&A Championship Committee, which organizes golf’s oldest major championship, to assess the Old Course and complete any related work.  Apparently the goal was to enhance the challenge for elite players without effecting the 99% of other golfers, the club and visiting players.  Of course, any changes would have to be in keeping with the “special character” of the layout.

The work is planned to take place in two phases over this winter and next and according to some reports, is already underway. The first phase involves work on the 2nd, 7th, 11th and 17th holes. The second phase will take place in winter 2013/14 with work on the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th and 15th holes.

The work will widen the Road Bunker on the 17th hole by half a metre at the right hand side and re-contour a small portion of the front of the green to enable it to gather more approach shots landing in that area.

A new bunker will be created on the right of the 3rd fairway and another on the left of the 9th fairway 20 yards short of the green. Bunkers will be repositioned closer to the right edge of the 2nd green and the right of the 4th green. A portion of the back left of the 11th green will be lowered to create more hole location options.

Euan Loudon, Chief Executive of St Andrews Links Trust, said, “The Old Course is renowned as one of the great Open venues and its continued prominence on the Open roster is crucially important to the economy and reputation of St Andrews. The Old Course has evolved over time and the Links Trust is delighted to be working with the Championship Committee in order to maintain the challenge of the course for elite tournament players and the thousands of golfers who play here each year.”

Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of The R&A, said, “We have considered the challenge presented to the world’s top golfers by each of The Open Championship venues and carried out a programme of improvements over the last ten years. While some holes have been lengthened on the Old Course in recent years it has otherwise remained largely unaltered. 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. 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.”

The full list of changes for the Old Course at St. Andrew’s for this current project:

Phase 1

On the 2nd hole, the two bunkers right and short of the green will be moved closer to the right edge of the green. The ground to the right of the green will also be re-contoured to create more undulations and the width of 3rd tee will be reduced to accommodate this. Two bunkers on the right side of the fairway, near the 3rd Championship tee, will be removed.

On the 7th, the large depression in the landing area of the fairway will be filled in and a slight mound created. The area to the right of the green will be remodeled to create more undulations.

On the 11th, the back left portion of the green will be lowered to create more hole location options.

On the 17th, the Road Bunker will be widened by half a metre at the right hand side and a small portion of the front of the green will be re-contoured to enable it to gather more approach shots landing in that area.

Phase 2

On the 3rd hole, the first fairway bunker on the right will be removed. A new fairway bunker will be added into the bank on the right hand side about 275 yards from the Championship tee.

On the 4th, the acute spur formation on the left hand side of the fairway will be reduced and the bunker on the right hand side of the green will be moved closer to its edge. The ground to the back right of the green will be re-contoured.

On the 6th, the ground to the right of the green will be recontoured.

On the 9th, a fairway bunker will be added short and left of the green, about 25 yards to the left and diagonally towards the green from the last bunker on the right of the fairway.

On the 15th, the ground to the back right of the green will be re-contoured to create more undulations.

Whether you agree with these changes or not is up to you.  I don’t expect the attention to this subject will go away between now and 2015.  But judging by the fact that few seem to remember the changes made just seven years ago, it is sure to soften to some degree.

The R&A should remember though, player are getting better and thinking these changes might prevent a 59 is misguided   The only anti-dote to better equipment and better players is nasty weather.

If they could find somebody who could provide that every five years when the Open returns to the Old Course, it might be the one solution that would keep everybody happy.  Save the Open participants, of course.