St Andrews Old Course

Location: St Andrews, fife
Designer: Unknown

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The Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club is ranked Number 1 in our Top 100 Golf Courses Scotland rankings:

26.6


30

18.4


20

14.1


15

13.7


15

9.0


10

8.6


10

90.3


100

Every couple of years or so, due to the vast amount of wear, tear and sheer brutality it experiences week in, week out at the hands of golfers from all four corners of the globe, the famous Road Hole bunker that guards the front left portion of the 17th green at the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club gets a makeover. 

Up until fairly recently, the greenkeepers charged with that important rebuilding task would carry out the work by eye, using their best judgement to ensure the latest iteration of golf’s most famous sand hazard as closely as possible resembled its predecessor. 

Not only did this mean the bunker never looked exactly the same twice; the constant stream of subtle, almost imperceptible, tweaks over the course of several decades eventually led to some rather noticeable changes. If you compare an aerial view of the Old Course from four or five decades ago with one taken today – a period when no major alterations or design work were performed – you would notice some big differences.

Nowadays, of course, the process is somewhat different. A while back, the St Andrews Links Trust committed to what it believed to be the optimal styling of the championship course’s most prominent design features and then mapped them in fine detail to ensure that any future reconstruction work perfectly replicated the original contouring. 

But no matter how much technology is applied to ensure the design remains consistent from an aesthetical standpoint, the point is, the Old Course, which dates back to the 15th century, has always been in a state of transition and most likely always will be.


The shape and depth of the Road Hole at the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club is continually changing as repairs and maintenance work are carried out.

The shape and depth of the Road Hole at the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club is continually changing as repairs and maintenance work are carried out.

However, the fact that the Old Course is continually evolving doesn’t stop golf’s worldwide architectural and design community from spluttering into its cad-cams any time a revision is suggested to what they largely view as untouchable turf. 

Prior to the 2010 Open, for example, only one change was made to the Old Course to stiffen its defences against the power hitters and the modern golf ball. The treacherous Road Hole was lengthened from 455 yards to 490 yards to restore the original challenge of the hole from the tee as well as into the green.  

While several players, including the likes of Retief Goosen, criticised the change, the reaction was muted compared with the outrage that surfaced when, in 2012, the St Andrews Links Trust announced it had appointed Martin Hawtree to update no fewer than nine holes. 

Such extensive and widespread changes to the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club had not been instigated since John Low revamped the bunkering on the front nine between 1905 and 1908. Prior to that, the last time a named architect was credited for any of the Old Course alterations was Old Tom Morris, when he built the first and 18th greens in 1870.

While R&A chief Peter Dawson claimed the changes were commissioned to “place more of a premium on accuracy and ball control while retaining the spirit and character of the Old Course”, the news wasn’t exactly received with open arms. “It’s like a bad dream,” said five-time Open champion Peter Thomsonat the time. More recently, and more graphically, Ian Poulter has likened the alterations to “drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa”.

Hallowed turf: the par-5 5th at St Andrews’ Old Course was one of nine holes to escape any alteration ahead of the 2015 Open Championship..

Hallowed turf: the par-5 5th at St Andrews’ Old Course was one of nine holes to escape any alteration ahead of the 2015 Open Championship..

Ironically, the plans – which proposed the addition, repositioning and removal of several bunkers, and re-contouring of several green surrounds – included an ‘official’ revision to the Road Hole bunker, which is now wider and deeper.

While Hawtree, who has also reworked Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool for the R&A in recent years, has stated that the amendments are “modest and hardly worthy of description”, many of his peers disagree. Describing the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club as “an international treasure that should be guarded”, the renowned architect Tom Doak was so “horrified” when he first heard the news, he circulated a petition urging his fellow designers to join him in expressing outrage over the smearing of what he called “sacred ground”.  

“No longer content just to add back tees for championship play, the club (R&A) and its consulting architect, Martin Hawtree, have planned to move bunkers, add contouring around the greens, and soften slopes in other places prior to the next Open Championship,” Doak said. 

“I have felt for many years that the Old Course was sacred ground to golf architects, as it was to Old Tom Morris and CB Macdonald and Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie before us. It has been untouched architecturally since 1920, and I believe that it should remain so.” 

Doak’s opinion was validated by Robert Cupp, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “This is tantamount to redesigning Chartres [cathedral],” Cupp said. “The historic significance of those forms is immense, something that should be preserved at all cost, even if it is some low scores.”

The par-4 9th on the Old Course at St Andrews sees a new bunker added short left of the green.

The par-4 9th on the Old Course at St Andrews sees a new bunker added short left of the green.

Not every tour professional or golf course designer was so vehemently opposed to the revisions, however. Tiger Woods, who won The Open at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005, endorsed most of the amendments, stating: “At 2, I believe, (they are) moving the bunkers more in where they’re more playable. 

We do use the pin over there on the back-right, and if we get a left-to-right wind, those bunkers really aren’t in play because they’re too close to the third tee. But I can see by moving those closer to the green that if we get in a left-to-right wind, those bunkers now are in play, which is good.”

New Zealand architect Scott Macpherson, author of the highly-acclaimed book St. Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course, guards against over-reacting to the changes. “Preservation is a sticky road,” Macpherson said. “It’s changing anyway – grass is growing, gorse is growing, bunkers are eroding. I’m pretty relaxed about some of the changes to the golf course, but I’m more worried about changing green contours.”

One of the biggest issues in hosting a modern major championship at a golf course that is more than 500 years old is that modern course maintenance and greenkeeping technologies have progressed in leaps and bounds, while the general topographical characteristics of the Old Course have remained pretty much the same. 

The large undulations that characterise many of the greens at the Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club were perfectly playable at 7 or 8 on the Stimpmeter of yesteryear, but borderline ridiculous at the championship standard speed of 11, 12 or 13 today. 

While several of the green complexes have been recontoured to provide a greater variety of pin position options, it is the alterations to the 11th green (see sidebar right) that have captured most of the attention. The hole, which is widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest par 3s, had become problematic at recent Opens due to its extreme slopes and exposure to the adjacent Eden estuary.

Hawtree’s vision was to reinstate the  famous back left pin position that modern technology had almost rendered obsolete. It was this location that destroyed Bobby Jones’ chances of winning the 1921 Open. Firing at the pin, Jones hit his tee shot into Hill bunker from where he was unable to escape, leading to his infamous withdrawal.

The Old Course at St Andrews Golf Club is without a doubt one of the best golf courses in existence, and the Old Course Hotel provides the perfect location for a golf break.

To view the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in Scotland please click here.

 
Nick Wright