Why changing The Old Course St Andrews is a Valley of Sin

The Global Golfer office was a dangerous place to work this week.

There was a moment when hot tea spluttered and lurched through the air swiftly followed by loud banging and a torrent of rage.

Nobody was hurt. I simply had an outburst.

The calm of my day had been interrupted by the arrival of a press release detailing “improvements” to be made to the Old Course at St Andrews, the most sacred and hallowed ground in the world of golf.

Old Course St Andrews Scotland
The most hallowed ground in golf – The Old Course St Andrews

According to the St Andrews Links Trust and the Championship Committee at the R&A, it’s no longer challenging enough for the world’s top golfers who will play The Open there in 2015.

Changing Mother Nature’s original links
The very idea of changing the Old Course, Mother Nature’s original golf links, sent me into a tail spin.

Having lived in St Andrews for four years and fallen in love with the Auld Grey Toon, and especially its magical golfing matron, I suffered an involuntary wretch and heave in my stomach at the idea of altering this golfing masterpiece.

How, I wonder, would Leonardo Da Vinci have felt if Damien Hirst walked up to his Mona Lisa and tinkered with her smile, you know to make it a little edgier, a little more in keeping with today’s fashion savvy, glam independent females?

Turn, grave, in and his are the words that spring to mind.

A street sign for Golf Place, St Andrews
St Andrews is the original golf place – The Home of Golf

I admit the course has been changed in the past, a few yards added here and there, a tee lengthened backwards and perhaps a bunker heightened or lowered by a few inches – none of it pleasing – but nobody has ever started flattening out greens, building brand new bunkers and interfering with the world’s greatest sand trap, “the road hole bunker.”

That’s what golf course architect Martin Hawtree is about to do, following his commission by the St Andrews Links Trust, which manages the Old Course and the other six courses at the Home of Golf, and The R and A Championship Committee, which organises golf’s oldest major championship.

Hawtree is a fine architect with a great contribution of work to his name. Most recently he has been lauded by the golfing media for his design at the new Trump International Golf Links, controversially built by American business tycoon Donald Trump on his Menie Estate on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast.

According to the press release, Mr. Hawtree was asked to: “assess potential changes which would enhance the challenge for elite players without unduly affecting club and visiting golfers while remaining true to the special character of the Old Course.”

His recommendations have now been agreed by the St Andrews Links Trustees and Links Management Committee and The R&A Championship Committee.

The work is planned to take place in two phases over the winters of 2012 and 2013.

Before we get stuck into what’s going to be “improved,” or altered/ changed/ overhauled – let’s consider for a moment the logic behind these changes.

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.”

Forgive me for a minute but St Andrews has been built on the back of two things, the golf tourism economy and its University, and the town has been rolling in tourist dollars and Japanese yen for quite some time.

Making changes to the golf course will not make more people want to play there.

It’s the romance, the spirit of history, the whisper of golfing greats that infuses the air and the sentimentality attached to playing the Road Hole or walking up through the Valley of Sin as the sun dips and melts into early evening.

As for continued prominence on the Open rota. It’s the R&A who decide where to hold The Open and they are based in St Andrews, why on earth would they remove it from the rota. It’s the Open everyone wants to watch and moreso the one all top golfers want to play in.

The suggestion it could lose prominence is sheer fantasy.

Now that we’ve dealt with the “so-called economic reasons” let’s address the difficulty of the course, and just why the R&A feel it needs toughening up. It’s not the hardest of the Open venues, that honour belongs to Carnoustie, but it’s the most significant and special.

St Andrews Old Course
The first hole at The Old Course, St Andrews

Does it really matter if someone wins the Open at 23-under par or 2-under par?

Of course not, it matters that they won at St Andrews. The Open at St Andrews has thrown up some fascinating and memorable contests (Constantino Rocca’s putt through the Valley of Sin) and dominant routs – most recently by Tiger and Louis Oosthuizen.

Does this make it a lesser test?

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.”

Do you want to know why I don’t think the course needs its defences stiffening?  

Rory McIlroy opened with a 9-under 63 in 2010 before shooting in the 80’s the next day when the wind blew hard. That’s exactly what links golf is all about and the course didn’t need alteration then, Mother Nature added her own ingredients into the challenge of that golf course.

When Paul Casey chased down Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 he was forced to go for the green at the par-four 12th with driver. He hooked his ball left into thick gorse and ran up a big number which ended his chances. Again, exactly what links golf should be.

Too much time with the USGA
In my humble opinion the R&A Championship committee must have spent too much time with the boys at the USGA, who like to turn the U.S Open into a first and only one to under-par contest.

If Major Championship golf is to become more about bogeys than birdies you can keep it. It will only serve to make the Ryder Cup the single greatest golfing event for entertainment, panache and excitement.

So, on to the changes!

Here’s what will be “improved” at The Old Course St Andrews:

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 recontoured 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.

The game’s greatest pilgrimage – The Old Course

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 remodelled 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 recontoured 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 recontoured.

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 recontoured to create more undulations.

I’d love to know what you think about these changes to the Old Course?

There are some places where time should be allowed to stand still and in my mind The Old Course is the most sacred of them for lovers of the game of golf.

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