11 Jul 2022 | Professional golf |

St Andrews ups the ante

by Contributor

St Andrews 150th Open GETTY_image

- By Richard Allen, featured in the Australian Financial Review

When the grandfather of golf, professional Old Tom Morris, hit the opening shot of the first Open Championship at Prestwick Golf Club, on Scotland’s windswept west coast, on 17 October 1860, he could not have imagined how the event would grow over the next century and a half.

Only eight professionals played in that first event (they were assigned amateurs to mark their cards; professionals couldn’t be trusted when it came to money), over three rounds of the twelve-hole course. The event was won by Willie Park from Musselburgh with a score of 174, two better than Old Tom. Old Tom would win four of the next seven Opens and his son, Young Tom, would then win three in a row until 1872.

The following year, 1873, the event was first played on the Old Course at St Andrews, on Scotland’s east coast. The Open returns there this year for the thirtieth time and the tension in the Old Grey Toon will be palpable. More than 9,000 golfers have tried to qualify for the event; the field will be 156.

A crop of new talent is eager to fill the significant void that has been left by the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, last year’s Open winner Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy and Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick – coming off his stirring win at the US Open last month – are the new tyros desperate to win the Open at the home of golf.

Whoever wins will join an impressive list of winners there since the Second World War: Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, Jack Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Tiger Woods (twice), Louis Oosthuizen and Zach Johnson. That two are Australian (Thomson and Nagle) may auger well for the 11 Australians in the field.

The earliest written evidence of golf at St Andrews is a licence, issued in 1552, which permitted the community to rear rabbits on the links to ‘play at golf, futball, schutuing…with all other manner of pastimes’. The course is on public land and, to this day, the Old Course closes each Sunday to allow the people of St Andrews the chance to walk on the links, picnic on the fairways and – when no-one is looking – for children to build sandcastles in the bunkers.

For all the criticism that the Old Course has attracted over the years (US touring professional Ed Furgol once said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the Old Course that 100 bulldozers wouldn’t put right.’) most professionals would now put a win there at the top of their wish list.

‘There is no place in the world that I would rather win a major championship,’ said Nicklaus in 1984. Snead said, ‘The only place that’s holier than St Andrews is Westminster Abbey.’ Lema likened the course to an old grandmother. ‘She’s crotchety and eccentric but also elegant. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with her has no imagination.’

Thomson, who won five Opens, said the Old Course – despite its history of producing low scores (the last four Opens at St Andrews have been won with scores of 14 or more under par) – sorts out the real champions from the pretenders. ‘The Old Course finds you out,’ he said in 1984. ‘If there’s one part of your game not right, no matter how hard to try to hide it – to protect it – the Old Course will find it during the championship.’

The course has been lengthened over the years; several tees are on adjacent courses or the practice fairway. The course itself is relatively flat and has precious few views, so large grandstands will be in place. After the first hole, described as ‘one of the least-alarming tee shots in existence’, golfers play around an out-and-back course that, from the air, has the shape of a shepherd’s crook. Most unusual are the shared fairways and seven, monstrous shared greens, where putts of 50 metres are not uncommon.

Much invective has been directed at St Andrews’ bunkers – with quaint names like Ginger Beer, Mrs Kruger, Coffin, Lion’s Mouth, Hell, Grave, Principal’s Nose and Grant’s Wig. The player who can avoid them, as Tiger Woods famously did when he won in 2000, will go a long way to holding the Auld Claret Jug. Many are small and deep, room only, it is said, for ‘an angry man and his niblick’. Other bunkers, like Hell on the 14th, are vast. Jack Newton remarked that when he hit into Hell during the 1978 Open he felt like he was auditioning for Lawrence of Arabia. The Road Hole

The most famous hole on the Old Course, possibly in the world, is the 17th hole, called, simply, Road. It requires – for most mortals – a driver and a long iron to reach the green. Beyond the green is a sharp slope to a bitumen road, a rock wall and out-of-bounds.

Seve Ballesteros called the Road hole by far the most difficult hole in the world. Ben Crenshaw said, ‘The only reason the Road hole is the greatest par four in the world is because it’s a par five.’ Peter Thomson said anyone building such a hole today would be sued for incompetence.

Tales of tournament woe abound. Japanese golfer Tommy Nakajima, in contention at the 1978 Open, putted off the green into the deep greenside bunker and had four bunker shots before holing out for a nine. Ever since the bunker has been known as the ‘Sands of Nakajima’. Arnold Palmer ran up a ten on 17 in 1960 and said, ‘I should have played the hole in an ambulance.’

The ideal angle to attack the green is from the right side of the fairway, but that brings the hotel and out-of-bounds into play with the tee shot. The safe shot from the tee, to the left, makes the second shot commensurately harder because it brings the greenside bunker into play. The bunker changes the hole’s entire strategy.

And it is not just the professionals who find 17 difficult. Legend has it that a St Andrews member was once leading the medal by 12 shots, before taking 23 on the Road Hole.

‘Did he get in the greenside bunker?’ someone later asked the player’s disconsolate caddie.

The caddie replied, ‘Eventually.’

The Open Championship will be played on the Old Course at St Andrews between 14-17 July.

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