St. Andrews under the knife: Messing with a masterpiece
Renovations to The Old Course ‘horrify’ golf purists
Paul Casey of England hits his tee shot on the 17th hole during the third round of the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 17, 2010 in St Andrews, Scotland.
Photograph by: Ross Kinnaird, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — One of the most joyful tales of the season — heartwarming, in a Christmas-y kind of way — is that of the Scottish farmer and quarryman, Michael Forbes, who refuses to sell his dilapidated, 23-acre property to blowhard billionaire Donald Trump to clear the way for development around his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire.
The salient quote appears to be: “He can shove his money up his arse.”
For his pluck and intransigence in the face of a project many fear is damaging environmentally sensitive North Sea coastal land, Forbes has been voted Top Scot by his countrymen in a poll conducted by the distiller Grant’s, maker of Glenfiddich scotch among other brands.
Trump is so furious at what he regards as a rigged selection of the man he called the “village idiot,” he has banned the serving of Grant’s products in all of his worldwide hotel and resort properties.
One of the reasons this is newsworthy at the moment, aside from the man-bites-dog aspect, is that the golf course architect in charge of Trump’s linksland-trampling project, Dr. Martin Hawtree, is the same man the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews secretary Peter Dawson has anointed to modify half the holes on the Old Course before it plays host to the 2015 Open Championship.
That’s right. The Old Course, under the knife.
“The first phase involves work on the 2nd, 7th, 11th and 17th holes,” the R&A said in a press release. “The second phase will take place in winter 2013-14 with work on the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th and 15th holes.”
It is the sorest subject in golf, worldwide — sorer, by plenty, than the recent USGA/R&A joint announcement of the so-called anchoring ban scheduled to go into effect in 2016 for users of broomstick or belly putters.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Golf courses get renovated all the time. Augusta National, arguably the most beautiful course in the world, has been reshaped and lengthened and narrowed by new trees to counter the onslaught of golf ball and driver technology, and it seems to have survived the indignity.
The difference is, the Masters course belongs to Augusta National, to do with as the members please.
The Old Course belongs to antiquity. The outfit that manages it is called the St. Andrews Links Trust. Note that last word. As in “held in trust.” It is the people’s course, a World Heritage Site nominee, the Home Of Golf, with 600 years of history behind it. The last major changes to the nature of the course were made by Old Tom Morris in the 1860s and then John Low, who re-bunkered the outward nine from 1905-08.
Often copied, never duplicated, the Old Course is quirky, undulating, dotted by infuriating pot bunkers invisible from the tee, and massive greens — seven of which serve two holes each — and though it’s not quite true that the bunkers were burrowed by sheep and every hump and bump made from natural dunes shaped by the elements, it’s a cinch the course wasn’t done with bulldozers. Indeed, no one knows who designed it.
But now, because it’s become easier to shoot low scores on, the lords of British golf — who used to say they didn’t care what the Open’s final tally was, because wind was the course’s greatest defence (“Nae wind, nae golf” is never more true than at St. Andrews) — have decided the ancient links needs to be toughened for the pros.
The outrage from purists and course architects has been, let us say, shrill.
Not only because one of the changes is to the legendary Road Bunker on No. 17, the world’s greatest par-four — it’s being widened by 20 inches and the front of the green is being re-contoured so that it will gather more errant shots (critics argue it will now be easier to escape.) There are also new bunkers here and there, and a couple moved closer to the edges of greens. A famous mound that obscured a view of the green if you hit the ball down the middle on No. 4 will be topped. And at the 174-yard par-3 11th, which some have called one of golf’s perfect holes, the steep upslope at the back-left portion of the green is being softened to accommodate an additional pin position.
Among architects, the loudest condemnation of the alterations came from Tom Doak, who many consider the best designer in the business. He said he was “horrified” by the proposed changes.
“I don’t believe it should be impossible to change the Old Course, or any other historic course. But … I think that the default position should be that such an international treasure should be guarded.”
Then again, Doak admitted, “I am not the go-to guy for the pro tours, because I object to the idea of changing great golf courses just to cover for the governing bodies’ incompetence at regulating equipment.”
It’s true, the changes are being made, primarily, for professional tournaments that take place once a year (the Dunhill Links) and twice every fifth year (the Open). The question is, will the average player — someone who makes a pilgrimage there once in a lifetime, or an annual visit — even notice?
I’ve played the Old Course three times and walked it, or parts of it, several more while covering Opens in 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010. I doubt I could point out a new bunker if one was added to the existing 112 (each of which has a name). If the large depression in the 7th fairway that always gathers a lot of tee shots and is pocked with divots is replaced by a mound, would it change the basic nature of the approach shot?
The one hole that could use a good tweaking is the 352-yard, driveable par-4 9th, the only flat and characterless piece of the 18. A mound or two wouldn’t hurt, but the bunker Hawtree proposes to add short and left of the green is better than nothing.
But the R&A could quite easily leave the rest alone, and live with the par-three-and-a-half holes, and it would still be tough on the windy days and easy on the calm days — and no one would be charged with heresy.
Dawson, who’s reportedly getting touchy about all the backlash, says the public needs to relax. The work, he says, is being done with shovels and wheelbarrows, not earth-movers.
“We obviously know the course very well and how it plays at all levels of the game,” he told the BBC. “No one knows it like we do or the Links Trust do.”
But there was a time, a decade ago after some of the tee boxes were moved back, that he admitted changing the Old Course, even if necessary, was “a bit like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Well, Mona, hope you enjoy 24 months of Movember.
Good luck with the eraser.
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