Monday, July 12, 2010

Controversy rages on over changes to Road Hole

By Rebecca Lefort and Mark Reason
The unique Road Hole - the 17th on the Old Course at St Andrews, is loved by professionals and fans for the drama it so often brings to St Andrews, known worldwide as “the home of golf”.
But on the eve of this week’s Open Championship at the course, a row has broken out about a redesign of the picturesque hole which is considered by many to be the world’s hardest par-four challenge.
 The Road Hole was lengthened by 40 yards after officials at the Royal and Ancient Club became concerned that it was becoming too easy, due to modern club and ball technology which allows today’s golfers to drive the ball for longer distances.
Now, in a two-pronged attack, leading golf course architects have warned that such changes are damaging the sport’s heritage, while top players have said that the redesigned 17th may encourage conservative play and dampen excitement.
Until this year the position of the Road Hole’s tee meant that players had to drive the ball unsighted over the roof of the Old Course Hotel, risking landing in the hotel’s grounds or the thick rough if the shot went astray.
To make things tougher, a new tee has been built beyond the boundary of the original Old Course. It takes the hole’s length from 455 yards to 495, and makes the hotel building even more of an obstacle.
So much so that Graeme McDowell, the US Open champion, said he would “lay up” on the hole – hit a shorter shot to avoid a mistake.
He added: “It’s unfortunate because you’re trying to get drama. It’s a TV sport. The 17th has given them some great drama over the years.
“The change] nearly has the opposite effect. It’s certainly a pretty significant change.”
Colin Montgomerie, the Ryder Cup captain, said: “If you designed the hole now you would be shot. If you said now 'I’m going to put a tee over an old railway on a practice ground and get you to hit over a disused course and over a hotel,’ people would think you were off your head.”
Among the Road Hole’s most famous conquests are Tommy Nakajima who scored a quintuple-bogey nine in 1978 after he hit the ball into the bunker, a mistake which coined the bunker’s nickname, “The Sands of Nakajima”.
In 2000 David Duval took an eight on the hole when contesting the lead, eventually losing to Tiger Woods.
In 2005, the last time the Open was held at the Scottish course, the greenkeepers attempted to toughen the 17th by growing deep band of ryegrass to the right of the fairway, but the change was not successful and the R and A, which manages St Andrews, has spent the past two years considering ways to make the hole more competitive still.
Golf course designers say the latest change is part of a wider problem of courses seeking to “stretch” holes to make them more difficult in the face of longer driving distances.
A group of golfing architects have voiced their concerns in letter to The Sunday Telegraph, calling for action to redesign golf balls so that they fly less far through the air.
They state in the letter: “For the 2010 Open Championship the R and A has addressed the eroded playing character of the 17th hole at St Andrews by moving the tee beyond the boundaries of the Old Course and onto the driving range.
“While this may solve the problem for this Open, the problems for the game of golf of excessive golf ball distance remain.
“The increased distance the modern golf ball travels has created major issues for golf in relation to the environment, safety and cost (including the opportunity cost of time spent on the golf course).
"Excessive golf ball distance has also had significant adverse affects as regards golf’s architectural and cultural heritage.”
Designers who have put their names to the letter include David Kidd, the Scottish architect of championship courses around the world; Donald Steel, who has advised every club at which the Open has been played; and the heads of golfing architects’ organisations in Scandinavia, Australia, Japan and Europe.
When the plans to lengthen the hole were announced last year, Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, justified the move by saying the change would “ensure that the hole plays as it was originally intended”.
He pointed out that the yardage in 2005 had been unchanged for more than a century, and added: “Over the years we have seen the threat from the road behind the green, and to a lesser extent the Road Bunker, diminished as players have been hitting shorter irons for their approach shots allowing them to avoid these hazards more easily.”
The R and A said the idea of lengthening the famous hole - named because its long, diagonal plateau green is perched above an old paved road - was suggested in 1964 by Sir Henry Cotton, the three-time Open champion and golf architect, who said at the time: “The terrors of the Road Hole have gone.”



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