ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Scott Verplank walked off the 16th green on the Old Course and headed for the next tee when his caddie made a startling observation.
“Hey, look,” Scott Tway said. “We’re teeing off out of bounds.”
Sure enough, the right side of the 16th green is lined by white stakes to indicate out of bounds. The new tee for the British Open, 40 yards beyond where it used to be, is located behind those stakes. That stretches the par 4 to 495 yards.
As if the Road Hole at St. Andrews wasn’t peculiar enough.
Now, the driver is required on days except when the wind is at the back. And the hole appears to be as tough as ever.
“I’ve never had to hit over a building before,” Dustin Johnson said Tuesday during his practice round.
Players cannot see the green from the tee – they can’t see most of the fairway, for that matter – because the proper line is blocked by the Old Course Hotel. The ideal tee shot is over the hotel’s lettering written on the side of a maintenance shed.
The confident players pick a letter – typically the “o” in hotel, although any “o” usually will suffice.
“Actually, in practice rounds I always go along the limit, so I hit it down along the hotel to see how far right I can go,” Padraig Harrington said. “It’s one of those things, you want to know how far you can go right. And it’s not that far.”
Keeping it in the fairway is the chore.
Whereas the fairway used to go in the direction of the tee, the angle now is so severe that it goes sharply to the right in the direction of the second shot. To play a tee shot away from the hotel, which looks safe, will put the ball in thick, rough and make it virtually impossible to reach the green.
And then there’s the green.
To the left is the Road Hole bunker, which is about 6 feet deep and has a sodden wall up toward the green. Beyond the putting surface is a paved road, which is in play and how the hole got its name.
Birdies are rare. Bogeys are acceptable.
“I don’t mind making a 5 on the 17th,” Masters champion Phil Mickelson said.
Geoff Ogilvy tends to lean on the advice of five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson who said he would aim for the front right portion of the green all four days, no matter where the flag was.
“He used to say if made two 4s and 2 5s, you haven’t lost anything to the field,” Ogilvy said. “I don’t think that’s changed.”
The R&A expects controversy, or at the very least complaints. That’s typical of any change, especially one that lengthens the hole. So far, the change has been accepted.
“I think it’s a really good improvement,” Lee Westwood said.
That’s not to say it has been approved.
“I don’t mind the length of the hole,” Ogilvy said. “I just wish they didn’t have to do it.”
Ogilvy’s biggest beef is the punishment on a 495-yard hole by missing the fairway to the left. The rough doesn’t look any different from the rest of the Old Course, with its wispy strands of shin-high native grass. It’s what is underneath that is so troubling. The grass is green and dense, and it makes it difficult to find a stray tee shot, much less hit it.
“The don’t like the left rough,” Ogilvy said. “Not that it’s rough, but that it’s in the state it’s in. It’s the only patch of dark, green rough on the course. I don’t think it’s like that anywhere else.”
And he doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.
The one hope for the players – if you can call it that – is a notice from the R&A that the previous tee might be used if the wind is too strong into the face. Then, it might be tough to even reach the fairway.
Otherwise, complaints have been minimal, perhaps because the line off the tee has not changed much. It’s still about picking the right letter and hitting the right shot.
“I went for the ‘d’ in ‘Old,’ Johnson said, and he hammered it into the middle of the fairway.
Eric Chun, a junior at Northwestern playing his first Open, hit a draw over the corner of the maintenance shed and wound up in deep rough. Verplank, not a power player by any stretch, showed him the way with a gentle draw over the “o” in hotel.
“Anywhere over ‘old’ is a good line, and not much further than ‘l’ in ‘hotel,”’ Westwood said.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson simply wanted to put the challenge back into the Old Course, and it’s not the first time. It was stretched 164 yards for the 2005 British Open, and so many tees were rearranged for championship golf that players hit off parts of five courses at St. Andrews.
Yet it was the out-of-bounds stakes in front of the 17th tee that drew so much attention.
“You could hit a shot on 16 and be out of bounds,” Ogilvy said. “And then play your next tee shot from there.”
The Road Hole has not played a big part in deciding the last two British Opens at St. Andrews, mainly because Tiger Woods won by eight and five shots, respectively.
That might not be the case this time.
“You’ve really got to stand up there and hit your drive, and hit it well,” Harrington said. “The way I look at it, you always want to make sure that the guy that wins the Open Championship is tested at some stage coming down the stretch. There’s nobody who’s going to get through 17 without thinking about it for four days.”