TROON, Scotland – Let’s be clear: This was all Henrik Stenson’s idea.
“If you’re the kind of fan that wants to see carnage,” he said with a smirk, “then I highly recommend going out to that eighth hole and sitting in that grandstand on a difficult day.”
And so that’s precisely what your intrepid reporter did Thursday at Royal Troon, for 14 groups and nearly three hours.
OK, so by most Open standards it wasn’t a difficult day at all: Blue sky. Plentiful sunshine. Light wind. Low scores. And yet the eighth hole, the famed and fearsome Postage Stamp, still claimed plenty of victims, just as it has at every Open held here since 1923.
The picturesque hole maxes out at 123 yards, about the length of a football field. “And if it wasn’t famous,” Shane Lowry said, “then you’d probably stand up and think this is the easiest par 3 in the world.” But players, even the rookies, know better than that.
The teeny green is protected by severe runoffs and five steep bunkers, none more recognizable (or penal) than the Coffin Bunker on the left-hand side. The green is carved into a 25-foot-high dune, and in some sections it’s only nine yards wide. The hole got its name from Hall of Famer Willie Park Jr., who described it as a “pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp.”
It’s the seventh hole at Pebble Beach, only more sinister.
It’s the 12th hole at Augusta National, only more treacherous.
It’s the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, only more dangerous.
Some days, like Thursday, players need only a flip wedge or 9-iron. (With just a wee breeze, there were 33 birdies.) But on Friday, with a cold wind blowing off the Firth of Clyde, one of the most diminutive holes in championship golf might require a 5-iron. Players are already preparing to get licked.
At The Open, players have recorded anything from an ace to a 15 at the Postage Stamp. It has doomed the chances of Tiger Woods and Greg Norman, of Walter Hagan and Herman Tissies, the German amateur who took a record 15 there in 1950.
“From 123 yards,” Colin Montgomerie said, “the expectation raises dramatically. You are on that tee and you are a professional golfer. It’s your job and you’re expected to hit this green at 123 yards. You could throw it on, really.”
And many probably wish they could.
Rory McIlroy made a 9 there in a practice round and the video went viral. Over and over, he tried to escape, only for his ball to smack off the riveted face and roll back to his feet.
It was an embarrassing moment caught on video, but the networks covering this event were prepared for even more disaster – cameras were carved into the faces of the greenside bunkers to offer a unique vantage point of the players’ misfortune.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of footage for a thrills-and-spills highlight, even on what was expected to be the easiest scoring day of the week.
A sampling of the frustration:
• Brandt Snedeker, after missing left, trudged to the green with his hands in his pockets. When he saw his lie, buried in the front-left corner, he muttered an expletive under his breath and covered his mouth in horror. He barely looked at the hole before spinning around, facing away from the flag, and blasting out toward the front of the green, 40 feet away. Bogey.
• It was a similar scene for Padraig Harrington, though his tee shot plugged about a foot from the front lip. He couldn’t muster enough backspin on his shot, and his ball trundled back off the front edge, into the newly named Rory Bunker, where Harrington was forced to play a sand shot with his right leg outside the trap. Double.
• Jason Day used only a pitching wedge, but he tugged his shot long and left of the green, onto a bank with footlong rough. “What are you thinking here?” asked his caddie, Colin Swatton, and the answer wasn’t immediately clear. Day scanned the entire green, his eyes finally settling on a sliver of turf on the back-right corner of the green, between two deep bunkers. He chopped out over the green, then used the backstop to get up-and-down for bogey. He exhaled walking off the green.
• Graeme McDowell’s tee shot was so far left, it hung up in the tall grass above the Coffin Bunker. It was an awkward stance, and he chopped down on the back of the ball, popped it into the rough and, to his surprise, saw it roll out about 15 feet. Andrew Johnston, playing in the same group, applauded G-Mac’s efforts. Walking toward his caddie, McDowell held out his wedge, like a shotgun, and put it to his temple. Bogey.
• Bubba Watson was 5 under for the day when he stood on the tee. He tried to “chip” a low, drawing pitching wedge into the right-to-left wind, but he hung his shot out to the left. When he approached his ball, he scrunched his face, crossed his arms and stretched his neck. His ball had plugged into the soft sand near the back lip, and after a brief consultation he determined that he had only one option – to send his ball into the tall grass behind the green. He executed the hard part, but then he misjudged his pitch shot, tried again (somewhat unsuccessfully), needed two putts from 15 feet and walked off with a triple, which matched the highest score recorded there in the first round. “I had one bad swing all day,” Watson would say later, “and it cost me dearly.”
But isn’t that what we desire most from the par 3s, to test a player’s precision with his irons? It’s what makes the Postage Stamp, like Pebble’s No. 7 and Augusta’s No. 12 and TPC Sawgrass’ No. 17, so special.
At last month’s U.S. Open, Oakmont’s eighth hole was stretched to 288 yards. It required either a driver or fairway wood for most players; some even laid up, believing that it gave them the best chance to make 3.
“I think the best par 3s in the world are all under 150 yards,” McIlroy said. “I really don’t get these par 3s nowadays that are 250, 260; it takes a lot of the skill out of it.
“No matter if it took me six shots to get out of the bunker the other day and I made 9, it’s a great golf hole. I think there should definitely be more holes like that in golf.”
OK, so maybe not exactly like the Postage Stamp.
Friday’s forecast calls for more rain and more wind. And yes, as Stenson predicted, even more carnage.