The Indestructible Game


No dastardly plan of the UK Inland Revenue, that reputedly greedy British counterpart of our IRS, could outrage the people of St. Andrews, Scotland as much as what a bulldozer can do.
Make that what a dozer will do, or at least guys with shovels. One way or another, about a foot and half is being shaved from the fearsome wall of the Road Hole Bunker, the hazard guarding the 17th hole of the Old Course. The entire bunker will be smaller, too, making more room between the bunker and the green for those good enough to fly in their second shots from the left side. The changes are expected to soften the sting of what some experts call the hardest par 4 in golf.
'I dont think players will be able to flick it out easily all of a sudden, but it might be less difficult than it has been, said Peter Mason, external relations manager for the St. Andrews Links Trust, in an interview with The Scotsman, Scotlands national newspaper. The Links Trust administers the historic courses in the Auld Grey Toon.
Other golf authorities disagree.
'Tampering with the bunker is going too far and its loss is a tragedy,' David Malcolm told The Scotsman. Malcolm is a former captain of the New Club, one of the many local golf associations that plays over the Old Course.
Of course, even in the birthplace of golf, business is a consideration. Perhaps its a special consideration there, considering the importance of golf tourism to the region.
'With the build-up of sand it had become almost impossible to get out of, Mason said. If you look back at [David] Duval, who took four to get out [in the 2000 Open Championship] and others, golfers of that skill are being made to look foolish.
'You also have to bear in mind that there are 42,000 ordinary golfers playing the course every year who have nothing like the skill of a Duval.'
Aha. The speed-of-play, keep-em-happy consideration. Well, purists though we may be, St. Andrews is still a golf resort. And the Scots wont stand for slow play, even in the last 20 minutes of a round (No. 18 takes, what, 10 minutes to play?). And you dont want people going back to the States grumbling about their Old Course experience, right?
Alas, right. Thats modern business. I, and a lot of others, think St. Andrews got as modern as it needed to in about 1854, and would like it to get stuck there. But realistically, that cant be. As a Links Trust official said some years back when tee time allocation got tighter and local hoteliers got squeezed out of some valuable times, you cant put a bubble around the place. He was right. Annoying, but right.
Fact is, St. Andrews has done a pretty good job of maintaining its old-world charm while incorporating modern conveniences. (My wife, for example, is a big fan of hot and cold running water, so she was very pleased to find the 20th century had encroached on the edges of Old Tom Morris stomping grounds when we visited.)
Even before the Road Hole Bunker story broke, I was thinking of St. Andrews as I leafed through The Golf Club: 400 Years of the Good, the Beautiful, and the Creative, the new book by antique club expert Jeff Ellis. (Ellis other book, The Clubmakers Art, is an enormous compendium of early club information in text and pictures. The latest book is more of a timeline of clubmaking.)
Ellis has seen it all, golf club-wise, and held much of it in his hands. Old club fans may have already seen examples of 19th-, 18th- and 17th-century golf creations, made for the quirks of the ancient game: A rounded track iron, for digging the ball out of wagon tracks (no ground under repair back then), a club with a hole in the face for hitting a partially submerged ball (no casual water, either). Ellis understands the delightful, hard-to-fathom feeling one gets when holding a 400-year-old club that someone has surely hit shots with. History crystallizes into a moment that is poignant, yet challenging to get ones mind around.
Whatever your opinion on clubs, change, the continuity of the ancient game, or innovation, one thought strikes you while looking over these delicious antiquities and oddities. The game has survived.
You cant kill it, former Kansas City Monarchs first baseman Buck ONeill told Ken Burns near the end of the massive Baseball film. No matter what scandal arises, no matter how incredible salaries become, someone somewhere will always be getting together a game on a sandlot, from Detroit to the Dominican, from Tokyo to Toledo.
Golf has a comforting level of the same characteristic. The manufacturers of equipment that pushes the envelope want to be able to innovate, and they should have that right. The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews want golf to be recognizable to that mythical 16th-century Scot who might materialize at any time. They also have a point. A healthy mix of conflict and cooperation will assure both goals.
After a tough regulatory year, economic and good-of-the-game concerns prompted manufacturers to not make too much of a stink about the USGAs whipsaw changes on driver regulations. And we hear that the USGA is setting up focus groups to see how golfers ' and non-golfers ' view the organization and its role in the game. Thats often the first step in a plan to remodel ones public relations, which would be a laudable goal for the USGA in these times of stagnant golf participation.
As long as people want to put a peg in the ground and bat the ball around, you wont be able to kill this game. And one way or another, those are the people who will ultimately decide what golf is.