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Is St. Andrews’ Old Course obsolete? Jack Nicklaus, players say not so fast

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Jack Nicklaus must not have noticed all of the handwringing, or heard all of the consternation, or seen all of the doomsday predictions about what could happen this week to this global treasure.

“To believe the game of golf essentially started here,” Nicklaus said Monday at St. Andrews, “and it just absolutely is mind-boggling to me that it still stands up to the golfers of today.”

Well, that, of course, is an open question leading into this historic major.

Nicklaus explains what makes The Open 'magical'

Nicklaus explains what makes The Open 'magical'

Three-time Open champion Nick Faldo was among those who sounded the alarm ahead of the 150th Open, predicting that the biggest hitters could go scorched earth on golf’s most sacred land.

“Poor old St. Andrews really is at the mercy of these longer hitters,” Faldo said last week. “You could start taking it to ridiculous levels if the conditions were right. Somebody could shoot 60 or 59.”

It’s the same concern expressed seemingly every time The Open returns to St. Andrews, where the par-72 layout is listed at a shade over 7,300 yards – a pushover by today’s beefy major standards. Yet it continues to hold its own, even if its defenses appear tenuous. Two players have shot 63 in an Open here. The competitive course record is 61, shot by Ross Fisher at the 2017 Dunhill Links. The winning score the last four editions of The Open have been at least 14 under par. Informed of that tidbit by caddie Billy Foster, reigning U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick was genuinely surprised.

“I was taken aback by how low the scores were; I didn’t think it would be that low,” he said.

And what was Foster’s prediction for how low the lads would go this week?

“18 [under],” Fitzpatrick said, “which, to me, I was like, ‘That’s low.’”

Like any links, the level of challenge here is dependent on the weather, and working in the setup staff’s favor this week is a (notoriously fickle) forecast that, right now, calls for continued mild temperatures and modest winds. A soft, greenish Old Course could indeed get pulverized by the top players, but not this version. Not when it’s brown, baked and beautiful.

When Justin Thomas was asked whether this could turn into an “offensive” Open, meaning that players might take more chances than usual to create birdie opportunities, he paused for a few beats before offering this take: “I think it somehow could be the opposite, potentially. The fairways are already firm, but if the greens get as baked as the fairways, with how they can place some of the pins, you’re not going to be able to get close to them. So it’s going to take a lot of discipline, a lot of shot-making and a lot of patience, from what I can see.”

Perhaps no player in the field embodies the elite game’s bash-and-birdie mindset quite like Bryson DeChambeau, who promised to revolutionize the game with his brawny approach. Despite his lingering hand injury, he still possesses a powerful advantage that puts him in the tier of players that Faldo feared – players that, if they’re on, could turn some of St. Andrews’ par 4s into pitch-and-putts.

Fitzpatrick adjusting to life as a major champ

Fitzpatrick adjusting to life as a major champ

Indeed, with the wind out of the southwest (as it is expected throughout tournament week), DeChambeau didn’t hit more than a three-quarter 8-iron into a par 4 in his early practice rounds, and he needed, at most, a 4-iron into the two par 5s. With his driver, he said he could exploit at least six of the par 4s, either driving them or getting within 50 yards of the putting surface. On a soft, parkland course in the States, sure, that range would be a green-light special for every pro in the field. But in these conditions, that could prove a troublesome zone.

“When you’re having 50- or 60-yard shots, our clubs will bounce into the grass and shoot it over the green; it’s like hitting off a cart path,” DeChambeau said. “If they realize that they’re going to use the firmness to their advantage, it could be pretty diabolical if you’re not strategizing and you’re not putting the ball in the spots that are ‘greener’ and allow you to get through the turf easier.”

Still, even with his monstrous advantage, DeChambeau didn’t expect this Open to turn into a referendum on the distance-crazed pro game that has largely gone unchecked by the governing bodies.

“No, definitely not,” he said. “You’ll see this week that it’s about more than just length. We may shoot 20 under. OK. What does that matter? We’re athletes, and we’re going to continue to get stronger and bigger and faster and more consistent to try to find ways to shoot lower scores. Does that make courses obsolete? I don’t think so.”

Tiger walks St. Andrews ahead of Open Championship

Tiger walks St. Andrews ahead of Open Championship

“If the fans want to see low scores, give them low scores. If they want even par, put the pins on a side slope. There’s totally opportunities for that to happen.”

Even a player of modest length, like defending champion Collin Morikawa, feels as though the Old Course is playing short, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. The high temperature Sunday reached 80 degrees. The ball is chasing out in the already-brown fairways. The greens are firming up by the hour. Four times on the front nine Monday he pulled lob wedge for an approach, and yet he wasn’t brainlessly going through his preparation in full attack mode.

“Pins are definitely going to be tough,” he said. “They’re going to have to, because sometimes when you’re 50 yards away, it’s not advantageous to be there and you’re going to have to play back and almost bring the bunkers into play. There’s going to be a lot of thought processing on what to do.”

That echoed Nicklaus’ philosophy on playing St. Andrews, which sounded simple in theory if not in execution: “Keep the ball favoring the center of the course, and choose a club off the tee that doesn’t put you in a bunker.”

Tiger 'confident and consistent' ahead of The Open

Tiger 'confident and consistent' ahead of The Open

That task, of course, is made more difficult with the unpredictability of the rolling fairways and the strategic placement of the penal pot bunkers. 

“Discipline is such an important part of playing over here,” Nicklaus said. “You get frustrated. And once you get frustrated, then say bye-bye, we’ll see you next time, because that’s what happens. You’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to have the ability to play what the golf course gives you. You can’t try to take any more.”

That’s why Nicklaus practically scoffed at the idea that the ancient links will be brought to its knees, that perhaps this could be the final Open to be held at St. Andrews after it gets overpowered and overwhelmed by today’s brash new breed. Even with a tsunami of scores in the 60s, he reasoned, the Old Course can still provide a proper examination in an unmatched setting.

“They might shoot low – so what? That’s sort of the way I look at it,” he said. “I don’t think it really makes a whole lot of difference, frankly. It’s St. Andrews, and it will produce a good champion. It always has.”