By Bradley S. Klein
Who needs a lot of par 3s when you have plenty of reachable par 4s?
There are lots of oddities about the Old Course, and all will be on display July 14-17 during the British Open. Any designer today who built an 18-hole course with only 11 greens would be either sued for incompetence or shot. The fairways at St. Andrews are so wide you can drive the ball 50 yards left on most holes and still have a clear approach into the green. And the course has a wacky routing: nine holes out, then nine holes in, with two holes at the end that actually cross over in the middle of the line of play.
Among St. Andrews’ 14 par 4s – the most of any championship course in the world – are at least four that strong players regularly reach with their tee shot. Of all the design characteristics that make St. Andrews special, it just might be these short, reachable par 4s that have made the deepest impression on architects. And in an era of championship golf in which 300-plus yard drives are now commonplace, these holes – Nos. 9, 10, 12 and 18 – likely will prove decisive to the outcome of the 134th British Open.
Course designer John Fought says he marvels at how the short 4s at St. Andrews provide options off the tee. Fought, who first played the Old Course in 1975 when he was on the Brigham Young University team – before he became PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1979 – describes the layout as “an obstacle course, with no absolute way to play any one hole. I hate to think of a golf course with all the par 4s at 450 yards. That’s boring.”
There’s nothing boring about the short par 4s at St. Andrews. Wind and weather, not length, determine which of them are driveable. But because Nos. 9 and 10 run parallel to each other in opposite directions, it’s a fair bet at least one will be within reach.
Forget about any rules of design balance or proportionality at St. Andrews. At the 352-yard ninth hole, the putting surface is dead flat and at ground level, with no defining character when viewed from the tee or fairway. That makes it hard to hit and even harder to hold, providing a drive avoids two nasty pot bunkers 70 yards and 40 yards from the green, respectively. The 380-yard 10th hole requires a helping wind to be reached, but here the major risk is a vast bank of unrecoverable whins and gorse running the length of the hole on the left.
Even with a new back tee 34 yards deeper than in 2000, the 12th hole will be tempting under the right conditions. Of course, lay-ups here are really tough, since there really is no safe place to play to, other than betwixt and between a profusion of mid-fairway bunkers. The green is a classic – it looks and plays like a top hat that got pulled wide. In 2000, Tiger Woods found a way to play the hole that no one else had ever tried: He drove over the green and chipped back from behind.
Then there’s the legendary No. 18, covering 357 yards of historic ground and bringing golfers to the middle of this antique university town. Fought says “it’s remarkable how the hole tempts you.”
There’s out of bounds looming down the entire right side, and the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse to the back left of the green. And of course there’s the much-studied swale called Valley of Sin in front, the scene of noble drives, ignoble flubs and long, desperate putts. Just ask Costantino Rocca, who managed to achieve one of each on the 72nd hole of the 1995 British Open. Ultimately, he lost to John Daly in a playoff. But the image of how this short, seemingly simple par 4 literally brought Rocca to his knees is with us forever.
May we be so lucky in 2005 to witness comparable drama at one of these tempting little holes.