ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Here at the cradle of golf, I am surveying the 18th hole from tee to green. Great golf course, terrible finishing hole.
If the 18th at St. Andrews were a better hole, I might argue that the Open Championship is the most compelling major. After all, the Open comes back here every five years. In so many respects, St. Andrews is the face of the Open.
However, reflecting on the majors in general and finishing holes in particular, the Masters is more exciting than the others. Why? Because in modern times it has been Billy’d to perfection.
That would be Billy’d as in Billy Payne, chairman of the host Augusta National Golf Club. Wanting a dramatic finish, Payne dictates a back-nine setup that fosters birdies and eagles.
Make no mistake: Payne is a hands-on leader who has his fingerprints all over the Masters. This brand of entertainment is golf’s version of Billy Ball at its finest.
Payne has one more test before establishing himself as the premier czar in all of professional sports. He has to persuade CBS Sports to allow him to conduct a three-hole playoff on 11th, 12th and 13th holes of Amen Corner.
Or make it a four-hole playoff by adding the 10th. Either way, it easily could become the most tantalizing playoff in all of sports.
The back nine at Augusta National is without parallel in the world of golf. Because the Masters is played each year on the same golf course, the layout has been fine-tuned for drama and fanfare.
The U.S. Open suffers from the same problem as the Open Championship: too many bad finishing holes.
The 18th at Pebble Beach, site of last month’s U.S. Open, is a beautiful, picturesque hole. Regardless, it is a clunker of a finishing hole.
Heading into the 72nd hole of a 72-hole major championship, any champion-to-be should be expected to face and conquer golf’s most fearsome demons. Accuracy and length both should be factors. Graeme McDowell, needing a par to win at Pebble Beach, played it safe all the way, stringing together safety-safety-safety-putt-putt on the par-5 18th for an underwhelming one-stroke victory.
Thankfully the 18th at Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course, site of the 2011 U.S. Open, has been changed into a fearsome 466-yard par 4. When Ernie Els won the U.S. Open there in 1997, the closing hole was a 190-yard par 3. Ho hum – a 6-iron and two putts gave Els a one-stroke triumph over Colin Montgomerie.
The 2012 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club will offer more of the same. Its 18th hole is a weak-sister test of golf, requiring only a fairway wood or long iron off the tee, followed by a wedge to the green.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black had a similar driverless 18th hole with only a wedge to an elevated green.
I am beginning to think Billy Payne has the easiest job in golf. He can endlessly change and manipulate his entire back nine, including the 18th, while so many of these U.S. Open courses are pretty much stuck with a colorless 18th.
Here at St. Andrews, the Open Championship includes a par-4 18th hole measuring 361 yards and sporting a fairway as wide as British Petroleum’s version of the truth. There are no bunkers anywhere from tee to green, and the putting surface is far from being a tilted, nightmarish monster.
Sure, historians like to talk about the Swilcan Bridge, which comes into play only when photos are snapped. And the hole features a depression in front of the green called the Valley of Sin, which requires some creativity for those who mysteriously leave their second shots short.
Amidst charges of sacrilege, I would build a single bunker in the middle of that fairest of fairways, forcing players to adopt a strategy off the tee.
The way it is now, the 18th at St. Andrews is not very demanding or interesting. I say, change it. Give Billy Payne something to think about.