The first time around, it can seem mundane. By the second round, you’ll start to feel some of the subtlety and intrigue. And if, by the third time, you don’t sense the magic of the place, then you’re altogether tone deaf about golf course design.
Such is the sway of St. Andrews’ Old Course, the setting this week for the 144th British Open, the 29th time that it will be staged at the “Home of Golf” on the Fife Coast of eastern Scotland. Defending champion Rory McIlroy won’t be playing because of an ankle injury. Tiger Woods will tee it up, seeking to recapture the form with which he won on the Old Course in 2000 and ’05. John Daly, the winner at St. Andrews in 1995, also will be part of the show. Nick Faldo (1990 champion at St. Andrews) and Tom Watson (none of whose five British Open titles came at the Old Course) will be making their last appearances in golf’s oldest major championship this week. Even with Jordan Spieth chasing the elusive Grand Slam, the real star this week will be the golf course.
Here’s a hole-by-hole guide of what to expect from the Old Course. Note that with a slightly wetter-than-usual late spring/early summer, the course is not running as firm and as fast as usual. With rain in the offing this week, conditions could prove just receptive enough for some very low scores.
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Hole No. 1
Par 4, 376 yards
It’s the easiest opening tee shot in championship golf, and also the most nerve-racking. The hole is fraught with history, tradition, the peering eyes of the R&A members from the nearby clubhouse and the prospects of trying not to go out-of-bounds right (easily within play!) or left (only Ian Baker-Finch has done it in the Open) on a fairway that’s 100 yards wide. No need for a river here; the important shot is the approach, invariably a short iron except into the heaviest of westerly winds. Interestingly, the second shot here, across a stone-lined burn fronting the green, is the only forced carry across an irrecoverable hazard on the entire course. It’s the gentlest of opening-hole handshakes.
Hole No. 2
Par 4, 453 yards
The next six holes, all running straight north, normally play with the prevailing wind coming in from the left – a westerly. But if, as seems the case this week, the wind blows out of the south, then here’s the stretch to make up considerable ground before squandering it on the incoming nine. On most of the holes at St. Andrews, the clearer, more open line into the green is revealed by a bold drive down the tighter right side – with out-of-bounds and heavy stands of gorse and broken ground lining that side. Everyone talks about the safer side being to the left along the lines into the wide, shared double fairways here. But this safer drive leaves a much tougher second shot at the second hole and throughout the Old Course into greens defended heavily short and left of center. R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, who will be retiring this year, recently oversaw addition of a new bunkering scheme that placed a two new hazards in front of the ideal landing zone. They probably will end up helping players by giving them an ideal drop zone rather than having them figure out from ill-defined terrain where to land the ball. The second hole presents the first of the seven famed double-greens at St. Andrews, all of them comprising hole combinations (2/16, 3/15, 4/14, 5/13, 6/12, 7/11 and 8/10) that add up to 18. Go figure.
Hole No. 3
Par 4, 397 yards
This one’s drivable, given a favorable south wind. Some bunkering adjustment has made a drive down the right side more demanding – the last bunker is now 293 yards to carry and a decided one-shot obstacle because a pitch out is the only option. It’s one of several changes Dawson personally instituted, with the work technically implemented by architect Martin Hawtree. Once again, the seeming advantages of an easy tee shot down the open left side are undercut by the (double-) green complex here, which presents crescent-shaped Cartgate bunker totally dominating the inside left-center line. Even with a short iron or wedge in hand, carrying it brings into play a severe pot bunker on the far (back) side or the prospects of the ball rolling off to the back right.
Hole No. 4
Par 4, 480 yards
For years in modern golf, newly added championship tees were perched on outlooks to provide an enhanced view of the (more) distant landing areas. Not at St. Andrews, where the search for back tees often landed on lower-lying native terrain where a built-up platform would have looked out of place. Thus the often-uncomfortable views from the back tees, including here on the long fourth hole, where all the player can see at the drive is a low-slung broken ridge to carry. At least on the incoming nine the player can orient tee shots around church spires or town buildings. But not here on the front nine headed out to the River Eden. A new kick mound short right of the green further repels slightly wayward approach shots.
Hole No. 5
Par 5, 568 yards
This one’s simpler – and also very yielding. The drive is up the left side as there’s too much risk down the heavily bunkered right. With the prevailing wind across from the left if not helping, the trick isn’t getting on this green; it’s getting the close. Front hole locations are especially hard to access, given the wind and bounce here. And for players missing the fairway or in less-than-ideal shape off the tee, it’s common to lay up short with a second shot just beyond the twin “Spectacles” bunkers, 50 yards short of the green and 90 yards short of green center – to a blind third shot, uphill, the most elevated shot on a golf course that presents no more than 20 feet of elevation change. At 37,900 square feet (seven-eighths of an acre), this 85-yard-long double green is one of the biggest in all of golf – certainly of championship golf.
Hole No. 6
Par 4, 412 yards
With the wind out of the south, this green might be drivable. Normally, however, with the wind prevailing from the left (out of the west) it’s a very tight squeeze of a tee shot to a landing area that’s pinched down until 280 yards out, with bunkers on both sides. From there it’s an awkward short iron in to an unbunkered green that falls off steeply all around, especially up front. As for these greens, they will have a mottled, multi-hued, multi-textured look, but they have been well adapted over the generations. Mowing heights will be about 0.15-inch, and they’ll be rolled enough (and have been verticut and top-dressed enough) that they’ll roll about 10.5 on the Stimpmeter. There’s no need for more than that, especially if the wind comes up. The surfaces are firm enough that only the rare perfectly struck short iron shot will hold on contact. On a links course such as St. Andrews, a multitude of 20-25-foot putts is the rule during a round, even for players at the peak of their play that week.
Hole No. 7
Par 4, 437 yards
A crossing hole at the far north side of the layout where the approach shots overlap and share air space, so to speak, with incoming shots on the adjoining par-3 11th hole. Shell bunker, a massive mid-fairway bunker 310 yards from the back tee, is decidedly in reach and cause for a layup off the tee. The green, at the highest point of the golf course, presents the narrowest target on the course: only 17 yards across and set on a diagonal that makes holding it downwind along its axis very demanding.
Hole No. 8
Par 3, 175 yards
Seemingly the simplest hole at St. Andrews, it’s usually played into a crosswind from the right if not a direct head wind. Two tiny pot bunkers up front seem to induce players to ensure they are past these – with the effect that shots come in hot and with a strong right-to-left bias. That’s not idea for a green that tilts slightly away. The result is that iron shots often roll into crumpled ground on the right and behind, leaving double-breaking putts or awkward chips back.
Hole No. 9
Par 4, 352 yards
Here’s one of those truly maddening holes, wide open down the middle to a massive single green, 14,800 square feet, that has less contour than most tees. It’s exactly the lack of definition to the target that makes this hole so unsettling. All of a sudden there’s irrecoverable trouble on the left in the form of dense gorse – plus three far bunkers, Boase’s (270 yards to reach), End Hole (295 yards) and a new, unnamed one (Dawson?) on its left, 301 yards to pass, that function like sink holes out of all proportion to their size.
Hole No. 10
Par 4, 386 yards
Back-to-back with No. 9 in opposite directions and a shared fairway; if one of them is drivable, the other is not. There’s a lot of trouble left here, plus two sentinel bunkers 270 yards out on the right, and another one 30 yards farther up smack in the middle of the long-drive zone. All in all, good reason to lay up and leave a short-iron or wedge to another one of those massive, randomly defined putting surfaces that seem to feed the ball off and away.
Hole No. 11
Par 3, 174 yards
One of the most famous and one of the most copied par 3s in all of golf. This uphill hole, on a path that crosses with the seventh hole that comes on from the left, offers a very simple strategic choice off the tee. Carry it past the steep fronting bunker called Strath on the right center side, and keep it from going too far past that would leave an impossible slick downhill putt. Also, keep it from going too far left into the adjoining Hill bunker. The scheme is oft-repeated, most self-consciously on the fourth hole at Augusta National. For years, the back-left section of the green could not be used for hole locations because the ground slope was too severe. Now that’s finally been addressed, thanks to some much-overdue softening of the slope so that we’ll now see the hole cut on the dangerous back-left shelf – surely one of the most well protected and demanding hole locations on the course.
Hole No. 12
Par 4, 348 yards
No fairway at St. Andrews is more littered with trouble than this pockmarked one. Back in 2000, when Tiger Woods managed his way around 72 holes without once landing in a bunker, he invented a new way to play this hole – drive it through the green and approach it from the other side. Not a bad strategy for approaching a top-hat green such as this one, which was, in fact, more accessible to play on the “left-hand course” when they played the Old Course in reverse periodically through the second half of the 19th century (and lately on a few days in early April).
Hole No. 13
Par 4, 465 yards
When played into a prevailing headwind or crosswind from the left, this is one of the most demanding holes on the Old Course. A trio of famously named bunkers, The Coffins, occupies central ground between the narrow landing area on the right and the more generous ground (of the adjoining sixth hole) to the left. The clearer, more receptive angle is down the right; the more difficult, usually blind approach is from that safer ground to the left. The uphill approach, often a mid- or long-iron for these players, is to that large double green (5/13). With the front and right sides of the putting surface bunkered intensely, the ideal approach angle from the right can make use of the depth here without bringing that sand into play.
Hole No. 14
Par 5, 618 yards Nobody in championship golf is comfortable lining up a drive over an out-of-bounds wall. But that’s the sense on the back tee of this legendary par 5, with the prevailing wind from the right or into the golfer. The left side is protected by a notoriously deep bunker complex: the Beardies, 305 yards to clear. Land here and there’s little chance but for a wedge out and a very long third shot in. Just ahead is the flattest ground on the entire golf course, The Elysian Fields. Looming ahead, of course, is the layout’s biggest hazard, Hell, a conch-shaped medieval fortress of sand 7 feet deep that offers little opportunity for carrying the requisite 125 yards to green center. In other words, avoid at all cost – for which there are alternative paths, including short, right, well over with a bold second shot, or – what appears the timid way but which in fact makes a lot of sense, way left onto the fifth fairway. That’s because the double green here is canted the wrong way, so to speak, and is tipped through town center, away from the line of approach. The ideal angle is to come in from way right and use the right side of the green as a backstop. Otherwise, as will happen frequently this week, seemingly ideal incoming shots will come in hot and roll a long way – perhaps into a nasty little pot bunker on the far right that doesn’t warrant attention until it’s too late.
Hole No. 15
Par 4, 455 yards
Narrow driving lane here, with out-of-bounds right along a train track. The ideal tee shot settles softly amid a pair of mounds called – no joke – Miss Grainger’s Bosoms. Such are the seduction on this Presbyterian morality play of a golf course where (on the last hole) Hell sits just beyond Elysian Fields and later, at the 18th hole, you get to pass through the Valley of Sin. A small bunker front left, a crumpled half of green on the right and a surface tipped away that feeds the ball back into Cartgate bunker on the far side – they all end up creating a bit more subtle drama than appears at first glance.
Hole No. 16
Par 4, 423 yards
A truly great little hole, though under-appreciated. There’s railroad OB right, and a driving zone that has to negotiate the bunker-strewn mound called Principal’s Nose (256 yards to reach; 272 to carry) as well as Deacon Sime bunker another 20 yards on. There’s considerable risk to hitting driver here, which is why many players will just lay up off the tee and face a second shot in the 170-yard range to another of those double greens that are well defended short left and long but offer considerable maneuver room on the right.
Hole No. 17
Par 4, 495 yards
Blind tee shot over the old faux coal sheds outlined by the Old Course Hotel boundary fence. Awkward to the extreme, with the bailout left offering a terrible angle to the smallest green on the course, a solo putting surface only 7,100 square feet. It’s angled at a cant, with no support behind it and a road that is the resting place for all too many approach shots. That’s because the perched green wraps around the one must-avoid spot on the entire golf course, the infamous Road Hole Bunker – 7 feet below the green surface, revetted straight up, and though recently expanded a little, still provides the scene for tragic-comical escape efforts. Carrying the bunker and holding the line on its left side has now been made harder through an expansion of the bunker face that gives it the appearance of too much Botox. The ideal line of approach is still down the right, which requires an extremely bold line off the tee close to the hotel building proper. There’s no better case in all of golf for how a fearsome greenside hazard resonates and reverberates a quarter-mile back to the tee.
Hole No. 18
Par 4, 357 yards
The Home Hole at St. Andrews is the least worrisome of the lot, as long as you don’t park your tee shot across the white boundary fence along The Link (a road) and its frontage of houses, hotels, clubhouses and shops. The green is indeed drivable, given the slightest favoring wind and some dry ground – which might not be the case this week, with a forecast of rain for the first three days. The tee shot is toward the clock on the R&A clubhouse, from which it’s a wedge, bump-and-run or long putt through a deep swale (Valley of Sin) to a green sitting in the middle of town and farmed by huge spectator stands. It’s not a very testing hole but certainly a very sporting one – dense with tradition and emotion. In that sense, it’s a fitting end.