Beware: Old Course’s oversized greens

The approach to the green on the par 4, 13th hole ‘Hole O’Cross,’ which shares it’s green with the par 5, 5th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews.

The approach to the green on the par 4, 13th hole ‘Hole O’Cross,’ which shares it’s green with the par 5, 5th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews.

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In making the shift from the U.S. Open to the British Open, players who confronted the smallest greens in championship golf will have to deal with the largest putting surfaces of any major site.

At Pebble Beach Golf Links, attention focused on the elusive shape and quality of greens that averaged a mere 3,500 square feet.

At St. Andrews, the putting surfaces are much larger – though how much larger depends on how you count.

One of the Old Course’s defining quirks is that it has only 11 greens. Seven putting surfaces serve double duty, and there are only four solo greens (Nos. 1, 9, 17, 18). On the 11 double greens, the sizes average a whopping 22,267 square feet – more than a half-acre. That’s big enough to contain more than six of Pebble Beach’s greens. On a per-hole basis, the greens average 13,608 square feet, slightly less than four times the size of a typical Pebble Beach green.

Supersized

The size of the greens at the Old Course (the U.S. average is 5,000 square feet):

Hole(s) – Square feet

1 – 11,231

2 and 16 – 19,583

3 and 15 – 25,693

4 and 14 – 25,054

5 and 13 – 37,846

6 and 12 – 30,222

7 and 11 – 21,779

8 and 10 – 36,063

9 – 14,823

17 – 7,078

18 – 15,570

Per green – 22,267

Per hole – 13,608

Total – 244,942

AVERAGE SQUARE FEET (2010 Major courses)

Augusta National – 6,435

Pebble Beach – 3,500

St. Andrews (Old) – 22,267

Whistling Straits (Straits) – 8,000

Golfweek research

Those double greens at St. Andrews evolved less by conscious design than by the nature of classic “out-and-back” play along a stretch of sandy dunes that runs northwest from town center. Golfers played down one side of the dunes-laden field, turned around at the far end, and played back along the other side of the field. To keep golfers from interfering with one another, side-by-side target areas were developed. And in one of those mystical instances of golf numerology, the sum total of the holes sharing each of the double greens conveniently equals 18 (2/16, 3/15, 4/14, 5/13, 6/12, 7/11 and 8/10).

Given such vast putting surfaces, chalking greens in regulation might not seem to be a big problem. But this is links golf, with firm, fast fairways and approaches and lots of wind, as well as rollout all around. Peter Thomson, a five-time British Open champion (including 1955 at St. Andrews), likes to say that “hitting these greens is easy; staying on them is the hard part.”

Of all the British Open venues, St. Andrews is among the widest off the tee. The fairways don’t roll through the kinds of towering sand dunes that define Royal St. George’s, Birkdale or Turnberry. Indeed, with the double corridors of fairway play that characterize St. Andrews, it would appear to be the widest course in championship golf. The shared first and 18th fairway alone is 140 yards wide. On all but the two short, back-to-back par 4s at the turn, players face par 4s and par 5s with out-of-bounds tight down the right side and 100-plus yards of open landing area to the left. It would seem to be paradise for a right-to-left player, or for anyone inclined to bail out left.

But that’s where those massive greens work their peculiar magic.

A close inspection of those oversized double-duty putting surfaces reveals that the ideal, unobstructed line of approach is from the right side – the same side that is most heavily defended on the fairway by out-of-bounds and a tightly bunkered landing area.

“You have to hit it a lot straighter at St. Andrews than everyone thinks,” said England’s Lee Westwood, one of the favorites to win the Claret Jug. “You have to be very disciplined. At first glance, it looks like a place where you can fire about and intimidate and bully. I don’t think it is. It’s a strategic golf course.”

A bold tee shot is rewarded with a much easier approach. A bailout left faces a difficult approach over a deep bunker or a nasty mound on the front left side of the entrance. Carrying this obstruction might be easy, but it requires a higher ball flight that’s more subject to the wind and more likely to run past its landing point when it hits the green.

The full strategic intrigue of the Old Course comes through only when the fairways are wide. The decision by the R&A setup team to constrict the fairways reduces some of the course’s inherent flexibility. For example, the ideal line of approach on the 490-yard 17th hole is from far right, close to the wall fronting the Old Course Hotel. This allows golfers to approach the green via a low-slung shot that can skirt the infamous Road Hole bunker that sits front left of the green. For all the attention paid to the lengthening of the hole this year by 20 yards to put driver back into play, the real issue is the abandonment of the right-side landing area because it’s going to be cultivated for the British Open as rough.

Not only are the greens at St. Andrews many times the size of Pebble Beach’s, but they’ll also be presented at more moderate speeds designed to handle the wind. If the greens don’t look lush on TV, that’s because they’re a mix of different grasses: 50 percent fescue, 25 percent bent, 10 percent Poa annua, 4 percent rye and 11 percent what agronomists simply term “other.”

Speeds will be 10-10.5 feet on the Stimpmeter – enough to allow the contours to be in play, but not so slick that golfers must putt defensively.

And unlike Pebble Beach’s greens, there’ll be no shortage of hole locations, and no pingpong slopes on par 5s.

Big greens, interesting contours, different angles and trajectories of approach: It’s a formula good enough for a major, as well as for everyday play.

– Jeff Rude contributed

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