Dawson shocked by uproar over St. Andrews

The iconic Road Hole bunker on No. 17 is being slightly widened and the green recontoured to be more receptive to approach shots.

The iconic Road Hole bunker on No. 17 is being slightly widened and the green recontoured to be more receptive to approach shots.

The last time they added a bunker to the Old Course at St. Andrews, the only social media around to report the news were telegraph and radio. This time around, Twitter, Facebook and golf architecture websites lit up like switchboards.

Based on the scale of such renovations, the proposed work will be pretty low-key. But the surprise news struck more than a few observers as if someone were painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Or profaning sacred, previously untouched ground.

If not untouched, then not touched much. After all, the watercolor map that Alistair MacKenzie drew of the course in March 1924 (it looms over every word I write about golf courses) remains a relevant and largely accurate depiction of the Old Course – far more accurate than any other map from that era of any other championship course.

According to the St. Andrews Links Trust, the management agency responsible for day-to-day operations of all seven municipal courses at St. Andrews, work on the world’s most famous links, begun at the time of the announcement Nov. 23 and to continue next winter, will affect these holes:

• No. 2, par 4: reposition two greenside bunkers closer to right edge of putting surface; create more undulation in adjoining flat ground; remove two fairway bunkers on right.

• No. 3, par 4: remove first fairway bunker on right; add fairway bunker on right side of fairway, 275 yards from championship tee.

• No. 4, par 4: reduce mound (“acute spur formation”) in left side of fairway; reposition greenside bunker closer to right edge of putting surface; create more undulation back right of green.

• No. 6, par 4: recontour ground right of green.

• No. 7, par 4: convert midfairway concave collection area into raised deflective convex mound.

• No. 9, par 4: new fairway bunker 25 yards short left of green.

• No. 11, par 3: back left of green lowered to recapture lost hole locations because of steepness and modern green speeds.

• No. 15, par 4: ground back right of green to be given more undulation.

• No. 17, par 4: widen greenside Road Hole bunker by a half-meter on right side and recontour a small part of the front of the green to be more receptive to approaches. 

The work, approved by the Links Trust, its Links Management Committee and the R&A Championship Committee, was entrusted to veteran British designer Martin Hawtree. In justifying the work, the Links Trust quoted Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, who referenced a concern for “the challenge presented to the world’s top golfers by each of the Open Championship venues.”

Though the Old Course had been lengthened significantly in the past decade, Dawson said, “the Championship Committee felt there was an opportunity to stiffen its defenses in some places to ensure it remains as challenging as ever to the professionals.”

The Open Championship returns to St. Andrews in 2015.

Within days of the announcement, pictures of a small backhoe tearing into the 11th green were widely circulated on the Internet. By then, U.S.-based golf architect Tom Doak had sent a letter to four leading bodies of professional golf course architecture and maintenance inviting their participation in a petition to be sent to the R&A protesting how changes were being made to a course that “had been untouched architecturally since 1920.”

Doak was careful to say that he didn’t “believe it should be IMPOSSIBLE to change the Old Course or any other historic course. But I think it should be a lot harder than it currently is. . . .  I feel that the Old Course is sacred ground, and that architectural changes should not be made to it unless necessary for the maintenance and health of the course.”

Dawson already knew he would have his hands full with a recent joint R&A and U.S. Golf Association announcement over a proposed rule banning the anchored stroke. Now he faced a barrage of media criticism – much of it uninformed, in his view – over the Old Course changes. He told Golfweek he was “astonished by the extent of this St. Andrews uproar” and characterized its scope and intensity as “hysteria.” He defended the moves as sound steps to manage the course, consistent with other improvements made during the past century.

Scott Macpherson, a golf course architect and Old Course historian, makes a convincing case that the game’s most historic layout has been through many modifications in the past century. “The myth that the Old Course hasn’t been changed is nonsense,” he told Golfweek. And he proves that in his book, “St. Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course.”

Thirteen bunkers were added in 1904-08 and seven greens were redone; the ninth hole got a fairway bunker around the end of World War I; between 1924 and 1932 the second green was expanded to the lower right – apparently creating the open ground that is now to be reshaped. Seven new tees were added in 1936; a bunker on the 15th covered over in 1949; and throughout the 1990s more than a half-dozen tees were added and the Road Hole bunker rebuilt yet again.

But serious issues remain. For one thing, it’s not clear whether the changes were initiated by the Links Trust, a public agency responsible for the course, or by the R&A Championship Committee, which regularly has been renovating other Open Championship layouts. Information sharing with local golf bodies was minimal at best; the Links Trust told five local golf clubs of the work a week before it started, without opportunity for input or to consult their thousands of members.

It’s one thing to add back tees – an odd-enough exercise where some new platforms technically are beyond course boundaries. And a case can be made for reducing the slope of a section of the 11th green from 4 percent to 6 percent slope to a more manageable pitch of 2 percent to 3 percent to accommodate modern green speeds and recapture historic hole locations, such as the one Bobby Jones used in 1921. But moving bunkers, shifting the terrain and filling in hollows like the legendary one on the seventh hole – widely regarded to be a maintenance nuisance, but one that probably traces itself back to sheep taking shelter from the wind a half-millennium ago – all need to be undertaken at a slower pace than these edits have been through.

There’s a worrisome precedent here, namely that the same body responsible for protecting the game is out there changing the world’s most closely watched layout. There’s no doubt that Dawson, Hawtree and the Links Trust are going about this with historical sensitivity and technical skill.

But the threshold of change needs to be exceedingly high when we’re dealing with a historic treasure as St. Andrews.

The latest changes to the Old Course all are individually defensible as improvements. But what’s wrong with the occasional flaw and blemish? Leaving those things untouched in the ground is a powerful and sobering reminder that the game, like a very few of its historic layouts, is bigger and more important than any one of us.

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