Here’s my National Post golf column that appeared on Friday. Given Tiger’s win at well below par, I still think this commentary is bang on:
It may be heresy, but golf’s most famed course appears to be nearing its end as a challenging championship venue. That’s right, St. Andrews’ historic Old Course is on the verge of being overwhelmed, even after the Royal and Ancient made considerable changes to toughen it for pros that continue to hit the ball farther and farther.
The problem of distance is out of hand. Hank Kuehne, on his way to a second place finish last week at the John Deere Classic, hit his last two tee shots over 350 yards. And he doesn’t even lead the tour in driving distance this year. The course was not a pushover yesterday, but it was not the challenge it once was. The 14th hole, which now plays into the Eden Course, lengthening the par five to a total of 618 yards, was reachable by most of the field. Several other holes, including the 18th, offered little in the way of risk for players trying for the green.
Interestingly, for much of its history the Old Course sat largely untouched when it came to distance. After being lengthened to slightly more than 6,800 yards in the 1930s, the course was considered a strong challenge for anyone willing to chance hitting it into bunkers with names like Hell or any of the other 111 sand hazards that dot the fairways. It was lengthened a few times in more recent years in an attempt to keep it relevant as golf balls started travelling farther. But in 2000, Tiger Woods simply took the course apart, something he appears on track to do again after an opening-round 66.
Five years ago, Woods didn’t once have to wander into the bunkers during his four rounds. And Tiger wasn’t playing the course in the fashion Bobby Jones had in 1930 when he won the British Open by playing his tee shots on the home holes to the left in order to avoid the bunkers. Woods just hit the ball over the trouble. On a course where subtly is the rule of the day, Woods managed to overpower it, not unlike John Daly’s win in St. Andrews five years earlier. To the R&A’s credit, the organization realizes the golfing public won’t put up with wholesale changes or bunker moves that would dramatically alter the configuration of the most famous course in the world.
After all, pros only fight for the Open on the Old Course twice in a decade; amateurs pay hundreds of dollars to play it almost every day. It is the seemingly random pattern of bunkers that provides the barricades for the amateurs. By moving some tees, the R&A hoped some of the bunkers would be brought back into play for the pros. But former British Open champion Peter Thomson followed Tiger Woods around in a practice round and was stunned by the distance the Masters champ was hitting the ball. The results were astonishing, Thomson wrote. Even at the 17th, once a monster at 455 yards, many players are hitting fairway woods or irons off the tee. Distance isn’t an issue when one can hit a 3-wood 290 yards. If the powers that control professional golf aren’t going to deal with the distance the ball travels, then they will probably have to give up their aim of protecting par. And recognize that the Old Course is another victim of golf technology.
That’s not the end of the world, like some at the USGA and R&A would like you to think just a sign of continuing evolution, for better or worse, of the game of golf. National Post firstname.lastname@example.org