Unnecessary: Work to the Old Course and the "anchored" putter ban

I’ve watched the debates over golf technology with some bemusement this week. And yes, I consider the renovation of the Old Course at St. Andrews and today’s 2016 ban on anchored putters to be the byproduct of the same battle over the path golf will take going forward.

Let’s start with the Old Course. Yes, I’ve played it – a couple of times. Yes, I’ve read extensively about it, looked at photos – heck, I have a framed picture of the routing on my wall. I’ve read the biography of the Morris family and Alister MacKenzie’s book on the subject.

It is the basis for almost all golf architecture that followed. Every course you’ve ever played had some element that was lifted from St. Andrews.

Now golf designer Martin Hawtree and the R&A are busy ripping it up. Here’s the list of so-called “improvements:”

A number of improvements are being planned to the Old Course to help maintain its challenge for the world’s top golfers ahead of the return of The Open Championship to St Andrews in 2015.

Renowned golf course architect Martin Hawtree was commissioned by St Andrews Links Trust, which manages the Old Course and the other six courses at the Home of Golf, and The R&A Championship Committee, which organises golf’s oldest major championship, to assess potential changes which would enhance the challenge for elite players without unduly affecting club and visiting golfers while remaining true to the special character of the Old Course.

Martin Hawtree’s recommendations have now been agreed by the St Andrews Links Trustees and Links Management Committee and The R&A Championship Committee.

The work is planned to take place in two phases over this winter and next. The first phase involves work on the 2nd, 7th, 11th and 17th holes. The second phase will take place in winter 2013/14 with work on the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th and 15th holes.

The work will widen the Road Bunker on the 17th hole by half a metre at the right hand side and recontour a small portion of the front of the green to enable it to gather more approach shots landing in that area.

A new bunker will be created on the right of the 3rd fairway and another on the left of the 9th fairway 20 yards short of the green. Bunkers will be repositioned closer to the right edge of the 2nd green and the right of the 4th green. A portion of the back left of the 11th green will be lowered to create more hole location options.


I find the decision fascinating on several counts. First of all, this is part of the continued dichotomy of the sport of golf. On one hand you have professionals, who train and practice for the sport and who utilize equipment tweaked specifically to their demands, who bash the ball a long way with a regularity that frightens many. Of course, the R&A and USGA tried to curtail this recently with changes to club grooves, but that blew up in their faces when it made no difference at all to scoring. On the other hand you have amateurs, whose handicaps haven’t decreased despite improvements in equipment.

And then you have the R&A, the ultimate old boys club now that Augusta finally admitted women. Here you have an organization that dictates the rules of the game though half the population can’t be members. It is a group of men who talk about what’s best for the sport – including the ladies’ game – though those same women can’t belong. Anachronistic indeed. Above and beyond you have Peter Dawson, the R&A’s executive director, who likes to dabble in golf design, and Martin Hawtree, a respected designer whose reputation for renovation work is, well, mixed. They are putting their stamp on a course that hasn’t been altered much (beyond some new tees) in almost 90 years. Dawson and the R&A are worried someone will shoot 59 at the Old Course in three years. So he’s tricking it up, bringing in a new pin position at the back of 11, fussing with the bunker on the Road Hole to toughen a hole that already played a half stroke above par in the last British Open. It is simply the latest Open Championship course Dawson has tweaked, though it is always suggested that the changes were led by noted golf architects. Hawtree worked at Royal Birkdale, Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie tweaked Turnberry. But Dawson watched it all happen.Heck, I think he directs the designers to follow his impulses.

Many are upset that the news of the changes to the Old Course was made public Friday, and bulldozers were on site two days later. At the very least there’s an optics problem with the way the R&A – which doesn’t own the Old Course, contrary to popular opinion – issued the news, at the most it was designed to stifle any discussion about the changes until it was too late to do anything about it. It apparently sold the town of St. Andrews on the matter. But does anyone think the R&A would have ceased going to the Old Course had the town said no to the changes?

So why is Dawson tinkering with the Old Course if driving distances, in the words of the powers that be, have stabilized? And why are we making courses to the iconic course in golf for a bunch of pros who play the course every five years?

It is all about protecting par, a term that has become less and less meaningful in recent years. That’s the same reason the R&A and USGA announced today that they are banning anchored putters in 2016.

For the record, I used a belly putter for the summer, more as an experiment than anything. I don’t really know if I putted better with it overall – but I did in stretches. I’m an amateur player, halfway decent, who works on his game. I’m like a lot of players. My putting is a mixed bag.

But I don’t actually think any of this – belly putters, low scores – is really an issue. I think this is all a tempest in a teapot. I’ve played with the best golfers in the world – and they don’t play the same game the rest of us do, and I include good club pros in that mix. I don’t see average weekend players bashing the ball 300 yards with impunity. I see hacks at the range at Eagles Nest or Tarandowah just trying to get it in the air.

And frankly, I don’t think anything less of a course if some PGA Tour pro shoots a low score on it. It wouldn’t for a minute make the Old Course any less interesting, any less fascinating to play.

My concern is that in protecting par we’re making the Old Course less interesting. And by taking belly putters away, we’re taking another element away from the amateur who already finds the game too difficult, too long and too challenging. I’m not alone in this — the PGA of America apparently thinks the same (while, of course, Golf Canada fell right in line).

Last year, while playing with my friend and colleague Lorne Rubenstein, he mentioned he felt golf was a niche sport that gained popularity for a decade. Now that its popularity is fading, Rubenstein felt it was just returning to its natural roots.

He might be right.

All I know is that if one of the Top 100 golfers in the world shoots 59 on the Old Course in a calm day, I want to see it. It would be exciting – certainly more interesting than watching another bogey on the Road Hole. And if that golfer does it with a belly putter or long putter, he’ll still have played a remarkable round.

For the rest of us, this matters little. The Old Course is a little harder, and a little less interesting. But my bag will weigh less when I carry a 33-inch putter in it.

That’s what I call mixed blessings.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

18 CommentsLeave a comment

  • RT, I don’t think for a second that banning the belly putter will stop hackers through mid-handicappers from using it. Most don’t adhere anywhere near strictly to the rules of golf or to any restrictions on equipment. This is a ruling to keep tournament play pure, and if you’re playing in tournaments, you should be beyond finding the game too challenging for enjoyment.

    Couldn’t agree more with you on the Old Course, though.

  • Since they’re a little slow to the discussions on technology, perhaps they’ll look at young Mr. Sarazen’s new investion called the sand wedge.

  • Just to be fair to the Royal and Ancient Golf club, it is not the same thing as the R & A. The Royal and Ancient is an all male golf club in St. Andrews while the R & A has been a separate governing body since 2004. The R & A, which governs golf, actually has female members.

    • I think Steve is correct RT.
      The R&A was formed in 2004 and is BASED in St Andrews. The R&A seeks to engage in and support activities that are undertaken for the benefit of the game of golf. It TAKES ITS NAME from The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Before 2004, the members’ club had responsibility for the game but from which The R&A is now SEPARATE and DISTINCT.
      The R&A organises The Open Championship, golf’s oldest Major, along with a number of other amateur and junior events, some of which are sanctioned by other golfing bodies. In addition, The R&A assumes responsibility for the administration of the Rules of Golf with the consent of 143 organisations from the amateur and professional game, and on behalf of over 30 million golfers in 128 countries throughout Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Delegates to the R&A’s annual meetings include both sexes and both sexes are delegates. The LPGA has direct input into R&A proposals (anchoring clubs as an example) so, I am pretty sure there are women intimatley involved in the R&A.

    • There is history with the club and their HQ is located in St. Andrews but that’s the end of it. Is there some correlation between Glen Abbey and Golf Canada because their offices are on the Abbey’s property??

  • Sad to see this level of change in the Old Course….although the removal of the brush / gorse from the view on one’s tee ball on #2 was also a disappointing change. The #2 blind tee shot was one of many nice characteristics of the Old Course. Go from a wide open 100 yard landing area on #1 to a completely blind landing area on #2 was a fun change / experience.

  • The whole week is ridiculous and infuriating. As an avid links golf fan, reader, student of the game and course architecture, turf manager, and someone who makes their livelihood on the golf course, to see this happening now is ludicrous.

    Balls and clubs have gotten out of control, and to the point the governing bodies cant get them back. The technology and R & D that goes into the new clubs drives the cost of the clubs up, only increasing the sale price.

    For a sport struggling to gain ground or even level footing in North America, would it not make sense to start capping some parts of technology on clubs and/or balls to help bring costs of equipment back in line. By regulating something, the R and D departments should slow down in that area and thus, costs should not increase further or may reduce slightly as companies compete for business.

    As far as the Old Course, it is shameful. I am a huge fan of Hawtree’s work (what I have played and seen of it), but it baffles me that any architect would even want to take on this project knowing the resistance and the ramifications of touching the “sacred ground” that is St. Anderws. The work itself makes no sense at all and seems to be tinkering just to tinker. Removing undulations that have been there as far as pictures are dated back is pointless. And moving bunkers (not rebuilding or reshaping) but moving bunkers?! really?

    “St. Andrews us difficult, not because bunkers are placed to catch inaccurate shots, but because the results of a misadventure is to make the next shot infinitely more difficult then it otherwise would have been”
    — H.N. Wethered and Tom Simpson

    The Old Course plays hard enough when the wind is blowing, and has never given up a number that a golfer didn’t deserve by playing a great round of golf. As far as the tech has gone in equipment, this does not warrant the work that is being done.

    Both the USGA and R & A are way of the mark with everything they have done recently, and it shows how far they let the game get away from them. For both amateurs and pros.

    Just brutal.

  • what are you guys smoking? The R&A is still the same, all male, mostly English members, based in Scotland (world wide membership). They have a Tournament Committee called the Championship Committee and they conduct their events which include using a company that tells all courses what is required maintenance-wise for up to 5 years before an event. We hosted an Open Qualifying and had monthly meetings and inspections with their committee – even Sec Dawson walked our course to “check” quality.

    The Links Trust who run the Links courses has to go along with the R&A to keep them based in Scotland – and the R&A members have access to the Old Course because they built the New Course for the town – they even financed Kingsbarns for some reason. The R&A make Augusta look very modern.

  • The problem with golf right now is that the driver and the golf ball technology has made the ball travel too far. You have to love the governing bodies who, despite knowing the obvious, introduce rules that restrict your ability to hit the ball with the shortest club in the bag. Go figure…

  • Is golf the only game where the competitor gets to pick the ball he wants to play with? I guess bowling fits that category, but,I’m not sure what that says about the appeal of the game of golf?!?

    I’m pretty sure the NBA, MLB and NFL dictate which ball will be used for competition, while recreational participants often use whatever equipment is close at hand “official” or not. It doesn’t appear to me that bifurcation in those instances has impacted their popularity.

    It’s time the governing bodies and the professional tours take a common sense approach to this issue – fix the ball and leave the golf courses alone.

    Personally, I’ve seen very little benefit from ‘new technology’. In fact, I feel that I have been disadvantaged over the last 10 years where ‘technology’ disproportionately serves/benefits golfers with higher swing speeds. A roll back on the performance of the ball would actually benefit me.

    ‘Golfers of the world unit’ — perhaps we need to ‘occupy’ the Old Course to get our point across?

  • The game of golf consists of swinging at a ball with a club. Anchoring the club does not permit a golf swing therefore anchoring should be banned. Even Ernie Els said it is cheating but he will do it while he can and he won the Open Championship with it.

  • Tough to address all the issues….

    You conveniently forget the addition of sprinklers to the Old Course and all other championship venues globally that forever changed the game.Augusta twigs materially every year and I don’t hear these screams.
    Golf industry money is the single biggest obstacle to equipment governance. R&A and USGA staff and volunteers expose themselves to litigation just mulling options. The tours and the country PGAs had zero to say when the belly came on the scene or for that matter the ball evolution. Where were they and are they?
    Augusta is not a golf club. It choses to be a significant centre of influence well beyond golf. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are members….can’t hit it past their nose and spend less than 10 hours a year thinking about or playing golf.
    The R&A is only about golf. All decisions relating to rules,equipment,amateur status….the game….are made in committees composed of all genders and national interests. It is very sad that women have not stepped up and done a proper job of globally governing the women’s game which is, like it or not, different. The R&A and Links Trust have encouraged development of women’s golf by hosting the British Open at St Andrew’s including use of the R&A facilities.
    In the old days I would go to my golf club as a respite from the buzz of family and career.I respectfully suggest that men need such men only venues. The R&A has always tried to responsibly play a leadership role in the game of golf. It has never been about control.

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