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.