27 Nov 2012

It was announced this week that the St. Andrews Links Trustees, the Links Management Committee and Royal and Ancient Championship Committee have agreed to undertake structural modifications to The Old Course at St Andrews as suggested by English course architect Dr. Martin Hawtree. The news highlights, yet again, the incompetency of the game’s governing body and proves beyond any doubt that nothing about our great game remains sacred.

For centuries the entire town of St Andrews has been a golfing shrine and the Old Course a beacon of architectural oddity. It’s holes and individual features are admired by golfers and course designers everywhere and its imperfect perfection remains a benchmark that others only dream of approaching.

Until the reign of current R&A Secretary Peter Dawson, when standing on the 1st tee at St Andrews all men were equal. Sadly this is no longer the case. Having allowed equipment manufacturers to develop longer and hotter golf technology, he has pushed tees on The Old Course so far back that during championships four other courses come into play. Now Dawson and his team are intent on defacing the Old lady herself, modifying the very canvas upon which golf’s most celebrated holes are constructed. To put things mildly, this is completely inexcusable.

Included among the Hawtree alterations are plans to enlarge the Road Hole bunker on the 17th by half a metre and recontour the front of the green to enable the bunker to gather more balls. The back left portion of the 11th green will also be lowered to accommodate additional pin placements.

These two changes alone are enough to make Old Tom roll over in his grave. The 11th green is the most copied in golf, and about the best example of steep, stern, lay-of-the-land par three architecture in all of Scotland. Then there is the Road Hole, which is already the most brutal two-shot test amateur golfers will ever face. For the sake of challenging the elite professionals even more, it’s just become harder.

If changes to icons like the 11th and 17th weren’t bad enough, there are also plans to deface other key areas, such as;

-       The right hand side of the brilliant 2nd green, which will be recontoured to feature some new 21st century Hawtree undulations. Two bunkers will also be pushed closer to the putting surface

-       The ground back right of the 4th green will similarly receive the Hawtree recontouring treatment, while an acute spur formation (R&A’s words) on the left hand side of the fairway will be reduced to improve visibility from that (safer) side of the fairway. Pushing a bunker closer to the right edge of the green will further help render the existing hole unrecognizable

-       The 7th green, which is connected to the 11th, will be remodeled with undulations added to the right hand side. A large hollow in the fairway will be converted into the opposite of its natural form, a small mound

-       Additional undulations will be created to the right of the 6th green and at the back of the 15thgreen while bunker changes are slated on the 3rd and 9th.

Tragically, some of the work has already begun.

In defending the proposed changes, Dawson claimed they were intended to present a stiffer challenge to the professional player. In his own words, ‘We have considered the challenge presented to the world’s top golfers by each of The Open Championship venues and carried out a program of improvements over the last ten years. While some holes have been lengthened on the Old Course in recent years it has otherwise remained largely unaltered. The Championship Committee felt there was an opportunity to stiffen its defences in some places to ensure it remains as challenging as ever to the professionals. The proposals from Martin Hawtree should place more of a premium on accuracy and ball control while retaining the spirit and character of the Old Course.’

Firstly, The Old Course has never existed solely to provide a demanding test for the professional player. The fact it has always provided a wonderfully democratic challenge of every golfer’s ability is because of its natural features and the absolute quality of its untouched golf holes. The fact this is apparently no longer the case says a lot more about the administration of our game over the past 13 years (Dawson’s rule) than it does about any shortcomings on the ground at St Andrews.

Like they can on any golf course in the world, anybody - repeat anybody - could make St Andrews a harder and more difficult test for elite golfers. Making holes tougher takes no great design or architectural skill at all. The Old Course at St Andrews should be above structural interference of any nature, as it most profoundly embodies the spirit of our game and the emphasis proper golf has on fun and sport and enjoyment over difficulty and the protection of an artificial pretext like par.

The ambition of every golf course architect should not be to interfere with the Old Course, but to instead help make our game more fun and interesting, in essence to build holes more like those at St Andrews. For Hawtree to accept this brief, let alone believe he can improve upon these golf holes, smacks of arrogance and a complete disregard for the history of our game. Perhaps his apparent disinterest in actually playing the game of golf has something to do with his attitude toward our most sacred shrine.

Hawtree operates the oldest continuous architectural practice in all of golf. He also designed the mega-difficult Trump Scotland and has now defaced the Old Course at St Andrews. When his golfing epithet is written, little else will be said.

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