Old course a soft touch for new generation

Golfing traditionalists would consider the suggestion to be downright heresy but more and more people are wondering whether the Old Course at St Andrews has outlived its usefulness as an Open Championship venue.

Old course a soft touch for new generation

It wasn’t just that the three golfers in last night’s play-off were all on 15 under par 273 but that so many others enjoyed a massive birdie fest, especially in Sunday’s third round when it was almost impossible to keep track of the amazing scoring.

At the end of 72 holes, 11 finished in double digits under par with the leading amateur Jordan Niebrugger among them! A total of 73 of the 80 qualifiers dipped below regulation totalling a massive 432 shots.

And remember, weather conditions for much of the five days could hardly have been more unfavourable.

Rain and wind caused lengthy suspensions and several players negotiated their way through near darkness on Friday night and a few more were asked to pit their wits and skills against 50 mile per hour winds at the crack of dawn the following morning before the R & A came to their senses.

Furthermore, this is by no means the first time the Old Course has been brought to its knees by the game’s finest professionals equipped as they are nowadays with clubs and golf balls that give them a massive advantage over such illustrious predecessors like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and their contemporaries back in the latter years of the 20th century.

Nowadays, given reasonable conditions, they can drive the 9th, 10th, 12th and 18th greens, a number of others like the 1st and 7th are little more than a fairway wood and a little pitch. The par 5 5th and 14th are easy meat for even the medium hitters.

In the days of persimmon woods and balata balls, St Andrews was indeed a worthy test. In 1960, Kel Nagle won with 278, ten under par. Tony Lema took one more in ’64. Jack Nicklaus edged home with 283 in 1970 and 281 five years later. There were signs of the impending change in ’76 when Seve Ballesteros pipped Tom Watson with an aggregate of 276. Nick Faldo reduced the mark to a remarkable 18 under par 270 in 1980 and even though John Daly found 282 good enough in ’95, Tiger Woods again revealed the Old Course’s shortcomings when landing the claret jug with scores of 269 and 274 in 2000 and ‘05. In 2010, Louis Oosthuizen breezed home with 272.

Even then, Woods enjoyed victory margins of five and eight respectively and Oostuizen of seven. Many of their rivals found it tough enough going. Not any longer. The leaderboard this time round was littered with red figures. If you didn’t finish level par or better, your interest in the championship was at an end with two days still to go.

Unless Graeme McDowell’s view that something must be done to bring more bunkers into play, it is difficult to know what can be done to safeguard the lay-out from the ravages of even moderately successful tournament professionals.

Even a journeyman like Anthony Wall was 12 under with seven to play yesterday before dropping three shots late on.

“When you see the type of power that these guys are using, you wonder how the old test can keep up”, said McDowell. “Driving the ball is just too easy because a lot of the bunkers are no longer in play. There’s no deterrent to keep the driver in the bag.”

While McDowell accepts that you “don’t have to put a ton of yardage on the course”, there is in fact little room to do so anyway. A decade or so ago, they pushed the tee at the dreaded and famous 17th back into part of the adjoining Eden Course, stretching it to 502 yards. Over the last few days, they were reaching the green with a three wood tee shot and medium iron for the approach.

Few would have the courage to denigrate the Old Course as a suitable venue for the game’s greatest championship within whispering distance of the R & A clubhouse at St Andrews and in fairness most 19th hole discussions would also dismiss that kind of talk. All of which is perfectly understandable given the traditions and history of this wonderful golfing town. It’s just a pity that its flagship Old Course has become a soft touch for the game’s finest.

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