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Which is Better? | Alter the Old Course or Leave it Alone

This article appeared in the 2013 Winter issue of LINKS.

Alter the Old Course

The current changes simply continue a process of evolution that began nearly 150 years ago by Scott MacPherson

WHEN THE ST. ANDREWS Links Trust announced that changes would be made to the Old Course in preparation for the 2015 Open Championship, golf in the western world seemed to stop. Opponents suggested that changing the Old Course would be tantamount to vandalism, like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

Except it’s not. The Old Course is always changing and has always been changed. Mostly this has been at the hands of Mother Nature with the irrepressible forces of wind, rain, and erosion, but also through more affectionate flushes of growth and wildlife. Humans have shaped the course, too. At regular intervals, greenkeepers have filled in divots, revetted bunkers, even built greens, created bunkers, or filled them in.

These grander measures have always been in response to changes in the game. In 1866 and 1870, Old Tom Morris built the new 18th and 1st greens, respectively, and reconfigured the course in response to the growing popularity of the game. The fairways were widened and the whole notion of course management and strategy—tacking around obstacles instead of simply over them—took shape. 

When the power of the Haskell ball was released on the game, the guardians of the Old Course responded in 1904 by cutting 13 new bunkers and inserting seven new tees to stretch the course by exactly 200 yards. A deep hollow in front of the tee on the 2nd hole was filled in 1910, and the last bunker erased in 1949.

More changes were made to allow for greater spectator access to the Open Championship in the 20th century and for steel shafts. In more recent history, the course was lengthened for the Open Championships of 2005 and 2010. These are grumbling details, but my point is this: The romantic notion that the Old Course fell to us from the vaults of heaven, has never changed, and that its bunkers were all formed by sheep, is a complete myth.

So the question is, can these changes be justified? From an historical perspective, absolutely. They simply continue a process that began nearly 150 years ago. The outpouring of emotion on this issue, I believe, stems from the extraordinary media coverage of the modern era, along with the fact that the world’s golfers now have an emotional relationship with the Old Lady, many of them without ever having met her. 

It is my view that the R&A and Links Trust have proven to be good guardians of the Old Course and we should allow them the privilege of assessing the course and making careful and judicious changes when necessary. Ultimately, it is they who bear the burden of responsibility and they who have the most to lose should matters go south. It is a pressure that brings out the best decisions, not the worst.

It is healthy to keep watching, and to assert an interest, but I believe a pragmatic approach needs to be taken. Previous changes have improved the course. It’s possible the current changes will do the same. Let’s wait and see.

Scott Macpherson is an Edinburgh-based golf course architect and author of St. Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course.

Leave it Alone

The R&A is overreacting to the golf course and underreacting to the real issue—the need to regulate modern golf equipment by Tom Doak

THE APPEAL OF THE OLD COURSE AT ST. ANDREWS is that it is so unlike any other great course. From the moguls inside the 2nd green to the paved road in play on the 17th, the Old Course is chock full of features that no golf architect would ever dream of building. Its strategies transcend the conventional wisdom of golf course design.

Changing the Old Course is a big deal, and that’s why the work begun this past November was kept secret until the last minute. Those of us who have objected publicly have been reassured that we should trust the professionals, words that ring hollow to those who know how unnecessary surgery gets done. All it takes to change a great course is a willful committee chairman and a willing architect. If one consultant resists, there is always another who wants the work, especially when it comes with the cachet of being the consultant to a famous course.

Yes, tees have been added to the Old Course regularly over the years and there would be no controversy if that were all that was being done. New tees are not a material change; the R&A members still play their annual medal competitions from very close to the same 6,533 yards that the scorecard showed on Old Tom Morris’s death in 1908. 

Moving bunkers, flattening part of a green, or building new undulations at the edge of some greens is a different matter. The latter two have never been done in the recorded history of the course, and no bunkers have been added for nearly 100 years. The bunkers that were added came in response to the adoption of the livelier Haskell ball, and in concert with the removal of gorse in the same vicinity. Moreover, the changes were posted for review in the clubhouse of the R&A and discussed for weeks before they were approved. 

The impetus for today’s changes is more complicated. Any fear that the Old Course is becoming too easy is confined to the R&A and its precious record books. Recent history has produced nothing but great tournaments and deserving champions. It is not the critics who are overreacting, but those making changes to the course. 

Tournament venues are always being changed, but why? By celebrating the work of “Open doctor” architects, golf’s governing bodies have enabled themselves to avoid taking any substantive action on the real problem that lies at their feet. Why worry about regulating modern golf equipment when you can simply force clubs to foot the bill for architectural changes as a condition to hosting a championship?

The five-time Open champion Peter Thomson described the Old Course as “the rock on which the game of golf anchors itself.” We cannot chip away at that rock forever. It should take much more than a small committee to bring out the jackhammers.

Luckily, the Old Course belongs not to the R&A but to the people of Fife and to golfers everywhere. There is still time to reconsider the changes that have been proposed if enough golfers dare to question authority on her behalf.                                                 

Tom Doak, the designer of Pacific Dunes and four courses in the LINKS100 (World), spent the summer of 1982 caddying on the Old Course.   

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