postage stamp, royal troon

In 2014 the BBC surveyed a sample of tour professionals to establish which hole of those on the Open roster was their favourite. It was a two horse race. When the final counting was done, the par 3, eighth, The Postage Stamp, Royal Troon, narrowly headed St Andrews’s 17th, ‘the Road Hole’, but why?

The hole’s charisma wasn’t immediately obvious. It assumed the name ‘Ailsa’ due to the view of Ailsa Craig on the horizon. It took a 1909 article written in Golf Illustrated to change this. With a sense of palpable protest rather than affection, Willie Park Jnr described the eighth hole at Royal Troon as;

“A putting surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp”

What is it about this beautifully simple description that immediately ensured that everyone who read it, knew what this green was about? It’s fair to say the name stuck.

The tee is slightly elevated and involves driving over a gully in order to find the landing strip. Gorse to your left can deceive you into thinking the flight is more sheltered than you’re about to discover it is. The carry is only 123yds, and in range for all of us. It’s the geometry combined with the topography that makes it such a potentially formidable nemesis however. It’s difficult to hit, and equally difficult to hold.

From front to back the green measures 31yds. It’s protected by a phalanx of deep pot bunkers, two right, two left, and one centre front. It’s the width of the green that makes it so frightening. It measures just 9yds at it’s narrowest, and 14 yds at it’s widest (front bulge).

The landscape is no less forgiving. The green is cut into a sand hill. It gives the impression of being a mini amphitheatre, but you play to an audience of spiteful long and tangled grass. Aggressive vegetation has reclaimed the riparian boundaries with relish. The penal philosophy of course architecture advocates gradation of punishment dependent on the severity of the error. The Postage Stamp can be harsh. A shot that only misses by a few feet can land you in deep trouble, and yet this is links golf, a quirk or two is mandatory.

In 1973 Scotland’s David Russell, then a mere 19 years of age, became the youngest player to hole in one at a Major when his badly hit 7 iron took a fortuitous bounce off the dune, trickled between the two bunkers, and politely enquired before consenting to drop. Forty five minutes later, at the venerable age of 71, the 1932 winner Gene Sarazen took aim. As he retrieved his ball he became the oldest player to fire an ace in a Major Championship. The next day Sarazen was given a bit of additional attention to see if he could repeat the feat. His tee shot landed flush in a bunker. Well that’s the Postage Stamp for you. He calmly walked down to survey his predicament, picked up a sand wedge, and chipped in for a birdie. Easy really isn’t it?

The Postage Stamp hadn’t finished in 1973. In the final round Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf were paired and going head to head. Miller playing first struck his shot to with a few feet, and being unable to resist playing a few mind games with the notoriously talented but temperamentally fragile Weiskopf couldn’t resist a look over at Tom to let him know. Tom duly responded and hit inside of Johnny’s ball. Both men birdied, but Miller’s prowess was punctured at the Postage Stamp. The name Weiskopf would be carved into the claret jug a few hours later.

With a Stroke Index of 18, it’s the easiest assignment on the course, yet when things unravel, they tend to come apart spectacularly. In 1997 a 21-year-old sensation called Tiger Woods arrived at Troon. He’d just smashed up Augusta and become the youngest winner of the Masters by a record margin. Things had started go wrong for Tiger in the opening round when he fired a quadruple at Troon’s most notorious hole, the 11th, the Railway Hole. Improbably however, he’d clawed his way back to the outer fringe of the pack by Sunday, but would finally come to grief at the Postage Stamp. Having landed in one of the greenside bunkers, he failed to escape with his first attempt. A three putt would follow from 15 feet for a triple bogey six. Tiger’s analysis was simple and typical

“The ball was buried and I pretty much didn’t have a shot. I was just trying to get it out and didn’t hit it hard enough. The putts, I don’t know… maybe I rushed them.”

To some extent that is the Postage Stamp encapsulated. It’s demoralising to think that 123yds could require six shots to complete. Even Tiger Woods doesn’t really seem to know how it happened, but it did. Troon is Colin Montgomerie territory, it’s his home track, and he can probably talk with more authority than anyone on this subject.

“No round at Troon is secure until you have passed this hole in regulation numbers. I’ve hit the ball to one inch and tapped in for a birdie, but I’ve also had sevens and eights. The wind can change everything at Troon. If there was no wind, ideally, I would hit a wedge straight at the pin and birdie the hole. If I was playing downwind I would try and hit a sand wedge to the front of the green and let the ball release to the back where the pin usually is. Into the wind the shot can demand anything up to a five-iron and then things become interesting.”

Spare a thought for a German amateur named Hermann Tissies however, who found a bunker with his first shot in 1950. Thirteen shots later he escaped, before putting the infamous green to the sword when he holed out for a 15.

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