The Road Hole, St Andrews

The St Andrews Road Hole is one of golf’s ‘great holes’ and yet the anatomy of a great hole is never easy to completely dissect, yet alone bottle. There are a few things however which can certainly give it a boost.

1: Where it sequentially features on a course.

2: The realistic possibility of all three scores being achieved

3: A number of different things that can go wrong

The 17th at St Andrews ‘the Road Hole’, passes the first of these requirements by definition. The Road Hole possibly falters a little bit on the second parameter however. Since it was lengthened from a sporting 445yds to a brutal 495yds, birdies have been an increasingly endangered species. We said “all three scores” though? Well perhaps we could interpret that as meaning ‘par’, ‘bogey’ and ‘double’! OK, so with a bit of license we’ve ticked the second box as well. It’s the third requirement where it distinguishes itself however.

So let’s take a step-by step look at this score wrecker

There was a time when the trauma started with the dilemma faced on the tee. The shot plays blind over the old railway sheds, now the hotel. Club selection was the key. The conservative option was to play to the wider top of the fairway and slightly left. A drive of 260yds onto the larger landing strip however, would still leave you a perilous 235yds to the flag into a narrow green. You could postpone the difficult shot from the tee, but you couldn’t avoid having to play one at some point. There is a higher risk option. As the fairway advances towards the green, it starts to narrow. The hotel to the right is out of bounds, and anything hit too far left is likely to fall into the long rough which will nearly always prevent you reaching the putting surface in two (unless your name is Seve!).

If you play longer, and succeed in finding the narrower fairway on 280yds, you’re left with a 2nd shot of about 210yds; easy! Golfer’s who frequently surveyed their second from the safer yardage would begin to wonder whether they’d actually assigned themselves something closer to the more impossible of two choices.

An orthodoxy started to develop that the lower risk was to play the higher risk tee shot, such was the difficulty of the second when playing safe. Ultimately modern equipment started to swing the pendulum in favour of the aggressive line, but then the empire struck back when the R&A moved the tee back 50yds for the 2015 Open.

You won’t be able to see where you’ve landed from the tee. It’s only as you round the corner into the fairway that you’ll get the telegram that tells you the good or bad news. This was what Tom Watson faced in 1984 when going head to head with Seve Ballesteros. Against conventional commentator opinion, it was the more conservative Watson who elected to gamble and go aggressive. The supposedly cavalier Spaniard by contrast played safe. As Tom walked into the fairway, he learned he was in position ‘A’. His ball had found the spot for a perfect approach.

Seve’s by contrast dumped his short, and in the hay. A horrible second awaited. Surely a sixth Open awaited the American, and an unprecedented clean sweep of the Scottish roster?

The first thing to notice about your second shot is the actual green itself. The geometry of the green is also working against you. Viewed from above it resembles a figure-eight, peanut, with bulbous ends and a slender middle. Playing to the nearest of these bulges leaves a lengthy putt over a ridge with little prospect of anything better than a par. Trying to hit the middle section is hideously difficult. Not only is it a mere 16yds in width to land on, it is brutally defended by two of the most famous hazards in golf.

In the front lies ‘the Road Hole Bunker’. It’s deceiving. The bunker itself is small in area, but deep and steep. It tapers like a hole on a pinball machine, and therefore plays appreciably bigger than it is. Any ball bouncing or rolling too close will invariably be snaffled by it. A bit like a trap-door spider. It’s a bunker you don’t have to ‘hit’ to end up in. Just getting near enough, within its magnetic pull, and the chances are you’ll roll into it

In 1970 Doug Sanders played what Jack described as the best bunker save he’d ever seen when chipping out to inches. Surely the claret jug was his? Well no. His fate is well documented and unravelled with one of golf’s greatest ever missed putts on 18 some fifteen minutes later.

In 1979 Tommy Nakajima led the Open before becoming acquainted. He took four shots to execute his escape leading to the British press corps to dub the bunker, ‘The Sands of Nakajima’. The name didn’t last, but the story endures. In 1995 it was the bunker that decided the fate of the Open again. In regulation play John Daly blasted out from an improbable lie to limit the damage. An hour later it would be Costatino Rocca who faced the same shot in a play off with the American. Rocca needed two attempts. Daly sailed to the title

The threat isn’t restricted to the front of the green though. If anything the area behind is defended even more aggressively. The green itself has a fairly steep swale. In itself this isn’t a problem. It’s just that this one leads onto a road. A golf ball wasn’t decided to hold on tarmac. Anything the lacks elevation and comes in on a shallow angle risks kissing the surface and skipping through. The Road Hole isn’t finished with you though. A limestone wall runs behind the road. As the ball picks up speed on the tarmac it will nearly always hit the wall. A strong ricochet might bounce you clear. A deadening one however leaves you tight against the wall with potentially no back swing.

In 1984, having hit an exemplary tee shot, this was the fate that would befall Tom Watson. He elected a club too heavy and simply hit the green bounced into the road, crashed into the wall, and came to rest in a position that would only permit a limited jabbing shot. Ballesteros somehow conjured an improbable escape from the rough and found the green. The Scottish set eluded Watson. History denied golf, and golf, history. We’re far from convinced Watson ever fully recovered. He’d won his last Major.

One shot Watson did have available to him incidentally, is one of the classic shots in golf and unique to this hole. This involves turning your back on the green and playing straight into the wall itself with the view to affecting a rebound off the rock and back across the road to the green. An Open championship will normally see someone attempting this escape. Miguel Angel Jiminez famously saved himself doing this.

One of the great beauties of golf is that it’s a slow burn. A punitive hole should perhaps offer the golfer a chance of recovering on a sliding scale of difficulty commensurate to their error. The 17th at Sawgrass for example is just one shot and lacking in subtlety. It’s either on the green to cheers, or it’s in the water (usually to cheers as well!). Then it’s over. It doesn’t pose the riddle of ‘what you’re going to do next?’. That can only be asked if the ball stays in play and has the scope to ask many different questions dependent on where it’s come to lie.

The Postage Stamp 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’, at Royal Troon, narrowly headed the 17th at St Andrews, ‘the Road Hole’, but why?

The hole’s charisma wasn’t immediately obvious. It originally 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 notorious11th, 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.