The 17th hole at St. Andrews
by Bob Harrison
the last half of the twentieth century, golf commentators often argued
over the merits of "fairness"
in golf course design—something akin to a set of rules developed
about fairness. Long par fours, for example, were meant to have huge,
uninteresting greens, and shallow fairway bunkers from which escape
was mandatory. Such mental rigidity, however, has led to a situation
where many of us are left to cringe at the sight of tournament players,
particularly those in the USA, blithely hitting two irons from little
more than huge, flat, and uniformly groomed sand pits.
There is no unchallengeable set of rules on what constitutes a good
golf hole! Moreover, we know that "fair" does not always
equate with "good" and "unfair" can sometimes
For the sake of argument, let’s just suppose that one of these
commentators was the client for a proposed new golf course. Imagine
his reaction following the golf architect’s detailed explanation
of one of the holes:
On one of the holes, toward the end of play, there will be out of
bounds on the right side and you can drive diagonally across it if
you choose. The wind will often blow from left to right, and there
will be a railway shed in front of the tee. This must be carried by
golfers opting for the brave line, thereby, making the tee shot "blind."
We’ll make the hole 461 yards and call it a par four. We don’t
want to be complacent about the second shot, so to add some spice
we’ll build a shallow tabletop green set diagonally to the shot.
Immediately behind the green there will be a railway line, where escape
is very tricky indeed, and beyond the tracks a stonewall against which
many a shot will come to rest. On the front, left of the green, there
will be a pot-bunker—fiendishly deep—and even the front
part of the green will disappear into it. Our team is also considering
adding a one-to-two foot downslope in the green, away from the bunker,
and toward the railway tracks. The hole might well catch on, but regardless,
it promises to be a hole of some distinction. What do you think?
Would the client allow such a hole to be built? Surely not! But such
a hole is already in existence, and it just so happens to be the most
famous one in golf. And, arguably, among the best and the most difficult.
Of course, it’s the seventeenth hole at the Old Course, St.
Andrews—the infamous Road Hole. Granted, the railway track is
now a paved road, and the railway sheds have been modernized and lost
their charm, owing to a huge hotel development behind them. And three
or four yards have been clipped, from what was originally a par five.
But this wonderful hole is still there after hundreds of years, and
it remains as feared and strategically interesting as it was originally.
The sometimes devastating effect that fitness programs, along with
the latest generation of equipment advances, have unleashed on the
strategic merits of many courses is a hot topic these days. Even though
the Road Hole is no longer a par five, and can often be reached with
a mid to short iron, the interest level and respect from golfers has
It takes a brave and precise tee shot across the sheds and along the
"blind" out of bounds to enable the easiest approach from
the fairway’s right-hand side—particularly when there
is a strong wind howling from left to right. The "safer"
drive to the left side of the fairway can easily run out of fairway,
resulting in a longer approach with a bad angle to the green, and,
sometimes, from a difficult lie in the rough. But if you do find yourself
playing from the left, the smart approach is toward the green’s
front, right hand side, or just short of the green. In this situation,
a running shot shaped ever so slightly (right to left) might even
chase onto the putting surface. Following a long putt, or chip, up
the slope onto the main plateau of the green, recording a par is quite
possible. But it is also possible to get the angles wrong and finish
with a bogey, or worse, if the putt finishes in the Road bunker.
The case for risking the daring tee shot line becomes evident upon
reaching the green. And the second shot is arguably even more outrageous
than the drive. At all costs you must avoid the Road bunker, from
which escape is often so difficult. Then there is the raised, angled,
and shallow green; the quick drop three to four feet down to the path;
plus the road. All of these features conspire to make the approach
one of the most demanding in golf. And in most circumstances, the
human element won’t help much, either. If the pin is positioned
to the left behind the Road bunker, it takes a very precise shot—probably
working from right to left—to get really close. Discounting
flukes, such a shot is really only feasible from the right side of
the fairway after a long and daring drive.
Because of the angle of the green, managing both the length and direction
of the approach is critical to your outcome. The right side of the
green can be approached with a running shot, or one through the air.
When the pin is tucked directly behind the bunker it can only be reached
through the air.
All of the difficulties and drama are heightened because the Road
Hole is the penultimate hole, sometimes of the Open Championship.
Tournament players compiling a wonderful sub-par round know that their
score is in total jeopardy until they pass the seventeenth hole.
Just ask Tom Watson. Playing in the last group in the final round
of the 1984 Open, Watson stood on the Road hole fairway locked in
a titanic struggle with Seve Ballesteros, who was one hole ahead and
about to sink a birdie putt on the home green. After some indecision,
Watson selected a two iron and pushed the shot just a little to the
right, but it was too long. The back of the green is closer on this
line, and so his ball scuttled over the green, the path and the road,
finishing very close to the wall. In spite of having a restricted
backswing, Watson managed to get the ball back onto the green. Two
putts later: the Open and any chance of a record-equaling sixth victory
Of course, it is not just the awesome nature of the hole that makes
it such a favorite: the setting is inspiring. The big, open expanse
of the last few holes of the Home of Golf, in the shadow of the beautiful,
old university town. I’ve often considered this to be the ideal
place to sit around and think about the meaning of life. Then the
famous links beckons, followed by a few pints. Life and golf at St.
Andrews—it doesn’t get much better.