On the Road
The 17th hole at St. Andrews
by Bob Harrison

During 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 be "great."

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 never waned.

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 had gone.
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.

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