Old Course gets a little more length

Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2005

 

  Fred Couples plays from the rough on the sixth fairway during a practice round for the British Open Monday, July 11, 2005 on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Fred Couples plays from the rough on the sixth fairway during a practice round for the British Open Monday, July 11, 2005 on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The last time Tiger Woods played at St. Andrews, he went back 100 years in time by hitting a replica of the gutta percha golf ball during a practice round. Despite a mighty drive on the 352-yard ninth hole, he still had a 5-iron left to reach the green.

And to think that might still be the standard ball if the Old Course never changed.

Even with Jack Nicklaus playing the first practice round of his final major championship, and Woods teeing off so early Monday that he was done before some people got out of bed, the buzz at the British Open was the new look of the Old Course, at least on five holes that added a combined 164 yards.

''They leap out at you,'' Jim Furyk said.

For those alarmed by adding yardage to such a historic track, perhaps they should wander across the street to the British Golf Museum. One exhibit contains the rubber-core Haskell golf ball, which phased out the gutta percha — which came from a tree substance — and was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century.

The Royal & Ancient was so worried about how far players were hitting the Haskell that it lengthened the Old Course and added pot bunkers to protect against low scores. It must have worked, for there were only a dozen scores below 80 and James Braid won that 1905 British Open at 318, the highest winning score in 10 years.

One hundred years later, people are still talking about tradition and technology.

''It's just evolution,'' Stuart Appleby said. ''It wasn't long ago everyone was playing in tweed jackets and ties.''

Traditionalists made a passionate case for the gutta percha to be the standard ball for championship golf. Alas, the R&A declined to outlaw the Haskell because it seemed to make the game easier and more enjoyable for the majority of players. Ultimately, it helped make golf more popular.

Now, the R&A is simply keeping up with the times.

''The changes are good. You've got your thinking caps on 12, 13 and 14 now,'' said Nick Faldo, who won the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews. ''I don't think it sets up for Tiger, but I think Tiger is the favorite. He's played, he's won, and he comes here with a mission.''

The changes start with the second tee, which has been moved back 40 yards and to the right, so that players now face a blind tee shot over gorse bushes. Brad Faxon decided to aim at a crane in the distance, and only later figured out that the door of a corporate chalet was a better target.

What really got everyone's attention was the 480-yard fourth, which is only 16 yards longer than in 2000 but now requires a carry of some 290 yards to reach the fairway.

''If that gets any wind at all, they might have to move the tees,'' Mike Weir said. ''I smoked one today that carried a little left and got into the fairway. Then I hit another one that a little to the right — and I hit it pretty darn good — and it was in the stuff.''

Peter Thomson, the five-time Open champion who won at St. Andrews 50 years ago, still has a house in the gray old town and plays the Old Course about six times a year.

The change to No. 4 was the only one he criticized.

''The fourth doesn't need a tee, it needs a fairway,'' Thomson said.

Clearly, this isn't the same place where Woods broke a major championship record at 19 under par when he won by eight shots in 2000. Some argue that the British Open now is held on four courses — the new tees on the 12th and 13th actually are part of the Eden course; the ninth tee is on the New Course; and the second tee is part of the Himalayas putting course.

Nicklaus has been criticizing the governing bodies for years about the golf ball, and he told the British media in May that he worried the Old Course would be obsolete.

Faxon is among those who believe that golf is doing just fine adjusting to the times.

''It's not just the evolution of golf, it's the evolution of life,'' Faxon said earlier this year. ''Guys that used to play basketball can't even start on any team now. I love Bob Cousy, but could he be a starting point guard today?''

Others, Nicklaus included, would say that the Old Course changes even if nothing is done at all.

Nicklaus played with Faldo, Fred Couples and Memorial winner Bart Bryant on a day as spectacular as it gets in these parts — brilliant skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. The three-time Open champion had already seen the changes, and he says only Nos. 4 and 14 will make a difference.

Everything else depends on the weather, which is the way it has always been at St. Andrews.

''The course is a surprise each time you look at it,'' Nicklaus said. ''No matter how many times you play it, you'll still find things that you've never seen before. Every time, the conditions change and you have to make adjustments.''

Even players with far less experience have figured that out.

Appleby was asked about the changes and drew a blank. He has played St. Andrews four times — the Open in 2000, and three times in the old Dunhill Cup.

''I don't think this is a course that's as easy to measure as Augusta, because the course can change so much with wind,'' Appleby said. ''It needs to be 10 to 20 mph before it gets tricky, and above 20 mph to be difficult. Scores in the mid-60s are no problem with no wind. But it's not likely you'll get four days without wind.''



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