While I “toiled” away as part of the three-man “Art Department” during the construction of Tom Doak’s Tara Iti in New Zealand, my non-golfing parents retired from the edge of England’s Lake District to St. Andrews, Scotland. Convenient!
You can’t really call The Home of Golf your home unless you were born in Craigtoun Hospital and went to Madras College, apparently. Still, I’ve been a resident long enough to enjoy unlimited golf at all seven courses for £200—now £235—a year for the past five seasons. That has allowed me countless plays of the best par 3, the best par 4, and the best par 5 in the world, or so I would argue.
That’s not meant as a boast, just as a brief introduction to the difficulty of choosing one hole from The Old Course at St. Andrews.
Most famous of all, the Road Hole achieves strategic perfection through its ingenious adaptation of manmade features. A blind drive over what used to be railway sheds, now the offices of a hotel, rewards those brave enough to bite off large portions of the angling property line. In the distance, the green is 52 yards deep but barely 10 wide and sits at a 45-degree angle between the infamous Road Hole Bunker and the road itself. After a good drive, the sensible golfer will hedge short right. Well, at least they would if today’s strategy-numbing mowing lines didn’t prevent it!
There is plenty of room left off the tee, but that play leads to a lengthy carry over the “Scholar’s” and “Progressing” bunkers. The green is tilted to hold only the most perfect of approaches from distance. If the pin could be cut on the green’s far left, behind the bunker, you could play long and left for an easier up-and-down. But that brings the Swilcan Burn into play when conditions are keen. Once termed a “bogey five,” No. 17 at The Old Course still is, even for the world’s best.
“High Hole-In”—or “Eden” to those familiar with MacRaynor’s templates—packs an inordinate amount of strategic interest into a one-stroke hole.
Working across the 11th green from left to right: a flag hanging over the “Hill” (a.k.a. “Bobby Jones”) bunker demands respect, with a draw back into one of the prevailing winds often best suited; the heart of the green is relatively receptive, but missing long will leave a blind recovery back up a 10-foot grassy bank; when the pin is tucked behind the small but hungry “Strath” pot, I would choose to kick one in from the back side of a knoll that sits short center-left of the putting surface; the high back-right plateau seems to sit on the estuary and demands nothing less than the purest of strikes.
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen no “Eden” template that replicates the day-to-day variety of the original hole or the severity of the front-to-back tilt of its green.
How could we pass on those two holes in assembling our Eclectic 18? Or, for that matter, the 2nd, or the 4th, or the 12th, or the 13th, or the 16th?
We chose No. 14 to represent The Old Course because great par 5s are few and far between.
The drive at “Long” squeezes between the “Beardies,” a splintering of four sunken and funkily shaped pots, and an old boundary wall of the Strathtyrum Estate. Rarely would a drive beyond the Beardies into the “Elysian Fields” prove problematic, but on occasion, when the wind is howling against, I have chosen to hang way left toward the 5th fairway.
As ever on The Old, the strategy of your second shot is influenced by the position of your drive, the direction and strength of the wind, and the pin position. Stance and lie, too. And of course the characteristics of the green. (Is that enough to consider?)
In front of the green, a nearly vertical five-foot rise faces the golfer. The putting surface then falls away quickly before slowing to a pinnable grade for 15 or so paces. Finally, at the rear, the green steps down a shallower wall. These features introduce a number of challenges. It’s difficult to discern the exact depth of the putting surface from the fairway, and the rear shelf cuts into the platform sooner than you might wish. In addition, on the shallow left section of the green, a swale collects pulled shots toward “Ginger Beer,” a pair of low, gnarly pots.
For most golfers, the 14th green will not be reachable in two, so against the wind, your second shot should take aim at Hamilton Hall, toward the beginning of the 5th fairway. The goal is to keep it left of the hiding “Beaty” and “Kitchen” bunkers and short of a clump of gorse. Laying up to the end of the 14th fairway, though intuitive, offers little advantage on the third shot. In line with the right third of the green, you will find rumple and rough. Left of that lurks the “Hell” bunker.
With a favorable wind and/or unusual power, you may carry this notorious expanse of sand to the drop-off and final sliver of fairway beyond. If you do, play close to another pair of pots on the left—“Grave”—to leave the ideal angle to approach the green’s right.
Once you’re past Hell, you will have a putt, bump-and-run, or soft floater from no more than 80 yards. A dish in front of the green, which marks a transition between a shoulder on the right and a central ridge, is usually the perfect target for killing the preferred low-runner. For the unsteady hand, one last pot hides behind the green.
Alister MacKenzie's rendering of the different routes to the 14th green from his book The Spirit of St. Andrews
No matter how many times and ways you play the 14th, you will never have the same journey twice. That applies to The Old Course as a whole. The sharp but small-scale east-coast dunescape provides ideal ground for the game, and the ingenious green complexes, while eminently playable, present locations that can challenge the best golfers in the world both mentally and physically.
“The concept of St. Andrews is the course dictates nothing,” architect Michael Clayton once told Scott Michaux. “The only thing you have to do at St. Andrews is the first hole you have to hit it over the burn. Otherwise you can do anything you want.”
Nowhere else can two balls within a foot of each other present such differing dilemmas to the players about to hit them! That is the underlying genius of The Old Course, and why it should be a primary influence on any golf architect’s thought process.