The Overlooked Old

The less famous elements of the world’s most famous course


The Old Course at St. Andrews, the “Home of Golf,” is the most famous and historic golf course in the world. The important moments and great championships that have taken place there make it the global household name. Individual holes like the Road Hole 17th, the strategic multi-route 14th with the Hell bunker, and the par-3 Eden 11th are as well-known and inspirational as any in the world of golf architecture. There may not be a more iconic view in golf than the one looking up the 18th fairway, across the Swilcan Bridge, with the Auld Grey Toon tightly wrapping around the playing corridors. With its connection to the town and its tradition of public accessibility, there is simply nothing else like it in sport.

But even at this most scrutinized and celebrated of places, there are still elements of the golf course—even entire holes—that tend to get overlooked. In the time I spent working on the Links grounds crew and walking the course on Sundays, I picked up on a few things that don’t get as discussed or tend to show up on the telecast. The following sections discuss a few of these factors that quietly contribute to this being the greatest golf course in the world.


This is an overarching term that applies to a number of aspects of the Old Course and perhaps does receive some discussion, but I include it because this charming charactertistic really can’t be emphasized enough. To start, the line of play and what you are looking at is often unclear to the inexperienced eye. There is little overall elevation change at the Old but tons of small ridges, hillocks, and hummocks—as well as foreground gorse bushes—that confuse where you are and where you’re supposed to go.

What I like most about the course, though, and what has made it stand the test of time, is its strategic ambiguity. While there are certain tactics that prevail most of the time (play left of Hell Bunker on 14, favor the right of the fairway to approach 17, etc.) the course is so odd, varied, and randomly contoured and bunkered that there is no set strategy. It all depends on the day’s wind and turf conditions, the hole location, and the players’ abilities and how they might be hitting it that day. The lines of attack can change from day to day, player to player, and season to season. Furthermore, your plan for a hole often is best reassessed after each shot. Where you thought you might be able to fly it to the front of the green and straight at the pin, you might have to play a low runner away from the hole after straying just 10 yards from where you had hoped to be. Or maybe it’s the inverse of that after you get a friendly forward kick to a zone you didn’t previously think you could get to. Or perhaps you find a pot bunker and have to completely regather yourself (and, in some cases, go backwards). The golf is engaging from start to finish, making you constantly think while considering and playing a wide variety of shot types. There is nowhere else on Earth that does this as consistently as the Old Course.

Flatlands and authenticity

The Old Course is famous for its rumply ground, and some of its criticism focuses on the places where the ground isn’t rumply. The first hole is about as flat as an aircraft carrier, and the end of the Loop at 9 and 10 is not much different. Some would argue that these patches of seemingly featureless ground are what keep the Old from being a perfect golf course. I would argue the opposite.

The ninth green at the Old Course. Photo: Andy Johnson

For one, these lulls in the contour rollercoaster are perfectly timed. The first is one of the most nerve-wracking tee shots in all of golf, with the R&A clubhouse, hundreds of years of history, and dozens (at least) of casual observers breathing down your neck. It doesn’t need much more going on, and in reality the vast simplicity of the fairway adds even more pressure to the shot, as the prospect of somehow screwing it up looms as an acute embarrassment.

The ninth (“End”) and 10th (“Bobby Jones”) holes have a similar mental dynamic. As shorter holes playing out at the flat end of the cane-shaped routing, they provide a well-timed break between the thrilling front nine and the scary par-3 11th Eden hole. There is pressure to get your scoring in while you can, especially when you survey the large, unassuming ninth green on your approach shot (assuming you haven’t found one of the little fairway bunkers off the tee). It feels like you can just putt it up there, which I did once from about 70 yards short of the hole. But the ninth does not give up an automatic birdie 3, as a number of subtle, near-invisible contours often shed the ball away from the hole and leave you with a sense of an opportunity missed. No. 10 is similar in feeling like a prime opportunity, but the front of the green has more contour to it. You hope to make a 6 aggregate for both holes, feel okay with a 7, and are pretty disappointed with an 8.

What I might like most about the Old Course’s flatlands, though, is their feeling of authenticity. A golf architect would likely tinker with this land, perhaps trying to “make it look like the rest” of the rumply ground on the course. Obviously, this never happened in the course’s long, natural evolution. For the golfer, this lack of architectural intervention has an effect, even if subconsciously. If the flats were well left alone, then the wild rumple must also have been well left alone, and the whole round is that much more an experience of Mother Nature.

The area of 9 and 10 also feels like the a natural termination point for the golfer’s desired path. You have played through the the interesting ground, and once you get to this flat spot, you decide to turn around and do all the thrilling stuff again. This sequence feels instinctive and feeds the golfer’s illusion of being on a natural journey.

The approach contours on the second and fourth holes

Tom Doak has long praised these two holes for their approach features, but perhaps due to their early position in the round, they still don’t garner widespread attention. They also happen to be contour-driven as opposed to possessing deep, memorably named bunkers, and ground movement can be harder to discern on television as well as more difficult to describe to your fellow golfer. Allow me to attempt that description:

The second green has a series of the most beautifully flowing natural contours in the golf world leading into its left side. Everything falls from high left down to the low flats of the right portion of the green and beyond, and shots not played with the proper speed and trajectory will be ejected hard to the right or long. Thus, there is an advantage to be gained off the tee in taking the uncomfortable, semi-blind line down the dangerous, gorse-ridden right side of the fairway, especially when the pin is tucked behind the contours on the left, as it traditionally is for the Open. This angle allows you to play more into those contours, counteracting their push to the right. Depending on the wind and your abilities, you are also likely best off landing it short of all the hillocks and letting the ball twist and turn its way up to the surface, the various slopes tending to cancel each other out and result in a straighter line. Anything landing on the fly in this zone is subject to the whims of Providence and a hard kick in any direction, most likely one well out to the right.

The approach contouring on the fourth hole is different in nature but just as devilish. In fact, it is not so much contouring as a single contour. Just left of center in the front of the large, flattish green lies a irregularly-shaped hump of fairway grass seemingly dropped out of the sky just to screw with you. And it does. This is one of the longer par 4s on the course, and many average players will find themselves hitting a longer, lower-trajectory shot into the green, meaning the ball has to land short. Often from your approach angle, the flag will be behind or close to behind the mound, meaning you have to either a) fly it and risk running well through the green or b) choose a side to play to. The left isn’t great because it is narrower with a large bunker lurking nearby. The right isn’t great, either, as on that side, the ground falls subtly away and a small bunker that the R&A (disappointingly, which is a different discussion) moved closer to the green a decade ago is in play. All of this puts further emphasis on a long tee shot finding the short grass as well as an awareness of that day’s hole location, which will tell you which side of the fairway to favor.

The approach to the fourth green at the Old Course. Photo: Brett Hochstein

In an era where moving 100,000 cubic meters of earth is sometimes deemed necessary to make a golf hole interesting, this little lump of about 10 cubic meters does the job on its own.

The most underrated hole on the course: No. 3—“Cartgate (Out)”

I can’t figure out why this hole doesn’t get more attention from architectural circles. I think it’s brilliant, especially when the pin is in its traditional Open Championship location on the left behind the downslope off the deep green-side Cartgate bunker. When set up like this, the hole throws a wrench in the usual “favor the left off the tee” strategy. Here, playing into the meat of the “safe” zone away from the right-side bunkers, rough, and gorse leaves you with a scary shot over a big wall of stacked sod to a partially visible flagstick with the ground in between the two falling away sharply. Add in firm conditions and a prevailing westerly wind, and it is just about impossible to get a ball anywhere close, even with a wedge, and difficult even to stay on the green. Playing to the right may risk the fairway bunkers, but it gives you a more open angle, away from Cartgate, and a chance to play into the left-to-right slope of the green. Like all things at the Old, though, this play to the right has its downsides, including the potential for blindness and a sideways lie in the lumpy ground. Pick your poison, but if you are in an aggressive mood, you’ll want to be down the right.

The differing dips fronting the fifth and sixth greens

Television has a hard time capturing the scale and movement of the ground at any golf course, but this is particularly the case on the fifth hole at the Old Course (“Hole o’Cross (Out)”). The big valley fronting the green, which is blind behind a ridge on the approach, is the most dramatic undulation on the property—and perfectly positioned on this often-reachable par 5. Players going for it in two who can just reach the green have to go through this big feature, with the ideal play landing on the ridge plateau just before it to get enough downslope momentum to chase through the ensuing upslope. Judging distance and trajectory is critical, but keeping it relatively straight is important as well, as shots slightly pulled will leak into a cluster of bunkers offset below the green and lead to an extremely awkward recovery.

At about 96 paces long, this is the deepest green on the course, and players who want to avoid the fronting feature can do so by playing safely long. If the hole is cut in the front, though, the safe play can result in some comically long putts of 70 yards or more. The R&A will probably prefer back pin positions during the Open in order to get some extra distance, but let’s hope they place it up front on at least one day and engage the valley, especially if the firm conditions hold and the wind isn’t in the player’s face.

The fifth green at the Old Course. Photo: Brett Hochstein

The sixth hole (“Heathery (Out)”) repeats this dip-down feature, though on a much smaller scale. This is one of the less heralded holes on the course, and generally that is for good reason: it is somewhast simple on not very long. Still, the approach swale that eats into the front of the green is just enough to mess with any level of player, especially when the pin is close to it. Judging whether to carry or play through it is tricky even for a pro, especially when the turf is fiery. If conditions are ideal, expect to see a number of players hang up in the bottom of the ditch or run well past the hole.

 The true zaniness of the 12th

Sharing a green with the sixth is the 12th (“Heathery (In)”), and the putting surface on that end is different in shape but similar in that it requires a delicate approach shot. In fact, it is probably one of the most difficult approaches on the course, even though most good players and pros attack it from less than 100 yards. The reason for this is a shallow raised shelf in the middle of the green, varying from about 15 paces deep between fall-offs down to about eight. This is where the hole will most certainly be for all four days of the Open and where it is most days for the public. Trying to judge a run-up shot to get up onto the shelf but not run off the back is almost like a carnival game in its difficulty and addictiveness. After your ball rolls back toward you or just creeps over the back, you immediately want to drop another and try again, believing the task to be doable. You can’t help but relish the challenge of such a short and devilish shot.

From the “these guys are good” files: one of the best shots I’ve seen in person was Rory McIlroy’s approach to the 12th in the 2009 Dunhill. He one-hopped a low wedge and got the ball to stop on a dime on the shelf a few feet from the hole. Granted, the conditions were calm and misty, but the skill level on display was remarkable—and an even greater skill level will be needed in fast summer conditions.

The green isn’t the only tricky part of 12. The tee shot is truly confounding, as it has to confront a series of blind fairway bunkers lying at different distances in the middle of the fairway. The player has a number of choices: hit a high soft shot in the zone between them, stay well back of everything and leave a tough longer approach, rip one beyond all of them and bring the gorse and a lost ball into play, or flare out to the left or right and accept likely playing from the rough. No shot is comfortable or makes total sense, which lends this bizarre fairway a brilliant and everlasting challenge. I don’t know that any golf architect, even in their wackiest and boldest of moods, would ever create something quite like this today.

Picking your poison on the 13th tee shot

The 13th is generally regarded as a good hole but not one of the course’s greats. Its most compelling attribute is the tee shot and how it affects the approach. If you play out to the right, you afford yourself a better angle for a running approach around the deep Lion’s Mouth grass hollow eating into the front left of the green. This angle, however, is entirely blind because of a big ridge jutting into the right half of the hole, a feature that also limits how far you can hit it up the right side. If you play way out to the left, through the Coffin Bunkers, you gain distance and open up your view into the green. I actually stumbled upon this play in my last round there five years ago after what I thought was a bad pull-hook. In all my time walking the course and even working on one of the Coffins in the adjoining sixth fairway, I never noticed how much better this angle is. I see this as a testament to the Old Course’s many layers, which can be discovered only through time and repeat play. Still, this angle is once again not perfect, as the Lion’s Mouth feature is now a carry hazard. It’s just another case of picking your poison on the Old Course and making judgments based on wind, rain, ground conditions, and your own game on that particular day.

Brett Hochstein of Hochstein Design is a California-based architect and shaper who spent a post-graduate year studying turfgrass at Elmwood College near St. Andrews.