7/20/21

The Simple Design Principles Behind No. 14 at Royal St. George’s

Why the Suez Canal hole was so fun to watch during the 2021 Open Championship

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Header photo by Jason Livy, courtesy of Royal St. George’s Golf Club

Going into last week’s Open Championship, I expected the front nine at Royal St. George’s to dominate discussion of the course’s architecture. The opening holes are famous, after all. They sit on the property’s best land, a stretch of big, jagged sand dunes. Even on a TV screen, the drive over the Himalaya bunker on No. 4 and the approach through the chute on No. 5 are unforgettable shots.

But to my surprise, it was a par 5 in the middle of the back nine that seemed to get the most love from viewers.

At first glance, No. 14 at Royal St. George’s doesn’t seem especially noteworthy. The hole sits on a relatively flat piece of ground along the northwestern boundary of the site. It’s wide and, by today’s pro standards, short, tipping out at 545 yards and typically playing downwind. Its most eye-catching feature is an artificial burn, cheekily named the “Suez Canal,” which cuts across the fairway at 330 yards and rarely comes into play for high-level golfers. During this year’s Open, No. 14 was by far the lowest-scoring hole on the course, averaging 0.43 strokes under par.

From the Royal St. George's Golf Club yardage book

So why was this hole such a delight to watch last week? The answer, as it usually does, lies in simple, strong design.

Risks, options, and angles

Strategically, the most important feature of No. 14 is not the Suez Canal but the property line that runs along the right side of the hole. Your primary thought on the tee is to avoid the out-of-bounds penalty, and there’s no excuse for failing to do so, as you can find plenty of room to the left. The problem is that the farther left you go, the tougher your second shot will be.

Part of this is simple geometry. With each step to the left, your line to the green becomes more angled at the boundary.

Missing long from different sides of the fairway on No. 14 at Royal St. George's (Google Earth)

Going for it from the left side of the fairway is made even less attractive by the two pot bunkers guarding the front-left corner of the green. These disrupt what would be the most comfortable way to attack the hole: hedging left with your tee shot and running a long approach onto the left portion of the green. But because of the placement of the bunkers, you have to reckon with the boundary on either the drive or the second shot in order to give yourself an eagle look. An alternative is to lay up somewhere between the green-side bunkers and the center-line pots 60-80 yards short, and try (but probably fail) to get up and down for birdie.

As with many great golf holes, par is there for the taking, but pushing for a low number can bring a high number into play.

A little history

No. 14 at Royal St. George’s didn’t always have this kind of strategic complexity. When the course opened in 1887, the hole was typical of Victorian golf architecture. It simply asked the player to carry the Suez Canal with his second shot and another cross hazard—a straight-across “ribbon bunker”—with his third. This kind of “steeplechase” design was thought to be the best method of testing skill in the era of hickory-shafted clubs and gutta percha balls.

An 1888 map of Royal St. George's, published in The Golfing Annual. Research credit: Simon Haines @hainesy76

A rotated detail view of the original 14th hole in the above map

Over the next two decades, however, the golf world underwent a transformation. A generation of extraordinary professional golfers emerged, led by the “Great Triumvirate” of James Braid, J.H. Taylor, and Harry Vardon. When Vardon won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in 1899 with a 72-hole score of 310, it’s hard to imagine he had much trouble clearing the cross hazards on the 14th hole. The carries became even easier in the early 1900s, when the wound-rubber Haskell ball gave players an extra 20 to 30 extra off the tee.

Eventually, the ribbon bunker in front of the 14th green was replaced by two pots that defended the angle from the left. When this happened, the hole completed its transition from penal to strategic design. It was no longer just about avoiding hazards; it was about deciding how much to challenge one main, severe hazard—the boundary to the right—in order to gain an advantage. The Suez Canal is still there as a reminder of the past, but it’s not usually a factor on the second shot.

How it played at the Open

Today, the 14th hole at Royal St. George’s is hardly unique in the world of golf architecture. The 6th at Carnoustie uses a property line in much the same way, and as Andy Johnson observed on this website two years ago, Coore & Crenshaw have turned this long-hole concept into a kind of signature.

Still, during last week’s Open Championship, No. 14 was a breath of fresh air. Rarely outside of Masters week do we see the top male golfers playing a hole that has such clear stakes. The OB is a constant, ominous presence. As a viewer, your first question is how far left the player will start his tee shot, and the moment of truth arrives when the shot-tracer line reaches its apex: if it turns right, you’re immediately nervous that it will drift too much. Risky drives may meet disaster, or they may catch a piece of fairway on the right—either outcome is exciting.

Even after a solid tee shot that ends up between the center and left edge of the fairway, the tension doesn’t let up. The player has a long iron or hybrid in his hands, an unusual sight in elite men’s golf. And again, the shot shape tells an instant story. Go-for-the-green attempts that lack conviction will fall left and funnel into the pot bunkers; over-aggressive strikes, or plain old mishits, may sail toward disaster (see: Dustin Johnson in 2011); and only well-executed shots, moving gently right to left and bouncing up the pathway between the bunkers and the OB stakes, will result in an eagle opportunity.

All of this is a good reminder that we should not call a hole “easy” based on scoring average alone. Yes, the 14th gave up 240 birdies against 176 pars at the Open. (Also: nine eagles, 27 bogeys, 10 doubles, and three “others,” in case you were curious.) But on every day of the championship, the drives and second shots on No. 14 were filled with tension. Nothing about the hole seemed easy.

Like No. 13 at Augusta National and the Road Hole, the Suez Canal hole at Royal St. George’s hovers between the par values of 4 and 5, endlessly tempting players to strive for the lower number, even when they shouldn’t.