The Old Course at St. Andrews is both carefree and infinitely complex. There is a necessary freedom to plot your way to the pin, and a sliding gray scale of consequence to every shot. Rippling low-level contour, scattered pot bunkers of all shapes and sizes, gorse, and the odd bit of heather complicate the route.
But the core of the Old Course’s identity lies in its large greens. These 11 greens, seven of which house pins for two different holes, are typically quiet in the interior but interrupted by folds, depressions, and pots at the periphery. This allows for a variety a pin positions that range from the friendly to the absurd. So the most playable golf course can, at the change of the cups, become four, five, even six shots more difficult for the best players in the world. That is its genius.
Most visitors experience the more benign pins, which explains why some of them dismiss the course after a one-and-done round. (The best time to experience the more marginal pins is the shoulder season, or the day after the final round of the Open, when the Sunday pins remain.) Make no mistake, though: this is the finest set of green complexes in the world. So to give you something to watch for at this week’s 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, I’ve ranked the Old Course’s 11 greens in order of interest.
[Ed. note: All photos by Clyde Johnson.]
The 17th green at the Old Course
The greatest green in golf! Angled at almost 45 degrees between a cavernous pit and a road, the perched-up target is as challenging as it is compelling—from any range. The strategy is timeless, with every yard (of a blind drive over former railway sheds) away from out-of-bounds closing the angle of approach. There is no need for rough here, despite its contemporary introduction. With the magnetic pull of the Road Hole bunker, the sensible play is always to the front-right portion of the green. Those trying to hold the green in two are only a slight pull away from a near-impossible recovery over the pot, or a half-club too much from an unpredictable dunt back up a three- to four-foot mottled bank from the gravel footpath or tarmac road. It is not too uncommon for the boundary wall beyond the road to stymie or to be utilized in a necessarily creative recovery. With the pin behind the pot, it is possible, though far from straightforward, to leave an open pitch back up the slope of the green. Banked at around two to three percent, the green—10 yards at its shallowest—is more helpful than you might imagine, so that many putts dive below the hole.
No. 7/No. 11
The start of the famous Loop, which consists of holes 7-11. Play crosses over, so the approach to the seventh should be aimed at the white flag on the right. The enormous Shell bunker should only be a consideration on the drive. Beyond an abrupt ridge, the best approach is usually from the left of a wide connection of fairway, down the length and slope of the green. A pin cut closer to the Strath bunker, on the higher side of the slope, might suit a more central drive so that the approach becomes perpendicular to the ridge. A tiny pot waits beyond for those that don’t stunt or quickly stop. The back of the green deceives with quieter ripples. Beyond another pot and a series of hollows, a lonely front-right wing of green is divided from the rest by a chunky roll, which can be used as backstop after a tee shot close to the 10th green.
Crossing back, the Eden Hole—officially “High Hole (In)”—must be the most varied par 3 in golf. It is fully exposed to the wind, and distance control is further complicated by the backdrop of the estuary. This left half of the double green tilts harshly from the cavernous Hill bunker in the direction of the equally evil Strath pot. Splaying out beyond a knoll, the hole locations alongside the left trench are most fearsome. The same front-left shoulder can be craftily used to steer a tee shot in behind Strath, a classic pin position. With a near vertical eight-foot high bank to negotiate and the green chasing away, dead is long. Though open, not many will be brave (or stupid) enough to reach the high central shelf that juts out with the rear bank.
No. 2/No. 16
The right half of the second green continues from the quiet contours of the right edge of the fairway. (Or it did, until two largely superfluous pots were added prior to the 2015 Open Championship.) With the starkest of contrasts, a series of buried elephants lead into the left half of the putting surface. The last ridge is steepest of all, with a shot landing on its back side caroming through the green, and a shot into its face likely halted. This fold also disguises a steep four- to five-foot transition from high to low. A popular place for Open pins, the far left of the green evolves from high hollows, tilting away from a deep bunker that backs the 16th green.
The Principal’s Nose fairway bunkers on No. 16 have lost their strategic interest with the encouragement of rough along the left side of the corridor. An approach from the safe edge of this trio of pots places the three- to four-foot step at the front of the green at perpendicular, though you must fly just beyond Grant’s if you are running one up the slope. It’s a delicate shot, regardless of angle. The most treacherous pin is on the very front right, with a hollow edging in behind the upslope from the boundary. There’s a little more room past that hollow, but the edge of the green is still only eight paces from the fence. The heart of the green is relatively subdued, but you’ll be rewarded for driving to the right of the Principal’s Nose, especially when the flag slides behind Wig.
No. 4/No. 14
A four- to five-foot pimple guards the center of the fourth green… and I’m still trying to work out how best to approach a front pin! A drive way towards the 15th fairway, just inside of Sutherland, gives a little angle to run one through the gap but brings the nasty trio of Students into play short left. The green slides from the left—severely, too, as it rises over one shoulder, and then another. So generally, a drive to the dangerous right of the fairway is most welcome. The rear shelf is especially difficult to get to, even more so where it wraps slenderly between a bulbous pot and the tiny rear pair of Ginger Beer pots towards the 14th. A sneaky pot nestles to the front right of the green, with high frequency humps and hollows—added prior to the 2015 Open Championship—beyond.
To a degree unlike any other par 5, all shots on the 14th hole are influenced by its green complex. A bulky dune shoulder to the front right of the green holds most power. Flowing through and away to the back, only a left lay-up close to the Grave pair of pots, or farther back on the fifth fairway away from Hell, will yield any sort of angle. You can try and stunt one into the peak of the knoll, but you’ll risk falling off the sharp right side and repeating the problem. The center of the green is relatively open except for an insanely abrupt five- to six-foot up and slower over, towards a hidden pot nestled into the steep rear run-off. The sunken Ginger Beer bunkers really come into play when the pin is on the impossibly shallow slither to the left.
No. 5/No. 13
Sat on a plinth, the fifth green is obscured by a dune ridge and a 12- to 15-foot-deep hollow, which makes the front pins particularly challenging. The green runs away from this front fold, into an expanse of faint ripples. At 37,846 square feet, this is the biggest green on the Old Course, but as with all of them, the most interesting pin positions are found close to the perimeter. There’s a steep drop-off from the front left towards two pots, and then there is a third—the green wraps around its staunch shoulder, making a seemingly impossible-to-access wing where going long and putting back is the sensible ploy. The right side bows outwards, behind a gnarly hollow, at one-third distance. The green is 99 yards yards deep, and the 2015 Sunday pin was 82 yards on, just beyond a sneaky ripple that you would never know existed.
The 13th green sits at least half a club uphill from the truncated fairway. Between the Lion’s Mouth rough hollow on the left and a hungry pot on the right, the entrance is narrow. The strategic influence of the three fairway- splitting Coffin bunkers is obvious. The landform of the right pot, and another shoulder beyond, edge into the green to form a couple of pockets, supported above a steep drop-off. To attack those, you should be left of the Coffins. The pin can also be cut left of the Lion’s Mouth, beyond a perilous expanse of gorse and heather. The flag will barely be visible, but you have the landmarks of the town to guide.
No. 6./No. 12
The sixth green at the Old Course
The less interesting half of this double green, the sixth gently falls away from a three- to four-foot false front. This swale is hidden by a slight rise, so judging where to land the approach is tricky. Shot selection, too—whether to carry or to run one down and up through the dip? Indecision can leave your ball stranded at the bottom. The low wraps around towards the 12th, with a little bump making the left that bit skinnier. Though busy depressions flank the right drop-off, this mid-four is all about the 30 or so yards that lead into the green.
Look back from the 12th green and it becomes more obvious that the Old Course was once played (relatively often) in reverse. Those fairway bunkers, blind from the current tee, are easily flown by today’s best. The green plateau is pinched by a hollow on either side, with the front low behind a prominent central pot. Perched on a near vertical rise (and descent), the 12-pace-deep platform is seemingly impossible to hold. This top deck deepens to 18 paces on the right, but a slight hump makes for an even trickier target… if that’s even possible. One of the most compelling sub-100 yard approaches imaginable.
No. 3/No. 15
Another green that rises beyond an obscured depression, the third hangs off the boomeranging Cartgate bunker. There’s all of Scotland to the left from the tee, but the farther you play away from right pots, the more influential this sheer-walled bunker becomes. Well away from Cargate, the front-right section of the green yields less penalty but, because of the contours, more difficulty. There’s a counter-break to deal with as the green feeds back from here and around towards the 15th. Funkiest of all, the back-right quarter sits four to five feet lower, among an eclectic pair of mounds. This is a classic winter pin, but one also used for the Open.
No. 15 is a stern par 4 that tends to get lost the greatest nine-hole stretch in golf. The entrance of the green funnels between a shoulder on the right and Fowler’s pot on the left. There’s a little up and a long, drawn-out over. The first part of the descent is steeper than you would imagine, but it flattens just enough to hold a pin or two. A shoulder extends right from Fowler’s so that a pin in the higher left-center section of the green is best approached from a drive close to, but not behind, Madam Grainger’s Bosom—an appropriately named dune to the right of the fairway. A slight dish breaks up the front of this shallower section, and it is not inconceivable that a mis-controlled second shot would end in Cartgate beyond. There’s a second little lump on the periphery of the right, too, and again you’ll want to approach from just where the opposite side of the fairway is pinched by a raised platform (of what used to be fairway).
The 18th green at the Old Course
Another view of the 18th green at the Old Course
Finishing in town is special, even for the locals, but the buildings can make judging the wind tricky. The Valley of Sin, a five- to six-foot hollow short left, dominates the green, with its pulling power extending farther into the green than you think. The green sits highest above sea level, with the slope from the corner of Golf Place steeper than it looks. Pins on the lower slopes of this back-right slant are opened up from a drive on the clock of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, the safe line for all tee shots. This tilt extends across the green, with many a putt on the flatter rear left of the green under-read. For those that find themselves close to the Links road after their tee shots, the slope can be used to steer one around the back of the Valley.
No. 8/No. 10
The 10th green at the Old Course
When you turn back for the first time, the famous skyline looks distant. The green of No. 8, the first par 3 on the course, is more varied than at first glance. The Short Hole pot sits proud to cover the front left; the front of the green feeds away off its landform, so the tee shot must be nippy. Its shoulder can be used to kick a ball right in behind a less prominent pot and a gnarly hollow that fronts the right of the green. On this big expanse, long putts are common. The most interesting hole locations are found towards the rear of the green, where a gradual climb finds a shallow ridge with steep drop-off behind. The rear left, out of sight from the tee, is particularly crowned.
The front of the 10th green hosts some of the most interesting pin positions on the Old Course. A rippled crease steps up four to five feet from the fairway, with a couple of depressions splitting the center of the space. These can be used creatively but are just as likely to throw your ball away from its intended target. By contrast, a shoulder holds up the front-left corner of the green. Out of sight, the green chases sneakily away, with the exception of a high pocket which splits the green either side of center left. Though the green might be drivable in favorable conditions, position throughout the fairway dictates the delicacy of the approach.
The first green at the Old Course
From the tightest lie of any fairway in golf, playing for a pin position tucked just beyond the Swilken Burn is unnerving for even the best players in the world. Any smidge of angle can be most welcome, so a tee shot towards the famous bridge can often be favored. Though the opening green appears relatively subdued, there is some beautiful ripple that edges into the rear, leaving a deceptively slanted pin on the toe of a back-left upper shelf.
The ninth green at the Old Course
Sat simply at grade, the quiet expanse of the ninth green can be dismissed as dull or out of character. That would be a mistake. Without topographic definition for reference, gauging distance on approach and when putting can be frustrating. The green does tilt slightly from the back left towards the front, barely rippling. Tucked behind the slight Cronje pot and flanked by gorse, the far front left requires tactful play.
Clyde Johnson is a golf architect based in St. Andrews, Scotland. He runs Cunnin’ Golf Design and has assisted Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design on several overseas projects.