ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The last time Ernie Els was in this general vicinity, he squirmed as players squawked about his redesign of a well-known European Tour track located a few miles south in suburban London.
To put it in slightly more Scottish terms, Els' design changes at Wentworth were an acquired taste, like ordering a heapin' helping of haggis with cheese at a drive-thru window, and dominated the tournament coverage for the week.
|No. 17 at St. Andrews is one of the most unique golf holes in the world. (AP)|
"I can't imagine [the reaction] if you changed this course," Els laughed.
Actually, they have, and it's made the recent carping about Els' tweaks seem like mild Muzak on a slow-moving elevator.
In an attempt to bring back the drama and trauma that made the course's Road Hole the most infamous par-4 in the world, tournament officials added 50 yards, stretching it to a controversial 495.
In the States, where bigger is almost always better, nobody would bat an eye or bend an ear. But it's the first time the yardage has been changed on the Old Course's penultimate hole in 110 years, and the layout is considered a national treasure, so the tiny new tee box, perched on an adjacent piece of property that was actually located out of bounds, has become a cause celebre that's generated nearly as much conversation as the antics at the House of Royals.
Given the almost incomprehensibly quirky design of the hole -- which features a gravel road, ancient rock wall, former railway line, huge wooden coal sheds and a modernistic hotel that's glaringly anachronistic to everything else in the historic Auld Gray Toon -- the revisions are truly akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
Whether the changes were necessary is another matter altogether.
"I think they've absolutely got it spot on," said Els, who has a thriving course-design firm. "You've got to hit a driver off the tee now, you've got to slide it left-to-right like we used to before the equipment changes, and your second shot, on the Road Hole, the road comes into play now. So it's all good."
Good grief, that's a matter of opinion.
"I remember when Tom Watson was going for his sixth [Open] win in '84, and he went for his shot and hit it onto the road," Els recalled correctly. "I think they want to bring that back."
Indeed they do. Creating a firestorm of commentary among the purists, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which runs the tournament and is based at St. Andrews, removed a series of fence posts and carved a new triangular tee box on the other side of the road behind the existing 17th tee. The white out-of-bound stakes along the 16th hole remained until midweek, when the R&A pulled them up and declared the new tee area in bounds.
Peter Dawson, the R&A secretary and the man who authorized the new tee, was chided Wednesday for changing the boundaries of a 500-year-old course at the 11th hour and asked if that move wasn't somewhat embarrassing.
"I can cope with it," Dawson said sarcastically.
Because of the distances the modern ball is traveling, Dawson and the R&A wanted players to hit something more challenging than short irons into one of the toughest green complexes in the game, bringing the cavernous Road Hole bunker and gravel roadway alongside the right side and rear of the green back into the equation.
"I'd imagine that 17 is going to play a pretty big part in this tournament, no doubt about it," said U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. "If anyone is selling four 4s there right now, I'll buy it."
He's not buying that the changes will necessarily work, however. McDowell said that since approach shots will be hit from 30 to 40 yards farther back, he won't attack the green, which means the road won't come into play at all for him.
"We'll see," he said. "You know, if anything, it's probably going to make me play the hole a little bit more conservatively because you're going in with 4- or 5-iron into a green, which was really difficult to hit with an 8-iron."
Tiger Woods, who said he had no strong opinion on the changes either way, noted that R&A data indicated that players were hitting 5-irons into the green during the 1995 Open. So they threw the numbers into a bureaucratic blender and added 50 yards, despite the fact that the hole hasn't played much easier as it has gotten figuratively shorter.
The 17th averaged 4.79 shots when Seve Ballesteros won in 1984, and in 2000, it averaged 4.71. Five years ago, it surrendered an average of 4.63 strokes. So we'll save you the math: Over 21 years, a meager .16 shots had been shaved.
The horror. For that, sanctity was assaulted.
For that, they defiled the most famous hole on the most famous course at the most famous shrine in the game? Small wonder that the R&A was characterized by some critics as heretics who were asleep at the wheel when runaway technology caused the hole to shrink in the first place. It's a valid, ironic point, too.
Players, by and large, supported the change, since it hasn't really affected their line or club selection from the tee box. As they have for decades, professionals are launching drivers over the quirky wooden railroad sheds adorned with the painted sign for the Old Course Hotel, which sits directly in their path.
"Anywhere over 'Old' is a good line, and not much further than 'L' in the Hotel," Lee Westwood cracked.
Gung-ho gambler Phil Mickelson, who loves the Old Course because it allows him to be aggressive off the tees, said he has already throttled down his expectations on the hole. How thrilling, right?
"You have to look at that as a par 5 hole where the pin is going to be behind that [Road Hole] bunker," he said. "It's simply a par-5. It'll play to a 4.8, 4.9 and possibly over 5. You have to look at it as a par-5 even though the card might say par-4."
With zero hesitation, two-time British Open champion Padraig Harrington applauded the new tee box and said it will bring back tee shots reminiscent of previous years. In the States, they would be using terms like "restoring shot values."
"It's superb, probably like the hole played when I first played it in the early '90s," he said. "It's a tough test off that tee. You can't afford to leak it down the right."
Harrington, adding a little clarity to what nearly became a hysterical discussion, pointed out that the Old Course has forever evolved over its five centuries and in fact used to be played in a completely different direction. The hotel was expanded. The railway line was removed.
It's been assaulted by technology, albeit not by titanium, for hundreds of years. So change is actually a constant, he said.
"You do realize they used to play this course from the greens to the tees, so they've changed that many times," Harrington said, his voice rising. "You look at those sheds, everything was different, the hotel was different. There wasn't a whole wing at that hotel 10 years ago.
"Anybody goes on about how they don't want change, it's changing all the time. Everything evolves."
Maybe, maybe not. The Old Course has reportedly been listed as a nomination candidate for World Heritage status, a program run by the United Nations to help ensure that cultural icons remain protected, if not unmolested, for enjoyment by future generations.
Sounds like a perfect match for the so-called Home of Golf, yet Dawson said he only conditionally supported the notion -- providing that it must still allow some wiggle room for further R&A tinkering.
"I think it's a good thing for St. Andrews so long as it does not stifle progress," Dawson said. "I would want to be very satisfied that that was the case before being a supporter of it."