It is a quaint Scottish tradition, the naming of golf holes. At
St. Andrews, as elsewhere, the monikers lean toward the poetic
and the esoteric, such as the Old Course's Ginger Beer (number 4)
and Hole O' Cross (13). The most aptly named hole at the Old
Course--and in all of golf--is the 17th: the Road Hole. At last
week's British Open this fearsome par-4 was the road to ruin for
countless players, the highway to hell for a few and, even for
the game's best player, a speed bump on the way to a record
"That hole will drive you crazy," says Robert Karlsson, who was
down the road after taking an 8 on the Road Hole last Thursday,
one of the 15 dread "others" the hole produced during the week.
What makes the 455-yard Road Hole so brutal? Let us count the
ways. Most famous holes are made memorable by one distinctive
characteristic--the Church Pews bunker on the 3rd hole at Oakmont,
say, or the tiny, elevated green on the 8th hole, the Postage
Stamp, at Royal Troon. The Road Hole has three unforgettable
booby traps. The first is a blind tee shot that must carry a
corner of the adjacent hotel, specifically a shed with the
familiar lettering OLD COURSE HOTEL. (Apparently the killjoys at
the R&A wouldn't go for a big red bull's-eye.) The fairway at the
Road Hole is the most anorexic on the course, framed by knee-high
heather on the left and out-of-bounds on the right, but getting
safely off the tee is only half the battle. The 17th green is the
smallest on the course, protected on the left by a second booby
trap, perhaps the worst in golf, the vaunted Road Hole bunker, a
small yet cavernous trap with a lip taller than Ian Woosnam. Just
off the back of the green is the third, the eponymous roadway, a
paved blacktop that is very much in play, as is the rock wall
that frames it. Taken together, these hazards are so hazardous
that the Road Hole played to an average of 4.707 last week,
making it by far the hardest hole on a course fraught with
Though it didn't decide the outcome as it so often has, the Road
Hole was still part of the show on Sunday. Tiger Woods made his
only bogey of the day there, briefly endangering his tournament
scoring record. But it was his playing partner, David Duval, who
really got the back of the hairbrush. From 181 yards Duval hooked
a five-iron hard against the face of the Road Hole bunker, and he
needed four shots to get out. With an abominable snowman he
plummeted from a tie for second to 11th place. Asked afterward if
the Road Hole is fair, Duval said, "It is what it is. I think
it's a waste of our time to talk about it."
Ah, but it is so much fun. The Road Hole began wreaking havoc
from the first round, when it had a starring role in the day's
most important events. Notah Begay III was seven under par and
two strokes in the lead when he took aim from the 17th tee. About
100 yards in front of the tee box are the so-called black sheds,
though they are actually a deep green. (The sheds used to house
coal for the town's railroad line, which was dismantled in 1969.
They now contain the business offices of the hotel.) Virtually
every player uses the shed's raised white lettering as an aiming
point. "The farther you drive, the more right you have to go into
the lettering," says Woods.
"I always aim at the C in COURSE," says David Toms.
"I like the U," says Ernie Els.
"I'll take H, O, T, E or L," says Begay. "I'm not that precise."
So it was on Thursday, when Begay hooked his drive into a
horrible lie in the deep rough. For the week the Road Hole's
fairway was the road less traveled, as it was hit less than 46%
of the time. (By comparison, nine other fairways were hit more
than 70% of the time; seven others more than 80%.) With a
pitching wedge, Begay tried to punch out back into the
fairway--"The hole had me by the tail, and I knew it," he says--but
the club turned in the gnarly grass, closing the face and sending
his ball even farther to the left. Begay was now in range of the
green and, more to the point, the cavernous Road Hole bunker,
which he equates with a water hazard, so severe is the penalty
for hitting into it.
"I tried to avoid the bunker as much as I could--I kept going
left--and in doing so, I ran out of grass." His ill-fated whack,
this time with a nine-iron, was misdirected by the heather, and
Begay's ball went careening into an actual water hazard, the burn
that meanders across the 1st and last fairway, so far to the left
it is not even considered in play at 17. The water was shallow
enough that Begay's ball was clearly visible, and he stood on the
banks agonizing about whether to play out of the burn.
This called to mind the tragic hero of last year's Open, Jean Van
de Velde, and his misadventures in the Barry Burn on the final
hole at Carnoustie. Said Begay, "I've talked to Jean about the
finish there, and he says, 'My only regret is that I did not try
to hit it out of the burn.' So I ain't going to walk away having
any regrets. I wanted to continue having fun. It's fun to get
your feet wet once in a while."
Begay stepped into the burn, immersing both feet and inspiring a
memorable caption the next morning in one of the Scottish papers:
HAVE A GO, NAVAJO! He proceeded to splash out short of the green,
his fourth shot. From there he used his putter to reach the
green, and two putts later had a tasty triple bogey, which
knocked him out of the lead. Still, Begay earned the approval of
the effervescent Van de Velde. "He played a shot out of the
burn?" the Frenchman said following his round. "Did he get it
out? Good man! What? He didn't take his shoes and socks off?
Maybe there is something wrong with his feet!"
Not long after Begay's train wreck, Woods came to the Road Hole
having assumed the lead at five under. He, too, jerked his drive
to the bailout area--long and left--but from the deep rough, 160
yards out, Woods played a gorgeous recovery into the neck of the
fairway in front of the green and got up and down for a par.
Explaining his great escape, Woods said, "You have to open the
face of your club because the grass is going to grab the shaft.
That's the trick. You need to hit it hard and hold on."
A few hours later Els displayed another effective technique for
surviving the Road Hole--hitting the fairway. "The tee shot is
everything," he says. "Hit it in the rough and you have little
chance of making par."
Tied for the lead at five under, Els pured a six-iron from 184
yards to within six feet, setting up the birdie that gave him the
first-round lead. (For the week the green was reached in
regulation less than 32% of the time and yielded only 13
birdies.) "You've got to trust the shot, try to draw it in
there," Els says. "Under the circumstances it must be the shot of
the day because you can make any number."
The history of the Open at St. Andrews is dotted by unusual
occurrences at the Road Hole. During the final round in '95 John
Daly, leading by one over Costantino Rocca, left his ball in the
bunker and took a bogey. Rocca stayed even with a remarkable putt
off the road to save par, setting up a playoff, but during sudden
death he pulled a Duval, burying himself in the Road Hole bunker.
Rocca took three shots to get out, handing the championship to
Not that playing long of the green is any better. In '84, Tom
Watson, tied for the lead with Seve Ballesteros, pushed a
two-iron up against the rock wall and took a bogey that cost him
what could have been his third straight claret jug. During the
second round of this year's tournament Woods, too, overshot the
green. But from the narrow strip of grass hard against the road,
he played a hooded lob wedge that ran past the pin, partway up
the swale on the backside of the bunker and then back down the
swale toward the pin. It was a brilliant shot--"I had been
working on that one in the practice rounds," Woods said--and the
up-and-down par ensured a second straight round without a bogey.
Asked if the Road Hole is one of the most difficult he has
played, the understated Woods said, "It's up there." In fact,
the Road Hole is so difficult that as late as the '60 Open it
was played as a par-5. But is it a good hole? "If anybody
designed that hole now, he would be shot on sight," says Dennis
Paulson, "but it is part of the course and a pretty cool hole."
Toms calls the 17th "very weird," but adds, "It's a great test."
Even Begay allows that the Road Hole is "kind of fun." His
outlook improved during the second round. After slicing his
approach near the rock wall, Begay executed a gorgeous flop shot
that stopped six inches from the cup. The large grandstand
framing the hole shook with cheers, and after Begay tapped in for
par, he raised his arms in triumph.
Mark Calcavecchia was also the rare player to extract revenge on
the Road Hole. During the first round he had taken a triple bogey
there, his approach stopping so hard against the lip of the
bunker that he was forced to play backward with his putter to
give himself enough room to lift his next shot over the face of
the trap. On Saturday, with the pin tucked directly behind the
bunker, just four yards from the edge of oblivion, Calc was the
only player all day to birdie the hole.
On moving day the Road Hole proved to be the ultimate rally
killer. Bernhard Langer came to the 17th having made seven
birdies against no bogeys, then took a 5 from the left rough.
When Thomas Bjorn vroomed up to the Road Hole he was only five
back of Woods and one of three players in double-digit red
numbers. Bjorn's approach limped to the front of the green, and
he three-putted from 75 feet.
Woods, too, three-putted for bogey on Saturday, and he had his
troubles with the Road Hole again during the final round. After a
perfect drive he got too cute with a punch and run, curling the
shot just short of the bunker. Instead of trying one of his
patented flop shots, Woods cried uncle and putted around the
bunker, away from the pin. He accepted his bogey with a shrug.
Even the game's best player knows when he has met his match.
told of Begay's exploits at 17. "Did he get out? Good man!"
now," says Paulson, "he would be shot on sight."