Nothing but Trouble

From tee to green and everywhere in between, disaster lurks at the Old Course's notorious Road Hole, the nastiest bit of real estate in championship golf
July 24, 2005

The most famous hole on the world's most famous course, the Road Hole at St. Andrews, continued its unholy reign last week. If the 455-yard, par-4 17th isn't the toughest hole in the game, it's probably the scariest and definitely the craziest. The Road Hole is where happy endings and good scores go to die. "If you make a 4 there," says Brad Faxon, "you run." The Road Hole would not be built today--"not without a lot of insurance," says five-time British Open champion Tom Watson. Not that you'd necessarily want to build it. Says another American, Kenny Perry, who last week played in his first Open at the Old Course, "Do I have to be politically correct here? I've never hit over a building before."

The beauty of the Road Hole is its lack of beauty. With a hotel, a stone wall, a paved road, a cinder path and a ball-eating bunker in play, the 17th is a miniature golf hole on steroids, stitched together and sprung to life like Frankenstein's monster. That makes 17 the most distinctive hole--critics say the only distinctive hole--on the Old Course. There's also an opposing school of thought. "There are 17 really great holes," says 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem, "and one that you say, 'Wow! Where did that come from?'"

The Road Hole attracts disasters the way Pamela Anderson attracts bad boys. A 48-year-old Arnold Palmer was making an improbable charge during the 1978 Open until he blocked his drive out of bounds at 17, onto the grounds of the Old Course Hotel, and wound up making a triple-bogey 7. Watson, tied for the lead on Sunday in 1984, overshot the 17th green and literally had his back against the wall--the ancient stone wall to the right and beyond the green. His bogey opened the door for Seve Ballesteros. Costantino Rocca holed the most unlikely putt in recent memory in 1995, a 65-footer from the Valley of Sin at 18 to force a playoff with John Daly, but Rocca's chance to win ended in the Road Hole bunker during overtime when he needed three tries to escape and made a 7. In 2000 David Duval's effort to stop Tiger Woods's runaway win came to a sudden halt when he required four swings to get out of the same bunker. And Tommy Nakajima earned lasting ignominy in '78 when his long birdie putt made a left turn and trundled into the bunker. When the sandstorm cleared, he had made a 9, causing the bunker to be rechristened the Sands of Nakajima.

The Road Hole begins with a blind tee shot over what used to be railway sheds adjoining the Old Course Hotel. The sheds have been replaced by a facade that has OLD COURSE HOTEL painted on it. Players use the lettering to aim their drives. The caddie for S.K. Ho of South Korea once told Ho to aim for his name--the HO--on the sign. The fairway beyond the hotel is wavy and angles to the right, and deep, thick fescue on the left promises a punishing penalty. The hole used to reward bold tee shots down the right side, which provided a better angle to the elongated green, but the R&A narrowed the fairway this year and opted to grow fescue on the right, forcing most players to lay up to a fairway that, at its far end, measured no more than eight steps across. Now you know why Woods used a two-iron off the tee every day last week. "The tee shot is very demanding and scary because you can't see where you're going," says Sean O'Hair, who was playing in his first Open. "The second shot is no box of chocolates either. You have about a five-yard area where you can land it."

Looking from the fairway, the slightly elevated green appears to be shaped like North Carolina, with the unforgiving bunker guarding the left side. A shot that rolls too far over the right side encounters a narrow cinder path, a strip of grass, a paved road (the old road to Cupar, a town about 10 miles away, hence the Road Hole), then more grass and, finally, the famous stone wall. The green slopes from right to left toward the deep oval bunker, drawing in stray shots like a black hole. According to Scottish course designer David McLay Kidd, the bunker is the perfect size: "Just big enough for one angry man and a swing," he says.

Lloyd Saltman, the 19-year-old Scot who was the toast of the tournament as the low amateur, was wise enough to give the 17th plenty of respect. "I play to the front of the green," he said. "It's a par-5." Saltman was four over on 17 for the week.

The bleachers behind the stone wall were among the first to fill last week. "I don't think it's malicious, that people are hoping for golfers to do badly," says Pat Byrne, a vacationing police officer from Crewe, England, who set up at 17 every day, "but they're always looking for drama."

There was plenty of that. As usual, 17 ranked No. 1 in difficulty, averaging 4.63 strokes. Fifty-three double bogeys or worse were made there, more than twice as many as any other hole. The next highest was the 13th, with 23.

Pat Perez created a buzz in the dining room of the Old Course Hotel on Saturday when his stray tee shot stopped on the paved road. Several diners got up to watch as Perez played off the road, finishing his swing with a one-handed follow-through. As his ball rolled up on the front left edge of the green, Byrne predicted, "That's going in the bunker." And so it did, drawing groans. Perez took two tries to escape, then holed a six-footer for a 5, a sweet bogey for anyone who tangled with the road and the bunker.

Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland felt the Road Hole's full fury earlier in the day. His slash from the left fescue scooted into the Road Hole bunker and left him a stance so awkward that after eight abbreviated practice swings, he blasted the ball over the green and past the road. A bump-and-run failed, and his chip picked up speed as it rushed past the pin and rolled off the green but, luckily, not back into the bunker. He putted on from there and, two putts later, had a quadruple-bogey 8. Byrne said McDowell's fate was nearly a shot-for-shot replay of how PGA Tour rookie Steve Gutschewski had also made an 8 at 17.

Byrne has a special place in his heart for the Road Hole bunker. Coming home from holiday 12 years ago, Byrne was driving his family past the course at four o'clock in the morning and decided to stop next to the deserted, dimly lit 17th. "No one was around," says Byrne, who tossed a ball in the bunker and let his son, Kieran, then seven, take a whack. Eight or nine futile swings later, they got back into the car and headed home. Kieran is now studying for a career in golf-course management. Father and son returned to the Old Course last week as spectators and found themselves drawn back to the 17th, where they had a good vantage point to watch all the drama, including the farewell of Jack Nicklaus on Friday.

Byrne's primary police duty? He investigates crashes. At the Road Hole last week, he was in exactly the right place.


COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Bob Martin NO HOPE Colin Montgomerie made a third-round bogey from the Road Hole bunker. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Bob Martin DANGER! To hit the fairway on the 455-yard, par-4 17th, you must drive over the Old Course Hotel sign--but don't go too far, because the fairway narrows to only eight yards across. On the approach the pot bunker to the left of the green must be avoided at all costs, but bail out right, and you're up against the wall.
•... OR HERE ...
COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECK STONEWALLED Anything too far right is way wrong.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)