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Road Hole Wrangle

They've remodeled the Road Hole bunker at St Andrews?Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war. For purists, this is like tweaking the Mona Lisa's smile, or giving Michelangelo's David a little nip and tuck.

However, the Old Course does get updated from time to time. When Tiger, Ernie, Phil, Vijay and friends pitch up for play this July, the twenty-seventh time the Open Championship will have been held at St. Andrews, they will encounter a slightly longer course (7,279 yards), five new tees (on two, four, twelve, thirteen and fourteen) and 94 out of the Old Course's 112 bunkers spruced up for the occasion.

But by far the most controversial change will be the tailoring done to the 455-yard par-four seventeenth—the Road Hole—notably to its greenside bunker. That notorious pit has been made three feet longer and about a foot wider and has had its front wall lowered by six to eight inches. The contours around the bunker have also been slightly altered, to allow for more shots to roll in, and the sand floor has been reshaped to collect balls in the center rather than let them come to rest near the wall. In essence, the new, more oval shape will gather more balls but should also be easier to escape.

David Duval's one-man excavation project at the 2000 Open, when he took four swings to get out of the Road Hole bunker, may have left the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the Links Trust management (who oversee this public golf course) sympathetic to the idea that the changes they had ordered prior to the 1984 Open—when nearly all the Old Course's major bunkers had their faces heightened—needed to be revisited. The Links Trust suggested to the R&A in 2002 that the bunker should be rebuilt, and work began. Soon reports circulated that the bunker had been moved back slightly from the green and that its height had been reduced by two whole feet—and all hell broke loose.

Gordon Moir, the Links Trust superintendent, recalls the furor of 2002: "We hadn't even finished the work when David Malcolm, a past captain of the New Club, called the newspapers and said that tampering with the bunker was going too far and it was 'a loss and a tragedy.' The story went round the world, and Peter Mason at the Links Trust spent two days on the telephone fielding calls. Television news companies hired helicopters to fly over the Road Hole."

An immediate decision was taken, recalls Moir, "to put everything back the way it was and let everyone calm down." So was it a crisis that felt like the end of the world was nigh for the links superintendent?"No," he says. "It was far worse than that."

Furthermore, when the changes were undone, the resulting shape was not an accurate approximation of the Duval bunker but something rounder and not as deep. Says Kyle Phillips, who designed the much-praised Kingsbarns down the road from the Old Course: "That small circle I saw there last year was a tragedy."

Such controversy isn't new to the auld grey toon, it should be said. In 1869, for example, the greens committee decided to fill in a small bunker on the fifteenth. Legend has it that three nights after the work was completed, a local, A.G. Sutherland, took a spade from his home and dug the thing up again himself. No one has touched the "Sutherland bunker" since.

The world's great sand- filled knee tremblers are a vital part of the game. The two monsters that constitute the Spectacles on the fourteenth at Carnoustie were said to lose Hogan sleep. (Hogan!) Yet from Hells' Half Acre at Pine Valley to the Cardinal at Prestwick, the Road Hole bunker remains somehow emotionally special. One strategy has existed for two and a half centuries: Don't go in there. The problem is, there's the road on the far side of the narrow seventeenth green that gives the hole its name, so going long is no option either.

In anticipation of the 2005 Open, the St. Andrews equivalent of the U.N. Security Council met in 2003 to discuss what should be done. The R&A's photographic and video archives were raided. A picture of Billy Casper splashing out of the bunker in 1967 showed not a small, round, tomblike fortress but an oval-shaped, waist-high trap that offered an easy escape sideways and whose face wasn't (as it would later become) golf's equivalent of the north face of the Eiger. Videotape revealed Doug Sanders at the Road Hole during his 1970 Open epic with Jack Nicklaus (the eventual winner) able to get up and down from the infamous trap without actually stepping down into the sand. He simply stood at the side and played out, something Duval couldn't have done even if he were a contortionist.

The group also looked at photos and TV coverage of the 1978 Championship, when the Japanese professional Tommy Nakajima, in serious contention at the time, took five shots to get out of the bunker. (Some elders in town still call it the "Sands of Nakajima.") Materials circulated regularly back and forth between Dawson at the R&A and the Links Trust management committee. Eventually it was officially determined that over time the bunker had indeed changed. For the 2005 Open it would be returned to its former oval shape, with the swales around it restored to gather more errant shots down and in and the sandy bottom remade to keep balls from coming to rest by the wall, which is what did in poor Duval. In effect, the clock on the Road Hole bunker has been put back thirty years to the 1970s.

The wraps over the new shape were removed this April, and Moir is pleased. Standing over the bunker, he points into the sand: "The shape has been extended about a meter west [to the golfer's right when playing the hole] and is about a foot broader." Plus, he explains, the slope between the bunker and the green now angles more steeply toward a slightly lower bunker face.

Iain Lowe, a noted St. Andrews photographer, says: "I'm six feet tall, and it used to be up to my eyes. Now it's up to my chest. It's still at least four and a half feet deep. It's going to be a good par from there."

With a lower front wall, we may not see another Duval or Nakajima moment this year, but maybe that's just fine. David McLay Kidd, who designed Bandon Dunes and is now creating the seventh public course for St. Andrews, offers a thought for those worried about change. "Most change on a golf course isn't managed," he says. "Bunkers in constant play deepen and widen. Managed change, however, as it is on the Old Course, should be seen as a good thing."


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