In the first two parts of this series, I described how, at the turn of the 20th century, a group of British golfers led by John Low discovered the principles of strategic course design by analyzing—or “reading”—the Old Course at St Andrews.
Before I began researching this holiday project a few weeks ago, I had known only generalities about the pre-World War I period of golf architecture. The more I learned, the more I realized how profound an influence Low and his contemporaries had on the ensuing “Golden Age” of golf course design.
Today’s best remembered Golden Age architect, Alister MacKenzie, took the art of reading St Andrews to another level. He knew the Old Course as intimately as anyone. In the mid-1920s, he conducted a year-long survey of the links and helped produce a course map that to this day is renowned for its detail.
For MacKenzie, as for Low, the bunkers at St Andrews were exemplary strategic hazards. As he wrote in his 1920 book Golf Architecture,
[The bunkers are] placed in positions where players are most likely to go…. Mr. John L. Low pointed out years ago that no hazard is unfair wherever it is placed, and this particularly applies if the hazard is visible, as it should be obvious that if a player sees a hazard in front of him and promptly planks his ball into it he has chosen the wrong spot…. On the old type of course like St. Andrews, the players have to take the hazards as they come, and do their best to avoid them.
But MacKenzie did more than repackage Low’s insights; he used them to support a philosophy of course design that emphasized fun for all, or, as he put it, “the greatest pleasure for the greatest number.” Whereas Low focused on conceiving hazards that would make good players think, MacKenzie saw in Low’s ideas and in the Old Course itself a model for challenging and delighting low and high handicappers alike.
St. Andrews is a standing example of the possibility of making a course which is pleasurable to all classes of golfers, not only to the thirty handicap players, but to the plus fourteen man, if there ever was or will be such a person.
St Andrews appealed to everyone, MacKenzie believed, because it was at once forgiving and fearsome. Its tremendous width allowed timid or inexpert golfers to plod along the left side of the links, rarely finding trouble but just as rarely shooting low scores. At the same time, if a strong player sought the desirable angles along the right, he would encounter some of the scariest hazards in the world of golf.
At St Andrews, MacKenzie suggested, one foursome could play four different courses.
“The greatest pleasure for the greatest number,” indeed.
Make the Old Course New?
Time for a confession. I haven’t played the Old Course. Hell, I haven’t been to Scotland. That’s why this series has focused on what others have said about St Andrews. Until I go there myself, I won’t have readings of my own to add.
Yet I have strong feelings about the Old Course. Back in the summer of 1995, my parents gave me MacKenzie’s book The Spirit of St. Andrews, which had been published that year after languishing for over half a century as an obscure manuscript. MacKenzie’s love for the Old Course rises like a fragrance from those pages. He doesn’t pretend it’s perfect—too many blind hazards, in his opinion—but his enthusiasm for the subtlety and versatility of its design is contagious.
Later that summer, I watched John Daly beat Costantino Rocca in a playoff to win the Open at St Andrews.
I was hooked—not just on golf, not just on golf architecture, but on the notion of a course that could test Daly and Rocca on Sunday and charm a group of 20-handicappers on Monday.
I wonder, though, whether that ideal exists anymore. I worry about what will become of the Old Course as technology increases the disparity between pros and amateurs. And I hope my fellow golf nerds, including the majority who have never set foot in Fife, are concerned as well.
With his technologically optimized body, swing, and equipment, the 21st-century male tour pro doesn’t even think about the bee-line pots at St Andrews that revealed to John Low the true purpose of hazards. Nor, in all likelihood, does he spend much time mulling over the geometries of risk and reward that fascinated both Low and MacKenzie.
Why would he, when he has fewer than 100 yards into almost every par 4? He doesn’t need to fret over options and angles. With a wedge in his hands, he’ll be able to spin and stop his ball near most pins no matter what.
Consider the 16th at the Old Course, long admired as one of the world’s great strategic par 4s. MacKenzie adored this hole, and in Golf Architecture he gave what is now the standard reading of it. The key, he argued, is that the green slopes from high left to low right, making it difficult to approach from the left. The tricky part is that in order to attack the green from the right, you have to fit your drive between the bunkers and the out-of-bounds line. If you bail out left, you won’t risk much off the tee, but you will be hard pressed to hold the green with your second shot.
By the time he wrote The Spirit of St. Andrews in 1933, MacKenzie had learned a further intricacy of the hole. From a spot about ten yards left—not right—of the Deacon Sime bunker, you could play a running approach and take advantage of a channel leading to a common medal-day pin position.
Is there any course in the world that presents such subtle strategic problems? There are thousands of golfers who have played St. Andrews for years and have failed to solve them or even to see them.
Fast forward to 2019. From the championship tees, the 16th hole measures 423 yards, 85 yards longer than it did in MacKenzie’s era. Even so, I’d speculate that today’s Open competitors would, if they could, aim their tee shots left every time. The poor angle that MacKenzie spoke of would not concern them, as their approaches would hardly ever exceed 100 yards.
In other words, this hole, which MacKenzie once called “almost ideal for its length,” would no longer pose risk-reward questions to the modern pro. Its central tension would be gone.
I’m using the subjunctive mood here because, at the current Old Course, you can’t go left on the 16th. The whole area is covered in deep rough. The bail-out zone to the left of the Principal’s Nose: rough. The secret spot to the left of Deacon Sime: rough. Instead of giving options and forcing a decision, the hole now demands a tee shot between the bunkers and rough on the left and the fence and road on the right.
As for the rough on the 16th, it was put in place for the 2010 Open. The R&A didn’t want players to be able to simply knock the ball down as far as they wanted left of the Principal’s Nose. The feeling was that, if they wanted to lay up short they would have to do so right of the bunkers and closer to the fence.
There it is: runaway distance gains leading to compromised design. St Andrews can’t battle Cameron Champ merely by stretching its y-axis, so now, inevitably, it has to shrink its x-axis. And it’s not like Moir’s greenskeepers turn all of that rough into fairway once the pros leave. Year round, everybody plays a narrowed Old Course.
Make the Old Course Old Again?
Plenty of people have no problem with how the modern game has affected the Old Course—and not just those who don’t care about the design features being lost.
Brandel Chamblee has called St Andrews the best course in the world, and he seems to have a genuine and sophisticated appreciation for its merits. (And, unlike me, he has played it many times over many years.) Back in 2015, his devotion to the Old Course prompted him to call on the governing bodies to take action:
Since then, he has changed his mind—as anyone, obviously, is entitled to do. He now opposes roll-back at the professional level, and while he acknowledges that raw distance has become a disproportionate advantage on the PGA Tour, he puts the onus on golf courses and architects to counter that trend.
He would likely argue that the Old Course has evolved throughout its history, and that those who insist on halting that process are reactionary and unimaginative. Since he takes pride in his research, he probably knows that St Andrews added bunkers for the 1905 Open in response to the advent of the rubber-core Haskell ball, and that no less an architectural authority than John Low endorsed these alterations. Perhaps Chamblee would see all of this as evidence that past custodians of the Old Course, and of the game more broadly, were more forward-looking than the purists of today.
The flaws in this thinking become clear when you consider that those who made the 1905 changes preserved what had been the soul of the Old Course’s strategy since the mid-1800s: its width. Today, if the R&A and the Links Trust wish to continue using St Andrews as a professional tournament venue, they can’t keep it wide. They can’t make the course any longer, and they have nowhere to put new bunkers, so they can only make the playing corridors narrower. I trust that’s not the kind of architectural innovation Chamblee has in mind.
To be fair, he doesn’t simply hate strategic golf architecture. In fact, he admires the work of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, and Gil Hanse. He just doesn’t think those architects understand how to test elite golfers. At the core of Chamblee’s position is a conviction that pros and amateurs play such different games that they can’t possibly be challenged by the same courses.
In researching this series, I have discovered that the first great golf architects didn’t think that way.
John Low saw St Andrews as a model for how to test a good player’s head as well as his technique. For Low, wide fairways with hazards on the “bee-line,” when paired with green complexes that reward certain angles of approach, demanded not only accuracy but also intelligence and mettle.
If we accept that tournament courses can no longer be wide and present options, that they should use narrowness to combat technology’s increasing mastery of distance, aren’t we giving up on the notion that our greatest golfers should use their minds as expertly as they swing their clubs?
Alister MacKenzie viewed St Andrews as a source of challenge and delight not just for the best golfers in the world but also for ordinary players. On the generous yet treacherous expanse of the Old Course, he perceived an array of different courses, each suited to a different style of play and level of skill.
Do we need to abandon that idea as well, in a time when the average driving distance on the PGA Tour will soon eclipse 300 yards?
Low’s and MacKenzie’s readings of St Andrews—and the vision of golf they offer—are too compelling to relegate to nostalgia. A century ago, the Old Course taught a rising generation of architects that the joys of the seaside links were rooted in legible principles of design. Today, St Andrews should teach us all, even those of us who haven’t played there, that fascinating and sustainable golf courses, not $530 drivers enhanced by artificial intelligence, will always be the way for our game to deliver the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.