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Accommodating Change.
One wants everything to stay comfortably the same. It is innate conservatism, thankfully with a small 'c'. It is the constantly nagging doubt that those who have initiated the change have adequately thought the process through and covered all the possible adverse consequences. The Old Course has accommodated every change thrown at it and remains one of the great tests in golf. I have to confess that I haven't fared so well.

The realisation that this conservatism is a common property of everyone over a certain age came to me whilst playing Shinnecock over a year ago when the USPGA officials happened to be setting up the great old course for the 2004 US Open Championship. As well as designating the fairway widths with white paint, new tees that substantially lengthened already difficult holes were being staked out. Shinnecock was never short and its landing areas were always tight but what the USGA boys were envisaging was truly monstrous and many of the members in Shinnecock's very special clubhouse were quick to bemoan the changes being imposed.

Here in St Andrews, the Old Course is currently undergoing another lengthening to keep it in play -- or rather, to maintain its playing characteristics. As at Shinnecock, this is necessary to meet the effects of modern club and ball technology. This I find infinitely sad although I appreciate that it is absolutely necessary if the great old lady of the links is to maintain her character in play.

Having watched the work in progress over the last few weeks, my apprehension has changed to a pulse-quickening sensation of anticipation. Routine irons off the tee will be few and the requirement of the sweaty-palmed driver will put greater pressure on even the longest and straightest. This refreshed lengthy monster will require even more thought than the Tiger put into his 2000 win here, for although the greens remain the basic test it is the choice of line from the tee that will be critical.

There is nothing that can be done about the first hole unless the Championship Committee of the R&A feels that teeing up by the Martyrs Monument is on and that the R&A clubhouse itself is deemed an immovable obstruction. The second shot at the first will thankfully remain as the ultimate test of the lofted wedge.

There seemed nowhere to go for the second tee, set as it has always been backing hard against the Swilken Burn by the first green. But a further sixty or so yards has been found at the back of the Himalayas putting green in the burn's loop before it runs down to the beach. This is an area currently out-of-bounds so it will be interesting to see how this is rearranged. The siting of the tee is a work of genius although it makes the line to the hole altogether different and it requires a carry of over two hundred yards with dense gorse and two pot bunkers at the near limits of the balls flight. Getting line and length here will be critical. The second hole used to be a tester and it will be again for reasons other than simply of length for it will only measure some 480 yards, still short by modern standards.

The third hole was already stretched for the 2000 Open and remains the same, as does the what follows 'till the ninth, although one can be sure that the seventh will receive attention one day. The ninth is sadly being lengthened again. This hole, like the tenth and twelfth could be reached from the tee and it was always exciting to watch the big lads let rip. The schadenfreude of them coming to grief in consequence also had a reassuring component to it, especially when they three putted or had to drop out of bushes only a few yards from the pin.

It is at the 12th, 13th and 14th tees that the greatest changes are to be seen. The 12th tee also appeared to have no place to go yet some brilliant insight has formed a long narrow shelf tee behind the 11th green, separated from it by a deep gully to catch a ball long off the 11th tee. This new tee will add some fifty yards to the 287-yard hole and although it remains a relatively short par four, the devilishly hidden fairway bunkers that the big lads have driven over in recent times will now re-engage their minds.

The 406 yard 13th hole has some 80 yards added to it by the construction of a tee that nibbles a bit off the third fairway of the Eden Course. This is a very significant change for the Coffins bunkers will be in play again and the angle from the tee will make the player very conscious of the stretch of whins on the right.

The 15th has up to 90 yards added to its 523-yard length, but here again it is the angle off the tee that makes the hole more imposing. To the right, the second hole of the Eden is out-of-bounds and it is tight. To the left, the Beardies bunkers make the landing area of the Elysian Fields narrow. The bunkers are not only deep and penalising but they are also invisible from the tee -- more dangerous in the mind than in the eye of the player. Hell bunker should also engage the mind for the second shot after being ignored for some time.

The 15th and 16th holes were already lengthened to tame the Tiger for the Millennial Open and to some marked effect. Needless to say, the 17th and 18th remain the same, as the have done since the Open was first played here in 1873.

Sad it may be that the old lady has to be interfered with but, as the actress said to the bishop, it is exciting nonetheless.

©    8 - DECEMBER 2003

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