John Huggan talks to the R&A's Peter Dawson about the art of making the Road hole relevant again.
What's really nice is that he admits in his own inimitable way that choking the strategy out of the hole with rough is (A) antithetical to what St. Andrews is about, and (B) was a response to the hole having become too short in today's game.
"Here at St Andrews we have a lot of knowledge about how professional golfers play the Old Course," explains Dawson. "The Open is here every five years and the Dunhill Links Championship visits on an annual basis. Over time, we have seen the leading players get to where they want to be off the 17th tee using less than a driver. Then they are hitting their second shots with a much more lofted club than, say, Tom Watson did in 1984, when he found the road with a 2-iron in the last round of the Open.
And then they found the gymnasium...
"The bottom line is that very few people are going through the green on to the road. So what we are trying to do is get players hitting driver and/or much longer second shots.
So I guess he's not banking on that big backdoor rollback the groove rule change is supposed to produce?
If we do either or both, the road will be much more in play than it has been in the recent past."
And here's where he admits they are rigging fairway contours and have been. Not that anyone could look at photos and think it was the work of Mother Nature. It's just nice to have the confirmation...
"We haven't messed with the angle of the tee-shot. We are easing the fairway back on the left, a little bit. It had crept to the right because of the less-challenging tee-shot."
And why did the tee shot become less challenging? And who did the creeping in?
Huggan than suggests that opening up the left side of the hole might tempt players to bail out more. Given a decent lie, they're likely to take unwise cracks at the green instead of laying up out of rough as they do now.
"I know of only one person who remembers a time when there was no rough on the left," counters Dawson. "And he is very old. But these days the length of the rough varies year to year; we don't do anything to it.
They don't do anything to the rough? Wait, didn't he just say they let it creep in because they decided to not curb distance gains? And this on opening up the left:
I do agree that taking it out completely would make the hole more traditional St Andrews – bail out left, tough shot up the right. And it is the most challenging drive on the course.
"We did talk about eliminating the rough, but it won't happen this year.
And why not?
We couldn't get the fairway into the right condition in time. You have to talk about these things at least three years in advance. Besides, post-war at least, the norm has been for rough to be in play up the left side."
I think that's a challenge for some of us to get out the old photos, no?
Here's a current Google shot. Love that left-hand line. It just exudes naturalness.