When the 144th Open Championship kicks off on the Old Course at St. Andrews on July 16, an “old and new” theme will prevail. The oldest championship, dating back to 1860, will be contested – for the 29th time — on the oldest links in the world, where Scots have been slashing balls through dunes and tall fescue grass for over 500 years. Legends Tom Watson and Sir Nick Faldo, who collectively have won eight Claret Jugs, will be playing their final Opens and posing for the obligatory photos on the 700-year old Swilcan Bridge.
As for the new, the stodgy Royal and Ancient Golf Club grudgingly admitted that social norms have changed a bit since it was founded in 1754, and this year admitted its first female members. And Jordan Spieth, the 21-year old phenomenon, will arrive in St. Andrews as the first player since Tiger Woods in 2002 to have won the first two majors, giving him a shot at an unprecedented feat: the modern Grand Slam.
There will no doubt be thousands of teary eyes when Watson takes his last stroll over the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole. In 2009, at the age of 59, he came up one bad bounce short of winning his sixth Open title, which would have tied him with the immortal Harry Vardon. Watson embraced links golf, and is much loved among the Scots. Surprisingly, he never won the Open at St. Andrews. At age 65, he still has plenty of game.
Whoever is crowned the “Champion Golfer of the Year” Sunday will have successfully navigated around numerous pot bunkers, such as the 10-foot deep Hell Bunker on the 14th hole, the Coffin Bunkers on the 13th hole, and the Road Hole Bunker on the 17th hole. Sometimes the only option in these bunkers is to play out backwards.
A unique feature of the Old Course is double greens: seven greens are shared by two holes. Some of the greens are immense; the green on the 568-yard 5th hole is 92 yards deep. A number of the greens are fronted by deceptive ridges and swales.
Wind is a factor on any links course, and conditions can change drastically from morning to afternoon. The 174-yard 11th hole can require anything from a 9-iron to a 3-iron. Some of the par-4 holes will be reachable depending on the wind, including the 352-yard 9th hole and the 348-yard 12th hole
The 465-yard 13th hole, with its Coffin Bunkers, begins a brutal stretch of holes. The 618-yard 14th hole, where players have to avoid an out-of-bounds wall on the right and contend with the Hell Bunker on their second shot, is a three-shot hole into the wind.
But the signature hole of the Old Course is the Road Hole, which many consider to be the toughest par-4 in championship golf. The tee shot on this penultimate 495-yard hole is blind, traditionally played over the roof line of the Old Course Hotel. Players must avoid the Road Hole Bunker on the left, while long shots will find the road behind the green. The road and the stone wall along it are integral parts of the course, affording no relief.
We’ll see how well young Jordan Spieth fares in his first Open on the Old Course. If he hoists the Claret Jug on Sunday, he will be one leg away from the Grand Slam. But right now all he’s thinking about is how to avoid the Hell Bunker.