Can the Old Course withstand a new breed of golfer?

The Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland. (Photo by David Cannon/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)

Whenever one engages in the distance debate in golf, the fate of the Old Course at St Andrews is soon brought up as a point of concern. 

Between advancements in technology, both in terms of club and ball innovation, and a scientific focus on strength and conditioning in athletes, the sport has seen ever-increasing swing speeds leading to unparalleled hitting distances as traditional course designs continue to get stretched to their limits in order to keep up with the modern player. 

However, for all its dragged into this conversation, St Andrews remains a proper test for the elite pro, and one that hasn’t altered as much as you might think to keep up with the new breed of golfer. 

Between 1955 and 1995, the Old Course hosted nine Opens and played within 15-yards of 6,936 yards for each renewal.  

At the turn of the Millennium, the Old Course was stretched beyond 7,000 yards for the very first time, measuring 7,115 yards for the 129th Open, and since then, the course has played at 7,297 yards for the 2015 tournament.  

That’s a 350-odd yard swing over the course of the last 70 or so years. The problem, however, is should hitting distances continue to increase, the Old Course has little room for further manoeuvre. 

Of all the Open courses,” renowned architect Martin Ebert warns, “the Old Course is the one where almost all possibilities have been exhausted when it comes to finding extra yards. It’s definitely the most vulnerable.” 

Given the history of the Home of Golf, it’s unfathomable to consider that one of golf’s most iconic venues could become unfit to host the game’s oldest Major championship. What’s more, it would mean losing one of the great designs to a game that’s arguably lost the run of itself in allowing technological advancements to evolve beyond the venues once worshipped by the bastions of the sport. 

“There’s more to be learned here at St Andrews about course design than anywhere,” says 18-time Major winner Jack Nicklaus.  

“Collection bunkers, false fronts, bump shots. The fundamentals of design became fundamental because of what’s here. And it happened accidentally. Or maybe accidentally on purpose.” 

Colin Montgomerie fears for the Old Course:

“Can you imagine what will happen if the weather is good and there’s little wind? It hardly bears thinking about. Bryson will stand up there and think six or seven holes on the course are driveable. The par-five fifth hole will be a joke, with a flick of a wedge for Bryson’s second shot. As for the par-four 18th, remember all the excitement back in the day when Jack Nicklaus became the first man to drive the green? They were hitting it with 3-woods back when I finished second to Tiger in 2005 and this year they will be hitting it with irons. That would be really sad if that happens but that’s the way I see it heading.” 

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