Wednesday's golf: Old Course stands test of time at modern British Open
St. Andrews, Scotland — Tiger Woods is among the few who can appreciate how the Old Course played in the old days.
His first time playing St. Andrews for the British Open as a pro was in 2000, and on his final day of practice, Woods ripped a driver in relatively benign conditions to the front of green on the 352-yard ninth hole.
Then, swing coach Butch Harmon pulled out a replica of the gutta-percha golf ball from more than a century ago. Woods ripped another driver and then a 5-iron just over the back.
Such is the mystique of St. Andrews, particularly the Old Course.
This is the 150th edition of the Open, and it's been 149 years since it was first held at the home of golf. Yes, the course has changed over the years. And yes, the evolution of the game has led to scores getting lower with each generation, just as times have come down on the track and in the pool.
But it's still the Old Course.
“Even with advancements in technology, this golf course still stands the test of time,” Woods said. “It's still very difficult, and it's obviously weather dependent. You get winds like we did today, it's a hell of a test.”
This was on Tuesday, the strongest wind of the week. Woods hit 6-iron for his second shot on the 386-yard 10th hole. He was 120 yards out into the wind. With a different wind, perhaps even no wind, he can still get driver around the green.
Amid so much celebration of history this week at St. Andrews, there are rumblings that the Old Course could be exposed as being obsolete. It already uses parts of three other courses to stretch it out to 7,313 yards. And while it's a par 72 with only two par 5s, at least four of the par 4s might be reachable off the tee considering how crusty the links is this year.
And the fearsome wind, which along with the bunkers is the great defense of the Old Course, is forecast to be a little more than a wee breeze.
Rory McIlroy still rues a 3-foot birdie putt he missed on the 17th hole in the opening round in 2010. He had to settle for a 63. And then the wind arrived, and he shot 80.
Jordan Spieth, who missed the playoff by one shot in 2015 in his St. Andrews debut, raised concerns last week when he said the British Open could be little more than a “wedge contest” if the wind goes on holiday.
The reason it stands up to the modern game? “Because of the weather,” he said. But then he quickly added, “I don't think it stands the test of time if it's benign.”
He thought back to the last time, in 2015, when Zach Johnson won the three-man playoff after they finished at 15-under par. That was a Monday finish because of wind delays.
“If the conditions are calm for four days — which I don't think happens over here — I think that with today's technology, it becomes a shootout.”
It's not all about power. Spieth says wind or not, there are certain spots to which players can hit because of subtle turns, pot bunkers, even a few gorse bushes depending on the line. Getting there is easier without wind. The next shot is easier. Scores get lower.
But then there's Scottie Scheffler, who is contemplating hitting left toward the sixth fairway when he's playing the 13th just to avoid the bunkers.
The No. 1 player in the world can join some elite company. Winning at Augusta National and St. Andrews is special. The list includes Woods and Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros, and most recently Johnson.
Scheffler is spending more time on the course than on the range, discovering countless options on how to play shots. From 30 yards or so off the green, he has used just about everything from a putter to a 6-iron. He already has experienced how differently the course has played with normal wind by Scottish standards — 5-iron, wedge into the first hole one day, 3-iron, 5-iron another day.
“When you get a little bit of wind, all bets are off,” he said.
In some respects, St. Andrews is like Pebble Beach. On a calm day, it can be a most enjoyable walk and as easy a course as players will find in a major championship. In the wind, it can be a holy terror. Nicklaus and Woods are the only players to have won majors on both.
“To believe the game of golf essentially started here, and it just absolutely is mind-boggling to me that it still stands up to the golfers of today,” Nicklaus said. “I tell you, if you get a little bit of weather — anytime you get it — it will tell you real fast how it makes you stand up to it.”
And without wind?
The record score in a major is 62 by Branden Grace at Royal Birkdale in 2017.
Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief, isn't the least bit worried about scoring. He cares only about getting the Old Course as perfect as possible, and it's close to that. The links are so firm and bouncy that the ball moves faster on the fairways than on the greens.
“The second bit is luck, and luck with Mother Nature,” he said.
Even with moderate wind, he is confident the Old Course can handle the best. He wasn't bothered when someone raised the notion of a 59, which is 13-under par.
“There's 7,300 yards. It's got greens that are running at 10 1/2 to 11 (on the Stimpmeter). It's got fairways where the ball is bouncing 50 yards if it’s hit and more if it catches the downslope. I'll tell you what, if someone shoots that, I will be the first person on the 18th green to shake their hand because they have played outstanding golf.”