It’s a common occurrence: a golf course is cosmetically and strategically altered in preparation for a major championship.

The problem?

The course in question is The Old Course at St. Andrews, and the modifications—ahead of the 2015 Open Championship—will be the first changes to the “home of golf” in more than 70 years.

Further, the R&A’s simultaneous approval of architect Martin Hawtree’s proposed changes to the course and opposition to putter anchoring is strange, to say the least.

Matt Ginella from Golf Digest and Geoff Shackelford had an interesting back-and-forth on Twitter last week about the proposed modifications to the Old Course.

Ginella, the Senior Travel Editor at Golf Digest, took a “wait-and-see” attitude towards the changes. Additionally, he felt that both the “dramatic resistance” to the course alterations and the advent of the #savetheoldcourse hashtag on Twitter were unwarranted and overly-dramatic.

In the other corner: golf writer Geoff Shackelford, a hardline opponent of changes to the course.

Shackelford called Ginella out, assuming that any changes to the Old Course would be tantamount to butchery. He said the proposed changes are a “travesty” and likened the construction zone to a “crime scene,” on his website.

Shackelford may be acting primarily out of some theoretical opposition to any change to St. Andrews, but his nuanced breakdown of and objection to the changes is spot on. Additionally, Ginella is wrong to suggest that we ought to withhold judgment until the completion of the project because the public details of the specific changes Hawtree seeks to implement prove them to be overwhelmingly unnecessary.

As Golfweek’s Bradley Klein wrote, “I don’t know if these changes are all needed. What I do know is the reasons given for making them are unconvincing and not enough basis for tinkering with sacred ground.”

In judging Hawtree’s master plan for the Fife, Scotland treasure, it’s appropriate to look at what’s being proposed.

From Doug Ferguson’s AP piece:

Three bunkers will be moved closer to the putting surface – two on the second hole, one on the fourth hole. Two bunkers well to the right of the second hole – close to the third tee – will be removed. On the third hole, one fairway bunker will be removed, and one will be added about 275 yards off the tee. Another bunker will be added on the short par-4 ninth hole, about 25 yards short and to the left of the green.

The corners of six greens will be recontoured, which includes lowering the back of the green on the par-3 11th hole. A large depression in the landing area of the seventh fairway will be filled and a slight mound created.

As a variety of people indicate, the most egregious alterations to St. Andrews are those at the exceptional 11th hole and the Road Hole—St. Andrew’s iconic 17th.

The 17th green in front of the Road Bunker will be reshaped, and the bunker itself will be fiddled with. This act alone is comparable to a novice, with chisel in hand, attempting to alter the musculature of Michelangelo’s David.

The 11th green will be reshaped to accommodate a hole location on the left portion of the green. The left side of the green is, apparently, presently too quick in championship play to have such a hole location, according to Dawson. Of course, as a few people have suggested in the Twittersphere, the R&A could set an example and slow the greens down in line with the way they have rolled for the majority of the Old Course’s existence…or even the green speeds of the 1980s.

Of course, all of this was put into motion well before the R&A and USGA’s joint announcement of Rule 14-1b earlier this week.

Regardless, altering the most historic golf course in the world for flimsy reasons while complaining that a minority approach to putting is altering the game and offering little empirical data to support the conclusion seems like attacking tradition and then turning around and using it as a shield.

With the vagaries of Scottish weather in mind, the winning scores of the Open Championships contested at St. Andrew’s since 1984 have been 12-under, 18-under, 6-under, 19-under, 14-under and 16-under. True, recent winners are scoring better than the gents who were swinging persimmons, but there has not been a dramatic change in the past 30 years. Additionally, the R&A does not share the USGA’s belief in the sanctity of par and the scores are not alarming by tour standards.

Even if changes in golf club and ball technology enabled pros to routinely shoot 59s on the Old Course, alterations would have to be considered very, very carefully. As this is not the case (the 2010 Open winner, Louis Oosthuizen shot 65, 67, 69, 71) there is absolutely no need for any changes to the course based on how the pros have played it. Further, the assertion that the game’s best players have been manhandling the masterpiece in recent years is absurd.

As it is, there is no need to change the Old Course in order to make it competitive. With this in mind, I’m reminded of what someone once said regarding cosmetic changes to St. Andrew’s: “It’s a bit like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” said…Peter Dawson, the current head of the R&A in a 2002 Golf World interview.

Apparently, some ten years later, Dawson is ready to draw the mustache.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

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  1. These new changes are obviously a direct result of the massive negative impact the belly putter has had on the game. They have nothing to do with the titanium drivers, graphite shafts, or modern golf balls….