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Bunker worship comes through in Old Course British Open makeover

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

It is the most famous bunker in the world, as much an institution in Scotland as the queen and much more universally adored. (No one's taking public opinion polls on whether the bunker is still relevant or necessary in today's age.) It is protected with even more fervor than the redwood trees. (The treehuggers are tame compared to some of these bunker buddies that came out a few years ago.)

Say hello to the Road Hole Bunker.

The bunker off the 17th green at the Old Course at St. Andrews has played a starring role in British Open lore. No one can forget the image of David Duval's futile flaying in the sand for four straight shots in the 2000 Open, least of all Duval. This is the kind of bunker that attracts groupies, grown men just dying to make their own sand sprays.

Most golf visitors to the Old Course intentionally send a ball into the Road Hole Bunker if they haven't had the misfortune of landing there during their regular course of play. It seems no one wants to leave the Old Course without a story about trying to escape the Road Hole Bunker's clutches.

"To not play out of the bunker would be akin to going to Disney World without taking the It's A Small World ride, I suppose," longtime St. Andrews devotee Leonard Seabright said.

With all the emotional attachments to the Road Hole Bunker (some sane, some Disney), it is easy to see why any change to it is regarded as suspiciously as a proposed Sistine Chapel ceiling makeover. (Sure Michelangelo had some good ideas, but I've got some thoughts on...)

Nevertheless, the St. Andrews Links Trust has greenlighted another Road Hole Bunker revamp. It is just part of the overall plan to toughen up the 600-year-old course for its 27th British Open this July. Of course, it is the part that is sure to draw the most reaction.

When the bunker underwent a makeover a few years ago, after the complaints of the pros at the 2000 British Open, it caused a controversy heard from sea to shinning sea. David Malcolm, an influential former captain of the New Club at St. Andrews, called it "a tragedy." The Guardian newspaper wrote editorial after editorial blasting the bunker's shrinkage. TravelGolf.com weighed in by declaring that the Royal Links Golf Club in Las Vegas was the only place in the world where you could now experience the Road Hole Bunker as it was meant to be.

Within months, the bunker was restored to its pre-makeover state. The Guardian triumphantly hailed the prevention of the "emasculation." You don't want to mess with this bunker's buddies.

Now, the bulldozers are out at the Old Course again. Only this time, the Road Hole Bunker renovation is largely controversy free. This time, the St. Andrews Links Trust, which oversees the Old Course, and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the governing body for golf in Great Britain, held golf's version of the Middle East peace talks on the proposed makeovers. This time, everyone agreed that the Road Hole Bunker in particular and the Old Course in general needed to given even more teeth. So the Road Hole Bunker is being extended even farther to the west and given a more oval shape so that it will catch even more golf balls when Vijay Sing and Tiger Woods tee it up. The key point for the bunker's guardians is that there will no changes in the height or depth of the trap. In other words, it still will be very capable of swallowing up a man and his Claret Jug dreams. All this focus on the Road Hole Bunker amuses some of the men who run the Old Course. After all, this bunker revamp is only part of an extensive British Open tuneup.

"We rebuild most of the Old Course bunkers before an Open Championship as a matter of routine," said Gordon Moir, the St. Andrews Links Trust superintendent.

The 2005 British Open rebuild includes work on about 90 bunkers and the lengthening of six holes. Approximately 160 yards will be added bringing the yardage total to 7,275. The most devilish tweak may not involve the Road Hole Bunker at all. The par-5 No. 14, already simply dubbed "Long" by Old Course regulars for its 581 yard length, is being lengthened by 35 yards. Doing this, not only makes the Old Course's No. 14 the longest hole on any course in the British Open rotation, it restores the Hell Bunker to a more prominent role.

The Hell Bunker is a 10-foot-deep crater in the middle of the 14th fairway. It's scared golfers for generations. But the recent technology and weight training advances allowed the longest of the PGA's long hitters to simply drive by Hell when the British Open was last held at the Old Course in 2000. Now, the extra distance brings the Hell Bunker back into play for almost everyone on their second shot.

The revamp is already underway. The bulldozers broke ground on Oct. 11 and the Road Hole Bunker is closed for play until the spring. All around the Old Course, signs of the British Open -- still almost eight months way -- are sketched in determined groundskeepers' faces. The news of the toughening up renovation of an old beauty is turning the Old Course into an even tougher greens ticket for the '05 season. "The Old Course is even more demand and it's always in demand," said Mitch Healy of Scotland-Ireland Golf Tours, a packaging service. "Golfers want to get a chance to play it with the changes the pros are going to be facing. That way, they can go back home, watch the British Open and tell their friends, 'I landed in that bunker too.' It's a fun thing."

It is a very serious thing in St. Andrews.

More than a dozen bunkers have been named on the Old Course and almost all of the 112 bunkers are regarded with reverence.

When the Old Course Greens Committee decided to fill in a small bunker on the 15th hole in 1869, it created a town-wide uproar. Three nights later, one of the locals, AG Sutherland, took matters into his own hands, coming out late at night to dig the bunker up again. No one's threatened the little Sutherland bunker since. "We take our obsessions very seriously," Seabright said.

You suppose?

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • st. andrews bunkers

    bernard danis wrote on: Jul 14, 2010

    i understand their is bunkers on the old course that was caused by bombs in the second would war if yes are they still their and witch holes and how many


  • St Andrews Links Old Course - Sutherland

    Peter Mason wrote on: Jan 5, 2005

    Just as a matter of historical accuracy, the bunker named Sutherland on the 15th hole which had been filled in by the Green Committee, was not restored by Mr A G Sutherland but by some fellows who were staying the night at the nearby Strathtyrum House and who had enjoyed a rather good dinner. They had been discussing the peppery Mr Sutherland and his obsession with the bunker and decided to restore it and then put a sign on it with the single word 'Sutherland'. The name has stuck to this day.


      • RE: St Andrews Links Old Course - Sutherland

        matthew call wrote on: Aug 28, 2007

        I was wondering if their was a specific company that did the rebuild on the old course. thanks for your time.
        Matthew Call