With the British Open at St. Andrews kicking off on Thursday, many golfers around the world will be dreaming of playing the Old Course one day. For when you get that chance, like I did in 2009, here are a few handy tips on playing the Road Hole:
1. The more experience you have, the better
Course knowledge is important on every hole at St. Andrews. Part of its charm is discovering a new angle or playing a different kind of shot each time you play the course. Navigating the 112 bunkers and innumerable humps comes with the experience of several rounds (lack of course experience being the reason I think Jordan Spieth will not win this week...his "simulator rounds" not withstanding). But the 17th hole can be particularly penal to first-time players.
If you have the luxury of a practice round, it helps a great deal if you can hit several drives from the different tee boxes, preferably in different winds. Missing the fairway to the left is common given the imposing Old Course Hotel just right of your target line, so one will want to practice the layup shot from the left rough.
Then you have Road Hole Bunker shots (a 64 degree wedge comes in handy, even on a links golf course). Oh, and how about actual road shots? Literally- the road for which the hole is named is not out of bounds! The wall behind the road defines the OB.
The more you play the hole, the more confident you’ll be every step of the way.
2. You need a very specific target for your drive
The 17th fairway is quite narrow, especially for a hole at St. Andrews. Like the 7 double greens that serve 14 holes, most holes’ fairways extend seamlessly into the adjacent hole’s fairway running the other way. In effect, you typically have forgiveness to the left on these “double fairway” holes.
Not on 17. Besides being narrow, the fairway is effectively even more narrow as it is angled about 25° to the right. If the wind permits, a slight fade (for right-handed players) off the tee is ideal.
Of course, there’s no room to miss the fairway right. The Hotel’s property line, which is OB, hugs the fairway along the entirety of the landing area. And missing the fairway left means thick rough and a bad angle to the green.
To summarize: thin, angled fairway, can’t see the landing area, OB right, hitting over a shed, then add in the wind...this tee shot is really tough, and obviously crucial to success on the hole. Having a very specific target line is essential to pulling off the shot.
3. The Sunday pin is extremely intimidating
Visually, from the fairway, the back-left pin looks like it's sprung out of the middle of the bunker itself. And actually playing the ball to that hole location is every bit as difficult as it looks.
Forget attacking at the pin. It’s too hard to stop the ball on that part of the green with the downslope hump coming off the bunker. Even if you could in soft conditions, it isn’t worth risking entry into the infamous Road Hole Bunker. It’s a near-impossible up and down- you would do well just to get the ball out in 1 shot.
That leaves you 2 options. Go right or go left. Right, you can get on the green and try your hand at 2-putting for par, but you risk running through the green onto or beyond the Road behind.
The unconventional, yet wiser choice, in my view, is to play left of the bunker. There’s no green there, but the risk of bounding across the road is less. You can still putt if you’re close enough. Even if you’re chipping, you’re on pretty flat terrain all the way to the hole.
4. Bogey is not a bad score
With all the wacky obstacles in your way and rookie mental mistakes to be made, you see that bogey is not a bad score!
Don’t be surprised to see the scoring average for the week closer to bogey 5 than to par 4. In 2010, it was 4.7 with only 16 birdies for the whole week.
The 17th at St. Andrews is a bear of a golf hole, and juxtaposes beautifully against the short, roughless, hazardless, massive-fariway 18th, where birdie and even eagle are in play.
5. Whatever you do, you’ll have a story to tell
When you go to the pub in town for a few pints that evening, and when you get together with your golf buddies back home, you’ll have a glorious story to tell about your round at St. Andrews’ Old Course, and about the 17th in particular.
Maybe you’ll be able to tell how your legs were shaking before you piped your drive down the fairway. Maybe you’ll tell how your ball got royally swallowed by the wind and clunked against the triple-paned windows of the Old Course Hotel (that's my story and I love it).
Or maybe it will be how you putted from the road and almost holed it for birdie. Maybe it will be about how your 3rd attempt from the Road Hole Bunker went well.
Playing the Road Hole is an experience you’ll never forget. On the contrary, whatever the tale is, you will probably find room to embellish it just a little bit.