Golf’s best match-play venue is the Old Course at St. Andrews
In its six centuries, the Old Course at St. Andrews has played host to every golf immortal, save Ben Hogan, and has entertained every important tournament possible, except one—the Ryder Cup. The omission of St. Andrews from the roster of Ryder Cup Match venues borders on the unpardonable, if for this reason only: It is the finest match-play course in the world.
The ideal match-play courses yield maximum risk/reward opportunities. Such courses illuminate decision-making, the benefits of proper judgment and execution, and the severity of the punishment for careless thinking or poor shots. If both eagles and double bogies are realistic possibilities on nearly every hole, you have a superb match-play test.
The Old Course doesn’t have a bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare Cape hole, nor does it have any double-dogleg par fives with water a threat on every shot. What it does have is 18 consecutive puzzles to be solved, each with either alternate routes, vexing tactical choices, or both. It also serves up ever-shifting wind and a collection of ingeniously scattered bunkers that range from benign to brutal, depending on what that wind decides to do.
“I heard people say that you can drive 9 with a certain wind, you can drive 10, you can drive 12,” recalled Tiger Woods in 2015. “I can’t touch any of these holes, what are they talking about? Then the wind switches and it’s a totally different golf course. Then you’d go, ‘What are these bunkers here for? They’re not even close to being in play.’ The wind switches, and, oh my God, they are (in play). That’s the genius of this place.”
Almost every par four on the Old Course is drivable, even the Road Hole 17th, though perhaps only for the Bryson brigade. But how many players would even try? Those nasty bunkers with the funny names, out-of-bounds right, stone walls, and a plethora of thorny shrubs await the greedy and the foolhardy. But this is match play: Making a 7 will cost only one hole.
The 495-yard Road Hole might be the greatest match-play hole in golf, challenged only by its siblings, the 11th and the 14th. The perils of 17 are well documented. Avoid a hotel on the drive, steer clear of a frighteningly deep bunker short-left of the green and a road back-right—every shot terrifying. “At the short 11th,” as the book True Links memorably puts it, “the Strath bunker eats into the front of the green with a hypnotic malevolence.” It’s balanced on the left by the deep, treacherous Hill bunker.
To get close to a hole cut near either sand pit requires sheer bravura. Alister MacKenzie identified four legitimate routes to the green at the 614-yard par-five 14th hole and his design partner, Robert Hunter, witnessed Bobby Jones establish a fifth option. Nearly 100 years later, every path remains viable.
The Old Course is the ultimate matchplay layout. The Ryder Cup is the highest profile match-play event in the sport. They deserve each other at least once.
Three more match-play marvels
One new course that could challenge the Old Course for match-play magic is the aptly named Ohoopee Match Club. Located in rural Georgia some 75 miles west of Savannah, this 2018 Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner creation was designed specifically for match play. Vast, firm fairways, boldly contoured green complexes, artfully sculpted bunkers of all sizes, and no fewer than six half-par holes (3.5, 4.5, 5.5 on the scorecard) infuse Ohoopee with endless risk/reward opportunities.
At least a dozen great Pete Dye designs qualify as outstanding match-play spreads, yet Austin Country Club, the WGC-Dell Match Play site, stands out. A remarkable variety of holes—many menaced by obvious hazards and small, sectionalized greens—demands clear thinking and courageous shotmaking, especially at the reachable 12th, 13th, and 18th, a par five and two par fours.
Anyone who witnessed the drama at the 2020 U.S. Amateur saw two winners crowned: Tyler Strafaci as champion and the Bandon Dunes course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort as a superior match-play venue. David McLay Kidd’s design is replete with option-laden tests, including the drivable par-four 16th, bisected by a diagonal ridge. Seaside winds and firm, wild contours further complicate the risk/reward calculations.