Letter from St. Andrews: Between the Hill and Strath

I’d love to know the name of the moronic medieval shepherd who put  “The Loop” in the middle of the Old Course.

There he was at the easternmost extremity of the linksland, standing atop a dune with a splendid view of the River Eden and the North Sea beyond. Having set forth from the edge of town, he’d plotted a straight and narrow path through the sandhills, fashioning seven fine and testing holes of golf.

At that point, surely every logical bone in his crook-flailing body told him it was time to make an about-face and head home, along the same general trail he’d just blazed.

Ah, and had he only done so, just consider the consequences! Golf would be a 14-hole game—seven holes out, seven in. A round could be completed in closer to three hours than four (or five) and two rounds would be no real strain. Par would be 56, so almost everyone would be able to break 100, millions more of us would break 80, and some of us would experience the visceral thrill of shooting our ages before collecting our social security checks.

Yes, 14 holes would have made so much sense, particularly for the Brits—14 days in a fortnight, 14 pounds in a stone, 14 lines in a sonnet. But no, instead of turning left and heading home, our shambolic sheep herder decided to turn right and tarry a bit, squeezing in a circuit of four more holes. In the process, he blighted the world’s most captivating golf course with three relatively pedestrian holes—a nondescript par three at the eighth followed by a pair of flat, short, and all but featureless par fours.

Ah, but let us also give credit where credit is due. For our good shepherd closed the loop with what is arguably the finest  par three in creation—The High (or Eden) Hole, Number 11.

Don’t take my word for it. Architects C.B. Macdonald and Alister MacKenzie both felt the same way, each of them copying the green/bunker complex repeatedly. (When you watch the Masters this month, take a good look at  hole number four.) Indeed, it’s rather admirable that Mackenzie’s collaborator at Augusta National, Bobby Jones, went along with this homage, considering that it was at hole 11 in the 1921 Open Championship that the 19-year-old Jones suffered what he called “the most inglorious failure of my golfing life” when, after taking four shots to extricate himself from a bunker, he picked up his ball and walked off the green.

Jones may have been the most famous casualty of the High Hole but its list of dogged victims is centuries old and lengthens every day.

Ironically, it is perhaps the most straightforwardly visible target on the course, without the inscrutable humps and hollows that front so many of the Old Course greens. Virtually unchanged in the last two hundred years, it plays from a gently raised tee to a gently raised green. The distance to be covered is less than 170 yards, and everything is in plain view.

But there’s a lot staring back at you, beginning with a pair of bunkers called Hill and Strath. Hill, a massive 12-foot-deep pit at the left-front of the green, is where Jones came to grief. Its name is thought to have been derived from the way its high front brow helps to create the green’s fiercely steep contours. This is a bunker where getting your ball out is only half the battle—getting yourself out can be equally challenging.

The other bunker is named Strath, after Andrew and Davie Strath, a pair of 19th century lads who ran with Young Tom Morris. (Davie had a particularly checkered history with this bunker.) Strath sits at the right-front of the green. It’s not as large or deep as Hill—only about eight feet, but its sod-brick front wall is just as vertical, and it has a knack of engorging any ball that wanders near its perimeter.

Between the two bunkers is a passageway of perhaps twenty yards through which a ball may be skittered to the dance floor. This is part of the genius of the hole. While it rewards the player who can fly the two bunkers with a high, softly landing shot, it also leaves room for the less skilled player to find his way. Greg Norman has made a hole-in-one here, but so has Herb Kohler.

The challenge is to gauge the wind—which can blow up to 50 mph or more from any direction—determine where you want to land the ball (invariably a point that is no where near the hole location), and then choose the club and swing that you think will propel your ball to that point. One day it could be a high fade, the next a knee-high stinger. They say there’s a local fellow, a good player, who has been playing the Old Course for the better part of 50 years and has never attacked the 11th hole with anything but a 3-iron. I guess I can understand that, but personally I’ve used everything from a 9-iron to a driver (and on one whimsical day, I made par by hitting three putts).

Most shots that are pulled or hooked will find Hill bunker, most shots that are pushed or sliced will fall into Strath, or worse yet, the enormous Shell Bunker that guards the seventh hole that shares its green with 11. The bunkers, together with a steep fall-off at the front of the green, tell you to take plenty of club. On the other hand, if your ball trickles even a yard over the green it will tumble 15 feet down a bank and into a hollow. As a result, your ball could be in a downhill lie, a divot, thick grass or all three, and you’ll face a shot that must be hoisted vertically to a putting surface that falls steeply away from you. Rarely does one need an L wedge on the Old Course, but on this hole you may need it three or four times. As Bernard Darwin observed, “trouble once begun at this hole may never come to an end till the card is torn into a thousand fragments.”

This is the most elevated and exposed green on the course. (In fact, during the winter months, it’s occasionally given a rest and everyone plays the hole from a makeshift tee, cut from the rough in back of the tenth green, to a makeshift green in front of the 12th tee.) As such the swooping surface is typically the firmest and fastest on the course. In the words of Robert Trent Jones, “at no other place but St. Andrews would such a slope be countenanced.”

During the Open Championship when the green is running at 10 or so on the Stimpmeter, only two hole locations are available—one in an area smack behind the Strath Bunker (where it is for three of the four days) and the other—even more difficult to find—on a small plateau at the back right of the green where a small pot bunker lurks. The best adventures unfold when the wind howls out of the southwest so that even a well struck shot, upon hitting the green, will bound and roll down the hill to the seventh green, leaving an uphill putt that could be 200 feet or more with 30 or 40 feet of break. In such an instance, three-putting is not a possibility, it’s an achievement. It’s no wonder that this hole, back in the 1870s, saw Old Tom Morris insert the first metal cup to catch and hold the ball.

Last year, in an important annual stroke play event on the Old Course, I birdied the 10th hole to go to one over par. Each of my two playing companions was plus-one as well. When we left the 11th green, we were a collective 14 over, yours truly notching a 7 without ever finding a bunker.

The memory of that performance stung until I read this passage from Alister Mackenzie’s The Spirit of St. Andrews.

“Some year ago a friend of mine was playing in the Amarteur Championship, winning his way into the third round. At the 11th hole, he put his tee shot into Strath bunker on the right whilst his opponent was in the Hill bunker on the left. There was a large crowd following a pair, I think it was Blackwell and Hilton, who were playing the 7th, which crosses the 11th at this point, and the gallery deserted Blackwell and Hilton to see the fun. My friend and his opponent played out of these bunkers and into the Eden beyond the green, and back down the steep slopes into the bunkers again, and after taking 14 strokes were exactly where they started, but their positions were now reversed, as my friend was in the Hill bunker and his opponent in Strath. They finally halved the hole in 17, amidst huge cheers from the crowd.”

Number 11 offers not demands but options. It coaxes and cajoles us, makes us look like poor golfers while asking us to be better golfers, to think clearly and craftily, choose the right shot, and then hit the right shot right. When we manage to do that—when our shot finds its way to the pin—we feel a kind of satisfaction that the mere strike of a ball can never produce. And that’s what makes a golf hole special.