Letter from St. Andrews: Pretenders to the Throne

An air of breathless anticipation surrounds the advent of this year’s major championships because of their four glittering sites. Joining Augusta National are Pebble Beach, The Old Course at St. Andrews, and Whistling Straits.

Well, forgive me but I feel compelled to splash a bit of cold water. Chalk it up to the fact that as I write this I’m staring straight at the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club on a clear brisk winter morning as dozens of intrepid locals happily ply their way down the first fairway of the Old Course. In any case it seems to me that this year’s four major venues fall into two camps: an original and three wannabes. What the sites of the 2010 Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship have in common is that they all wish they were links courses.

Bobby Jones loved the fast-running seaside fairways of Great Britain where, in winning championships, he was asked to make full use of his good mind as well as his physical talent—and he had particular affection for St. Andrews.  “The more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it,” he said, “and the more I loved it, the more I studied it, so that I came to feel that it was for me the most favorable meeting ground possible for an important contest.”

Jones wanted to imbue his own dream course with the look and feel of St. Andrews. So why did this intelligent young man—with degrees in English, engineering, and law—allow Wall Street tycoon Clifford Roberts to talk him into building that course on a vertiginously sloped horticultural nursery embedded in 365 acres of gooey Georgia clay?

From the beginning, he had no chance of making Augusta National even a faux links.

But try he did, enlisting as his architect Alister Mackenzie, a Scot whose reverence for the Old Course was just as deep as his own. Together they created a course with wide fairways, big greens and little rough, with an aim of giving pleasure to the greatest possible number of players. Mackenzie didn’t live to see his masterpiece completed but before his death he wrote a detailed guide on how to play it in which he made continual references to holes at St. Andrews—the original design of the 4th hole at Augusta was patterned after the 11th on the Old Course, the 5th was adapted from the 17th, the 7th from the 18th, the 14th from the 6th, and the 17th from the 14th.

Today, after dozens of changes and tweaks to the course, those kinships are barely recognizable. Augusta National, despite the best intentions of its founder and architect, couldn’t be less like the Old Course, its gargantuan length, heavily watered fairways and bunker barricaded greens the very antithesis of links golf.

At least Augusta never tried to call itself a links, as the Pebble Beach Golf Links does. Whoever bestowed that name deserves to be shot. Despite its idyllic location beside the Pacific, Pebble is not a links, it’s a clifftop course. Other such pretenders include Old Head in Ireland, Nefyn & District in Wales, Wimereux in France, and the Castle Course in St. Andrews. At all of them, the views are splendid—better than at most links courses—but the turf is not.

The firm and fast conditions of links golf depend on quick-draining soil, i.e. soil rich in sand that has been swept up from the beach. When a course is perched on a cliff, no amount of wind can vertically transport enough sand to do the job. In wet conditions, Pebble Beach becomes one of the soggiest courses in the world, its fairways sponges and its tiny greens rippled with footprints. I can attest to this from 10 years of sodden struggle in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. One year things got so wet the tournament was cancelled without a round being played. By contrast, the Old Course can absorb several inches of rain, and the next morning play proceeds as if nothing happened.

If there is a man who knows about drainage, it is bathroom fixture magnate Herb Kohler. As the owner of the Old Course Hotel and recent purchaser of Hamilton Hall (the iconic red sandstone building that sits behind the 18th green of the Old Course), he has also been well exposed to links golf. Kohler also owns a golf course in St Andrews—the Duke’s Course—but ironically that is a heathland-style layout rather than a links. No, his links—or links attempt—is in the middle of Wisconsin, 700 miles from the nearest sea.

Whistling Straits is the work of Pete Dye, who studied the great links courses as a young man and then spent a career adopting and adapting what he liked about them—everything from blind shots to pot bunkers reinforced by wooden planks—first in a restrained, understated way, then ever more boldy.

The property he had to work with was a mixed blessing—ideally located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan (a sort of landlocked ocean), but as a former airstrip, the site was topographically dull.

Dye moved 800,000 cubic yards of soil and sand, imported several strains of the fescue and bentgrass that thrive in Scotland, and dropped bunkers in everywhere—even (in the manner of the Old Course) where they don’t come into play. His enormous greens, which average more than 9,000 square feet, also pay homage to the Old Course. Trouble is, half of them don’t allow for a low-running approach. Several holes call for forced or near-forced carries and the 500-yard 18th, named Dyeabolical, involves two of them—one off the tee.

There are other jarring touches. The 598-yard 5th hole is a double dogleg that snakes between two ponds—that’s the same total number of ponds I’ve seen on all the hundred-plus other links courses I’ve played. All of this would have been forgivable had Kohler not imported from central casting a herd of three dozen black-faced sheep. That was just a bit desperate.

Don’t get me wrong—I have great respect and affection for all three of these courses. Indeed, I could think of nothing sweeter than doing what the world’s best players will do this year—spending a week hanging out and playing golf at each of Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and Whistling Straits.

But then I’d need to come back here for the real thing.