George Peper on the St. Andrews Old Course Changes

So the R&A and the St. Andrews Links Trust have made a few changes to the Old Course. They’ve made these changes largely out of fear.

The R&A is locked in an ongoing competition with the USGA, PGA of America, and Augusta National Golf Club. None of them wants to be the one to stage the dullest event or produce the least illustrious champion or offer the lowest purse, and just as certainly none of them wants to be the first to yield a score of 62 or lower in a major championship.

The fear is that such a score on the Old Course would be an embarrassment, a blight on the championship and its organizers, a catastrophe that would make the Open less worthy, less captivating, and dare I suggest, less commercially profitable.

Well, such a running-scared attitude may be appropriate for the other three major-stagers but it doesn’t apply when the Open is played at St. Andrews. In the Old Course the R&A has something the other three do not—an original—the true and sacred crucible of the game. As such, it should not be bastardized, it should be celebrated.

Imagine for a moment that none of these changes were made to the Old Course—imagine in fact that the holes that have been lengthened for the past two Opens at St. Andrews were restored to their original distances, so the course played at something close to the length it was one hundred years ago. What would happen when the Open returns in 2015? Assuming decent weather, there would be numerous scores in the low 60s—likely a few in the 50s—and the winning total would be somewhere around 30 under par.

That wouldn’t be a catastrophe, it would be an unmitigated triumph, and as confident as I am that the R&A would never make this happen, I’m equally sure it would be the birth of an event unlike anything else in the game. The quintennial OCOC (Old Course Open Championship) would become the game’s Olympics, the most eagerly anticipated event on the international calendar. On this one occasion we could blissfully ignore the record book and let the low scores fly as a valid reflection of the advancements in equipment, agronomy, and player fitness, all brought to bear on the same course that Old Tom Morris played. The best player would still win, but the game of golf would score a major victory of its own.

The R&A and Links Trust have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of in the Old Course. They have a treasure that should be preserved, protected, and shared with the world, and the best way to do that is to leave it alone.

George Peper is a longtime R&A member.