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Road Test
Rick Reilly
July 24, 1995
The author finds out firsthand why the Road Hole at St. Andrews, site of this week's British Open, is the world's hardest par-4
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July 24, 1995

Road Test

The author finds out firsthand why the Road Hole at St. Andrews, site of this week's British Open, is the world's hardest par-4

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You asleep, pal? Not me. I can never sleep on these dang 12-hour flights. Couldn't sleep anyway, I'm so excited.

I can tell by the way you've tilted your seat back and pulled the blanket over your head that you're in the mood to hear a good story. And, boy, have I got a beaut!

Have you ever played the Road Hole? It's not much, really, only the hardest, orneriest, confoundingest, quirkiest, most discombobulating, unparrable golf hole in the world. It doesn't have much history, except that every time the British Open comes to the Old Course at St. Andrews, like this week, it decides the winner. Did you know Tom Watson is buried there? Seve Ballesteros was practically invented on it. Arnold Palmer once said he should have played it "in an ambulance." There's nothing very interesting about it, except that you must negotiate one railway shed, one hotel, one road, one wall, a few donkeys and the Leona Helmsley of bunkers—old, mean and impossible to escape.

Do you realize people were making 6s on this hole before the piano was invented? In fact, the world's best golfers have gone there every year for the last 10 to play the Dunhill Cup, and in all those 10 years, playing round after round, the Road Hole has been witness to a total of 28 birdies. Oh, and 486 bogeys, 90 double bogeys, 21 triple bogeys, two quadruple bogeys, two quintuple bogeys, two sextuple bogeys, a few thousand cases of acid indigestion and about 14 divorced six-irons.

Ben Crenshaw once said, "The reason the Road Hole is the hardest par-4 in the world is because it's a par-5." My good friend Two Down O'Connor, the world's most avid golf gambler, thought it really was a was par-5, and when I told him, No, it was a 4, he said, "O.K., I bet you can't spend a week in St. Andrews and make one single par on it; loser has to walk into McDonald's wearing a kilt and order a Happy Meal."

And so I booked the bet and a flight and a room at the Old Course Hotel, overlooking all 461 yards of the 17th, from its tiny tee box to its long, skinny green, no wider than the deck of a sailboat and twice as likely to make you seasick. In contention during the third round of the 1978 British Open, Tommy Nakajima knocked his second shot on that green, putted off it and into that nasty Road Bunker, left it in the bunker three times, got it out on the fourth and two-putted for his 9. Now that bunker is known as the Sands of Nakajima.

A bellhop told me when I checked in Thursday night that Open fans love fairway-side rooms like mine because they can watch a man hit his tee shot on the telly, then rush to the window and have the ball whiz by their very noses. But if I were a player, I would draw the blinds. Getting a room overlooking the Road Hole is like getting one overlooking your favorite Mafia-hit restaurant. Most of what you see is historically significant but very ugly.

Five-time British Open champion J.H. Taylor made a 13 there one Open and blew his chance to win. David Ayton came there on the final round of the 1885 Open with a five-shot lead and made an 11. He lost by two. Years later his son made a 15 there in a monthly medal. Definitely not an Ayton family favorite.

When the Scottish sun came bounding up at 4:30 Friday morning and I got my first real look at the Road Hole, I really saw no problems. All you have to do is cold-bust a drive over the hotel—actually, the hotel's storage shed, built to look exactly like the original coal sheds that were torn down in the early '60s. Hit it about 250 yards, usually into the wind to a blind fairway, so that you'll have about a five-iron into the green. Of course, you would be a sap to take the ball right at the green, because it runs diagonally away from you, right to left, sort of like a tilted driveway painted green, and the flag is almost always hidden behind the bunker on the left, which works like a cushion in your couch: It'll suck up anything anywhere near it. You don't want to be long, because the back of the green runs down a weedy four-foot bank onto a paved road that people and tourists and dogs walk on and that you must play off—no free drops. Beyond the road is an old stone wall and beyond that is O.B. You usually can find some mules grazing there, when they're not giving kids rides on the beach during the summer. You'd know this beach. It's the one where Chariots of Fire was filmed.

Anyway, I calculated I would have four chances at a 4 during the week, figuring for jet leg and the fact that the course is closed on Sunday and that I had exactly zero tee times set up. Four days to make one 4. Could it be that hard?

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