It is a quaint Scottish tradition, the naming of golf holes. At St. Andrews, as elsewhere, the monikers lean toward the poetic and the esoteric, such as the Old Course's Ginger Beer (number 4) and Hole O' Cross (13). The most aptly named hole at the Old Course—and in all of golf—is the 17th: the Road Hole. At last week's British Open this fearsome par-4 was the road to ruin for countless players, the highway to hell for a few and, even for the game's best player, a speed bump on the way to a record victory.
"That hole will drive you crazy," says Robert Karlsson, who was down the road after taking an 8 on the Road Hole last Thursday, one of the 15 dread "others" the hole produced during the week.
What makes the 455-yard Road Hole so brutal? Let us count the ways. Most famous holes are made memorable by one distinctive characteristic—the Church Pews bunker on the 3rd hole at Oakmont, say, or the tiny, elevated green on the 8th hole, the Postage Stamp, at Royal Troon. The Road Hole has three unforgettable booby traps. The first is a blind tee shot that must carry a corner of the adjacent hotel, specifically a shed with the familiar lettering OLD COURSE HOTEL. (Apparently the killjoys at the R&A wouldn't go for a big red bull's-eye.) The fairway at the Road Hole is the most anorexic on the course, framed by knee-high heather on the left and out-of-bounds on the right, but getting safely off the tee is only half the battle. The 17th green is the smallest on the course, protected on the left by a second booby trap, perhaps the worst in golf, the vaunted Road Hole bunker, a small yet cavernous trap with a lip taller than Ian Woosnam. Just off the back of the green is the third, the eponymous roadway, a paved blacktop that is very much in play, as is the rock wall that frames it. Taken together, these hazards are so hazardous that the Road Hole played to an average of 4.707 last week, making it by far the hardest hole on a course fraught with danger.
Though it didn't decide the outcome as it so often has, the Road Hole was still part of the show on Sunday. Tiger Woods made his only bogey of the day there, briefly endangering his tournament scoring record. But it was his playing partner, David Duval, who really got the back of the hairbrush. From 181 yards Duval hooked a five-iron hard against the face of the Road Hole bunker, and he needed four shots to get out. With an abominable snowman he plummeted from a tie for second to 11th place. Asked afterward if the Road Hole is fair, Duval said, "It is what it is. I think it's a waste of our time to talk about it."
Ah, but it is so much fun. The Road Hole began wreaking havoc from the first round, when it had a starring role in the day's most important events. Notah Begay III was seven under par and two strokes in the lead when he took aim from the 17th tee. About 100 yards in front of the tee box are the so-called black sheds, though they are actually a deep green. (The sheds used to house coal for the town's railroad line, which was dismantled in 1969. They now contain the business offices of the hotel.) Virtually every player uses the shed's raised white lettering as an aiming point. "The farther you drive, the more right you have to go into the lettering," says Woods.
"I always aim at the C in COURSE," says David Toms.
"I like the U," says Ernie Els.
"I'll take H, O, T, E or L," says Begay. "I'm not that precise."
So it was on Thursday, when Begay hooked his drive into a horrible lie in the deep rough. For the week the Road Hole's fairway was the road less traveled, as it was hit less than 46% of the time. (By comparison, nine other fairways were hit more than 70% of the time; seven others more than 80%.) With a pitching wedge, Begay tried to punch out back into the fairway—"The hole had me by the tail, and I knew it," he says—but the club turned in the gnarly grass, closing the face and sending his ball even farther to the left. Begay was now in range of the green and, more to the point, the cavernous Road Hole bunker, which he equates with a water hazard, so severe is the penalty for hitting into it.
"I tried to avoid the bunker as much as I could—I kept going left—and in doing so, I ran out of grass." His ill-fated whack, this time with a nine-iron, was misdirected by the heather, and Begay's ball went careening into an actual water hazard, the burn that meanders across the 1st and last fairway, so far to the left it is not even considered in play at 17. The water was shallow enough that Begay's ball was clearly visible, and he stood on the banks agonizing about whether to play out of the burn.