The Postage Stamp
When asked by the BBC to select their favourite Championship hole, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson – each of them winners of the Claret Jug - plumped for the 8th at Royal Troon, the iconic Postage Stamp.
At just 123 yards long it is the shortest hole in Championship golf and yet it has the potential to be the most brutal. Depending on the wind, competitors may play as much as a punched five-iron to the green or as little as a gentle sand wedge.
The tee shot is played from an elevated position, over a gully to a tiny green (hence, the postage stamp moniker bestowed upon the hole by Willie Park Jnr) set into the side of a sandhill. Not only is the putting surface difficult to hit, it is difficult to hold. Five deep, some would say malignant, bunkers surround the green, one of which is disconcertingly known as The Coffin. It is, not surprisingly, a hole where many a good round has come to grief.
As much a mental test as a physical one, no player can fully relax until he has passed through the 8th, hopefully with his card intact. This year, television viewers will see Troon’s signature hole as never before, with a wire camera running its full length. Not only that, but there will be cameras in each of the five bunkers surrounding the green.
“I think precision is sometimes lost in today’s architecture,” Mickelson said. “The favourite holes that guys play are short par threes or driveable par fours and that (Royal Troon’s 8th) is the coolest par three that we play.”
Clarke, this year’s European Ryder Cup captain and a winner of The Open at Royal St George’s in 2011, said: “It’s such a short hole and yet it plays (as) one of the most difficult holes in Open golf. It would be easy to choose ‘The Road Hole’ (the 17th at St Andrews) … but the Postage Stamp is just fantastic.”
And for Els, one of the long hitters on tour, the attraction is in the unique challenge such a short hole poses. “I made a one there in the 2004 Open,” he said. “It’s just a beauty.”
Perhaps the hole is best summed up by Paul McGinley, one of the game’s deepest thinkers. “It’s not about length, it’s about control and, depending on the wind, it can vary,” the Irishman said. “So much of the game has moved away from control and towards overpowering the golf course. There’s too much of that going on. I keep reverting back to the skill level. That 8th hole is a test for everybody, whether you’re a short hitter, a big hitter, or a middle hitter.”
All great holes produce great memories. Perhaps the best of them at the Postage Stamp was 71-year-old Gene Sarazen’s first round hole in one in 1973, on the 50th anniversary (yes, the 50th!) of his first appearance at THE OPEN. For good measure, the American veteran holed out for a birdie from a greenside bunker the following day.
Whereas Sarazen took just three strokes in playing the hole twice, others have taken many more. Take Hermann Tissies, for example. In 1950, the amateur player from Germany took a soul-destroying 15 strokes to complete the hole after criss-crossing from bunker to bunker and taking five to get out of just one of them.
In 1997, a young and dynamic Tiger Woods saw his slim chance of victory disappear there in the final round. The incomparable Ian Wooldridge, writing in the Daily Mail, described it thus:
‘Tiger Tames Troon’ blazed the Sunday headlines in acclaim of the young man’s record-equalling 64 in the Open Championship’s third round. But Troon’s counter-punch was as swift and brutal as it was predictable. When the prodigy came to the Postage Stamp yesterday, he still had a ghost of a chance of winning the title and the £250,000 that goes with it. By the time he left it, he had none.
The eighth hole is a mere pitch and putt in dimension: 123 yards from tee to pin. But it is guarded by bomb craters the Scots excavated instead of mere bunkers and Tiger steered his tee shot straight into the one on the right. His first shot from sand hit the parapet and rolled back. His second skidded across the green. It took him three putts to get down. A six: Tiger was out of it.
When Greg Norman had a final round of 64 in 1989, having started with six straight birdies, his only bogey came at the 8th, while Walter Hagen took a five there in 1923 in finishing runner-up to Arthur Havers by a solitary stroke.
One visit to the hole even led to a change in the rules of golf. In 1950 Roberto de Vicenzo found himself in a plugged lie in one of the bunkers and opted to return to the tee, without penalty, after declaring his ball unplayable. His second shot went close, his third found the hole. It was an unlikely par that was also widely regarded as unfair. Soon after, the rule was changed.
With its views towards the Ailsa Craig, the Postage Stamp is aesthetically pleasing. Its true beauty, however, is in the challenge it poses to those who take it on. For one so small, it packs a mighty punch.