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The 150th Open

The Road Hole


Navigating the fearsome 17th at the Old Course

Rory 17th Hole

You really have to see it to believe it. The 17th hole at St Andrews is not one for the faint-hearted and will once again be at the centre of the drama at The 150th Open this week.

With a fearsome reputation as the toughest par-4 in Championship golf, many contenders for the Claret Jug have fallen foul of the famous 495-yard Road Hole over the years.

So it is not surprising that the hole has once again been a hot topic of conversation in the build-up to The Open as the world’s best work out how to navigate its numerous pitfalls.

Two-time major champion Justin Thomas revealed he had to show his fiancée, Jillian Wisniewski, the Old Course’s penultimate hole in person as she refused to believe his description.

“Trying to explain that hole and that tee shot to my fiancée was a little bit difficult,” he said.

“So I had to take her out there myself. I am like, ‘No, you hit it over the hotel’. She is like, ‘Okay, but not really?’ I am like, ‘Oh, no, really. You have to hit it over this hotel’.”

The 17th tee shot certainly attracts the most publicity, with players tasked with driving around 260 yards to a slender fairway over the replica railway shed to the left of the Old Course Hotel.

It is a shot that makes or breaks major hopefuls - and occasionally the odd window. Traditionally, the line was over the ‘O’ of the sign but conventional wisdom has changed over the years and the practice rounds have shown there is more than one way to tackle the beast.

Justin Thomas 17th tee

Will Zalatoris had only played St Andrews on the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 console game prior to this week but has already enjoyed trying to get grips with the first shot on 17.

“It is amazing how you can really hit a shot left of the Old Course Hotel logo, and if it is cutting, it is in the fairway,” said the 2022 US Open and PGA Championship runner-up.

“And you can also hit one high and about 30 feet right of that logo and still be almost in the exact same spot. It is pretty unique. I love being able to hit that burning cut, so I will never say that hitting over a hotel is an ideal look for me, but that shot actually sets up for me pretty well.”

Defending Champion Golfer Collin Morikawa is another player experiencing the Road Hole for the first time, having won the Claret Jug on his Open debut at Royal St George’s last year.

The 25-year-old perfectly explained the dilemma that faces golfers on the tee, including the trust he has to have in line provided by caddie J.J. Jakovac - and the bravery to commit to it.

“It is tough any time you have a blind tee shot. When you are teeing over a hotel, or J.J. is telling me aim over the ‘course’ part of The Old Course hotel, but do not miss it right of the hotel,” he said.

“It is really, really tough because, especially when a hole has a little dogleg to the right as this one does, you are trusting these lines are going to be spot on.

“Your margin of error is going to be even less because you don't have that kind of visual aspect of seeing where you can start it and where you can peel it to. You have to trust to hit a good shot. It is definitely a tee shot I need to keep working on for sure.”

Zalatoris Road Hole Bunker

Yet the tee shot is just one of many headaches. There is no room for error with the approach shot to the skinny green either, with the Road Hole Bunker - which punished Tommy Nakajima to the tune of a disastrous 9 back in The Open of 1978 - lying in wait to the left.

“It is very difficult,” reigning PGA Championship winner Thomas added. “It is the location of it and the placement of it and the way that the green sits and just how it swallows golf balls. Anything that is kind of around it that's running, it is just going to go right into it.

“It is one of those that if that bunker was not there, that hole, it would probably play half a shot to three-quarters of a shot easier because you just would be able to run it up there short left of the green or onto the green and one or two putt for birdie or par and move on to the 18th hole.

“But because it is there, it just totally changes your mindset.”

On Wednesday, with the start of the 150th Championship on the horizon, many in the field made the most of their last opportunity to practice a variety of shots around the green.

Creativity is always crucial in links golf but the Road Hole is in a league of its own.

Any approach that goes long will result in a shot from the road behind the green, a fate that will require some short game wizardry to even have a chance at saving a par - or even bogey.

Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari, the 2014 and 2018 Champion Golfers respectively, were among the players who opted to try and play the shot in their final practice rounds.

17th Green St Andrews

McIlroy, who had already made a birdie with his first ball, earned a cheer from the grandstand behind the green after managing to get the ball up-and-down with his putter.

Whether it proves quite as straightforward in Championship play is another matter, though.

McIlroy said as much in his press conference earlier this week. “It is a hole where you make four 4s for the week and you are really happy. You are not trying to - I mean, a 3 is a massive bonus there. You take four 4s and run very happily to the 18th tee.”

The scoring average for the 17th in 2015 was 4.66, making it the hardest of the week - as has so often been the case. In fact, a bogey for Jordan Spieth cost him a place in the play-off.

Even in Monday’s Celebration of Champions, the Road Hole took no prisoners. The ten teams were collectively +6 on the hole, with no quartet escaping with anything better than a par.

It is the reason why spectators flock to pack the grandstand and line the fairways throughout the week, gracing every shot into the green with “oohs” or “aahs” depending on the result.

One fan even said he is planning on setting up camp at the hole from Thursday, adding: “This is the place to be”. He is not wrong. The 17th is must-watch entertainment at St Andrews.

For the players, however, it is an obstacle that must be managed carefully.

“It requires a lot of discipline,” Thomas added. “And understanding that playing the hole and maybe 1 or 2-over for the week isn't necessarily going to kill you, but playing it 5 or 6 is.”

Let the fun and games begin.