Casey hits out at new Road Hole (but it's really all Henman's fault)

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The Independent Online

It's easy to pick a fight with the Royal and Ancient blazers. So here goes. As crimes of grand designs go, moving the 17th tee at the Old Course back 40 yards has been greeted by some players at the Open as seriously as if a graffiti artist had snuck into the Louvre and scribbled a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

Chief dissenter is Paul Casey. He's applying for the post of golf's conservation officer. "Golf courses and iconic holes should be listed and protected like old buildings," he said. "We are the custodians of these great holes. You wouldn't be allowed to just slap an ugly conservatory on the side of a Grade Two listed Georgian House. We should impose those same restrictions on famous courses and holes."

He means it, too, having already spoken out against Ernie Els' redesign of Wentworth's 18th. "I have never thought length is the answer," Casey said. "It might make the holes tougher but it doesn't make them better. Even in benign conditions, hitting a nine-iron into the 17th is intimidating. It scares guys." Now the players will be forced to pull a four-iron or five-iron out of the bag to play their approach shots.

And it's all Tim Henman's fault. Probably. In last year's celebrity-filled Dunhill Links Championship, the former British tennis No 1 reduced the most fearsome hole in golf to a three-wood and a flick with a wedge. Before that, no one ever thought the hole needed to be lengthened – despite the the technological evolution of clubs and balls. The 17th was so tough anyway.

Such are the dangers that lurk around the green, many are planning to treat the 495-yard par four as a par four-and-a-half. "If I take two fours and two fives, I'll be happy," said Phil Mickelson. Waiting to snag errant balls are the road to the right and the bunker to the left that is deep enough to conceal a Volkswagen Beetle.

The hole is haunted by past disasters. Tommy Nakajima putted into the Road Hole bunker in 1978 and took four swipes just to get his ball back on the green. And Tom Watson's two-iron bounced over the green and on to the road in 1984 to hand victory to Seve Ballesteros. Players looking for the secret to unlock the 17th could do worse than turn to Jack Nicklaus, champion here in 1970 and 1978. "Jack has always played up to the front of the green and tried to take two putts for par," Watson said. "There's a reason why he's won 18 majors and two at St Andrews."

With short irons in their hands, players felt it was worth the risk to fire at the flag. But now Casey believes that risk/reward gamble has been taken away. "I will probably play to the right side of the green and try to settle for a chip and a putt," he said. "It has almost become an unofficial par five."

What everyone forgets amid all this fuss is that the 17th was originally a par five. Only in 1964 was a stroke clipped off its par, though Arnold Palmer still called it "the shortest and toughest par five in golf". The hole played to the same length in 2005 (455 yards) as it did in 1900. John Daly, champion in 1995, hit short irons into the 17th yet played it in three over par for four rounds. Tiger Woods, champion in 2000 was two over par at the 17th and it averaged 4.628 strokes when he won in 2005.

But it's not all bad news for the R&A or the Louvre. The defending champion Stewart Cink speaks up for the blazers. "It's not sacrilege," he said. "Players are averaging 25 yards longer than they were in the 1970s, so why not add a little to it? It's gonna play a good drive and a long iron now and it'll be tough to keep out of the bunker or off the road. There should be all kinds of wacky events on that hole this week. I don't think it's a shame the R&A has done it."

You see, if you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. Let the carnage begin.