McDowell's riding high but road ahead is hard

Major winner veers off course again as he slams Royal and Ancient for making one of the great holes 'ridiculously difficult' at The Open
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The Independent Online

Clairvoyancy is one of the few gifts not bestowed upon the first-time major winner, but still Graeme McDowell is willing to make a prediction on this week's Open Championship. "The boys are not going to like the new 17th," said the US Open champion. "It's going to cause a lot of controversy."

In McDowell's mind the extension to the Road Hole (see graphic, below right) is going to cause another C-word, too. "It's going to be carnage," he said. All that pending fuss over a new tee box? Anyone would think the Royal and Ancient have shunted it back into a different county, not a mere 30 yards into the practice range.

The truth is, the burghers in the blazers knew what they were letting themselves in for when daring to take a shovel to the most famous par four in golf. They knew the purists would emerge and slam them, first for not reacting to the march of technology quickly enough, then for trying to negate the go-further balls hit by the go-faster drivers by adding yardage. And so the nature of the challenge has been irrevocably changed?

McDowell plainly believes it has been. "It was a great hole anyway," he told The Independent On Sunday last week. "I didn't really think it needed it. Horrible, one of the legendary holes in golf falling victim to modern technology. I thought it was going to be tricky anyway. It didn't need another 40 yards on it but we've got it and it's going to be amazing."

The 30-year-old's last statement does not really tally with his next point. "It's ridiculously difficult," said the Ulsterman who played a practice round on the Old Course last Saturday. "I played it slightly into a wind out of the right. Hit a good drive and had 175 to the front edge. So that would be 210 to the back pin. Just brutal. I'm going to play it ultra conservatively, like I say, play to the front edge of the green and take my two putts and run really. But what happens when the pin is back left? Probably take a five and run.

"Before, it was a great hole with a seven-iron in your hand because it asked you to take it on. Now it's not. It's asking you to lay up and try to take your four."

McDowell's concern is that the R&A's intentions "have the opposite effect". "They tried to make it more dramatic, I guess, with players taking big numbers from the bunker or the road," he said. "But I think it's going to be even less dramatic now because fewer will take it on. I guess it will be like the 18th at Wentworth, where guys ended up playing it more conservatively. The Road Hole could be the same vibe."

He should be applauded for saying what he thinks, especially considering what happened the last time he criticised a course alteration. As he mentioned, two months ago he was less than impressed with the drastic revamp of the Wentworth finale, which saw a creek put in front of a raised green on the par five.

His observations were never less than constructive, but Ernie Els, the course designer, did not see it that way. "We had a bust-up, Ernie took my comments personally," recalled McDowell. However, to be fair to the South African, he was one of the first to leave a congratulatory message on McDowell's voicemail in the wake of his major breakthrough at Pebble Beach three weeks ago.

Not that McDowell is necessarily correct about the St Andrews rejig. Indeed, there is a vocal chorus which believes that the R&A only did what was necessary in restoring how the hole used to be played. Tom Watson is firmly in this camp, as is McDowell's fellow Irish major winner Padraig Harrington. "I think it's dead right," Harrington said. "They've got to force us to hit the driver off the hole. The last couple of times I've played it, I've hit like five-wood, eight-iron or three-wood, wedge at times. Now it's going to be back to the hole I saw on television when I was watching it in the Eighties – which is a really intimidating tee shot with a driver and hitting a five-iron into it. That's what the hole is meant to be; it's meant to be one of the toughest holes in golf. The R&A are just returning it to what it was."

There is a convincing case to be made that the pros from yore played the hole conservatively. Jack Nicklaus always took what may or may not become known as the G-Mac route, playing up to the front of the green and trying to putt for his par, or at worst a five. He called it "the only par four and a half in golf".

But the discussion is complicated still further because the hole was actually played as a par five until 1964. And who knows how it was "originally intended" to be played? It has been there for centuries and when it was first taken on there was neither a driver or a six-iron.

But none of that will stop the debate from becoming heated this next week. Just call it Road Hole rage.