Road's potential for disaster; Tricks of ingenuity are frequently called for and bravely executed

THE OPEN: The penultimate hole at St Andrews holds more fears than any other par four in golf
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The penultimate hole at St Andrews attracts spectators who convey the impression that they are ghoulish by nature. Nothing about the Open Championship appeals to them more than the 17th's potential for disaster.

If morbid references to the Road hole are boringly typical of sporting rhetoric, it is nevertheless reasonable to suppose that there is not a par four in golf that raises more anxiety in tournament players. Seve Balle-steros recalls being on the green in two shots and still in the bunker after four.

Through television exposure or perhaps personal experience, you may already have the picture. A blind tee-shot, tricky hollows on the fairway, a fearsome green-side bunker that invariably punishes acts of daring and the road with its ancient flanking wall. Since the Open was last played at St Andrews in 1990, all opportunities for taking liberties with the Road hole have more or less been removed.

The siting of a scoreboard to the left of the green rules out coming in from that side, and a bank makes putting up from the gravel or the tarmac a feat of miraculous proportions.

Statistics put out by the bookmakers Sporting Index to attract spread- betting show that par at the Road was bettered only 15 times in 1990, and there were 50 double bogeys or worse. Predicting just 17 birdies this week, their Road to Ruin index is therefore an apt title.

An added attraction at the 17th is that tricks of ingenuity are frequently called for and bravely executed. The skill involved can be quite stunning. Just when you think the odds against even a par are monumental, the potential victim gets out of jail.

Mark McNulty, at five under, was joint leader yesterday when his second at the 17th squirted off on to the road. The Zimbabwean studded the ball to 15 feet and then sank it. Goodness knows what had been going through his mind, but there was a smile on his face.

With so many players reporting twinges in the lumbar region, there are more bad backs here this week than there are in the Premiership. Ian Woosnam is one of the sufferers. He came to the 17th at one under, not knowing quite where his second shot had landed.

Going right was bad enough, but was he jammed against the wall? The anxiety left the Welshman's face when he saw there was room to make a swing and the ball sitting up nicely. He brushed away some loose dry grass, opened the face of a sand iron and went to 10 feet. One putt. Par.

Sam Torrance had a similar experience when playing the 17th at two under. Another six inches closer to the wall, and Torrance would have been looking at a double-bogey or worse. Phlegmatic in application, he bounced the ball up and just over. One shot dropped, but calamity averted.

After taking 10 at the 14th where Hell Bunker did for him, even Jack Nicklaus must approached the Road with some trepidation. Sure enough, he went into the sand. Another disaster? Not a bit of it. Coming out first time, Nicklaus then winked at the camera.

The great man's escape was matched by that of Tony Johnstone. From deep beneath the lip, he sent his ball vertically into orbit. It descended softly and trickled close. Johnstone's gratitude to the gods of golf was immediately evident.

On a bad day by his standards, Nick Faldo refused to acknowledge that recently imposed difficulties make it advisable to attack the 17th from starboard. Going left, Faldo found trouble. Another shot dropped and another disappointment in the offing.

An interesting thing about birdies at the 17th is that they seldom evoke much in the way of excitement. Usually they are the result of accurate rather than spectacular shot-making. The birdie achieved there yesterday by Steve Lowery, of the United States, was a good example. Perfect drive, super second, cool putt.

A seven after finding the green-side bunker at the 17th had another American contender, 24-year-old David Duval, shaking his head ruefully. But for that aberration, he would have been within one shot of the leaders.

Late in the day, playing together, Ballesteros, John Daly and Larry Mize were all on the 17th green with longish putts for birdie. Daly and Mize made par. Ballesteros bogeyed.

With the grateful air of a man who has seen plenty of golfing trouble in his time, despite being twice the Masters champion, Ben Crenshaw smilingly settled for a par that consolidated his challenge and put him up at the top of the leaderboard with Daly, Tom Watson and McNulty.

By general consensus, a par at the Road yesterday was an achievement. If the wind really gets up, it might take a miracle.