Forty-four summers ago, Tommy Nakajima of Japan was on the hunt during the third round of the 1978 British Open. On the Old Course at St. Andrews, where the tournament will take place once again this week, Nakajima threw his second hit the surface of the green at number 17, a par 4 known as the Road Hole. Mission accomplished.
Nakajima would now probably make a par, or a bogey at worst, on one of the most intimidating holes in professional golf.
His putt, however, found its way down the wrong slope, taking an unfortunate left turn into a bunker with remarkably high sidewalls. But his problems were just beginning. From there, it took Nakajima four shots to get the ball to the green. He ended up recording a nine on the hole, ruining any real hope of winning the jar of claret. He would finish the tournament tied for 17th place.
Nakajima’s playing partner in that third round was Tom Weiskopf, who had won the 1973 British Open.
Before Nakajima hit his first putt, Weiskopf told his caddy, “You better watch out,” Weiskopf recalled.
The Nakajima landslide, crushing as it was, hasn’t been the only calamity at the Road Hole, so called because it’s next to a highway.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong on this hole,” said Nick Price, who won the British Open in 1994. “It’s like walking through a minefield.”
In 1984, Tom Watson found the way. His goal was to win the tournament for the third time in a row. Such a victory would be his sixth Open title; he would tie the record held by British golfer Harry Vardon. However, Watson’s dream would soon be history.
In 1995, Italian Costantino Rocca, in a four-hole playoff against John Daly, needed three shots to get out of the bunker. That was it for him.
The first challenge for players on the No. 17, which was lengthened in 2010 from 455 to 495 yards, is getting around a treacherous blind tee shot, which means players can’t see the landing area on the fairway because the view is blocked by a green. shed on the right.
The preferred landing spot is on the right side of the fairway, but if the ball drifts too far to the right, it could end up out of bounds. Players will generally set their goal, depending on the wind, for one of the letters on a sign on the shed that says: Old Course Hotel. Sometimes the balls hit the hotel itself.
It’s no wonder many golfers play it safe by aiming left, but that approach isn’t foolproof either.
If you go into the rough on the left, “you have a terrible angle to the pin and a terrible angle to the front edge of the green,” said David Graham, a two-time Grand Slam champion.
Wherever the first shot ends up, the next shot is just as daunting.
“The last thing you want to do is hit the road,” Tony Jacklin, who won the 1969 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England. “The best you can hope to do with a second shot is go to the front of the green. I don’t care how in control of your game you are. You can’t guarantee to hit that green in two.”
As Tom Watson well knows.
During the 1984 Open, Watson was level with Seve Ballesteros when he hit his drive at 17 to the right. He hit it far enough to go over the hotel wall, but the ball ended up on a steep slope.
“The shot you want to play on that green is a low shot,” Watson said. “You can’t do that from a steep incline.”
He flew his two-iron approach about 30 yards to the right, and the ball stopped en route near a stone wall. With an abbreviated backswing, Watson managed to get the ball 30 feet from the flagstick. He could still save the pair.
Before putting in, however, Watson recalled: “All of a sudden, I heard this roar on the 18th hole. I look up and there’s Seve with his fist in the air. I said, ‘Uh-oh, I’ve got to make this putt and birdie the last hole.’” When he didn’t putt, Watson knew he was done. He lost by two strokes and never won another jar of claret.
Watson, who has played at the St. Andrews Open eight times, strongly advises against challenging the back or middle of the green.
“If you really play smart,” he explained, “never try to hit it more than 20 or 30 feet above the surface of the green. Try to make two putts for your par and get out of there.”
Or maybe not go for green at all.
In the 1990 Open, which he won, Nick Faldo failed to putt on the 17th on three of the four days, including the final round. Leading by five shots and 215 yards, he saw no reason to take any chances. Faldo bogeyed away from the hole. Earlier in the round, Peter Jacobsen had needed three shots to move the ball 30 yards from the rough at No. 17, scoring an eight.
In 1984, Ballesteros seemed to approach the hole as if it were a par 5, hoping to do nothing worse than a bogey. Price, winner of the 1994 British Open, expressed a similar sentiment.
“If it was really against the wind, I’d bet with a four or three iron and then walk away,” Price said. “If I did 4, I did 4. I wasn’t going to do six, seven or eight, that’s for sure.”
That the hole comes so late in the round, with a championship possibly on the line, makes the challenge all the more formidable. In 2015, the last time the Open was held at St. Andrews, the Road Hole was ranked as the most difficult hole, with players averaging 4,655 strokes.
Over the course of the entire tournament, there were only nine birdies on the 17th, while there were 217 bogeys and 32 double bogeys there.
“It’s almost impossible to birdie even once in four days,” said Graham, a two-time Grand Slam champion. “If you do, it’s a long putt.”
Bernard Darwin, the English golf writer and consummate aficionado, perhaps best described the elusive green at the Road Hole. He wrote that it “sits between a greedy little bunker on one side and a brutally rough road on the other. Many like him, most respect him, and all fear him.”