St. Andrews Sparks Dilemma: Should Classic Golf Courses Be Renovated?

Mike DudurichContributor IDecember 24, 2012

The Royal & Ancient Clubhouse sits behind the 18th green at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The Royal & Ancient Clubhouse sits behind the 18th green at the Old Course at St. Andrews.David Cannon/Getty Images

The news was “leaked” on the same day that the United State Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club announced proposed Rule 14-1b—a change to the Rules of Golf that will rock the world of all those who found solace in anchoring their putters, long or belly style.

Under the cloak of that darkness, it became known a little later that alterations were being made to, gasp, the birthplace of golf. Yes, the backhoes and graders and men with shovels were already on the hallowed grounds of the Old Course at St. Andrews.

This tribute to the game of golf has been in existence for 600 years, and while it has continued to evolve over time, there have been relatively few major changes. The club’s website says, “The Old Course is the Home of Golf where golf was first played 600 years ago. It remains a real test of golf for today's champions.”

So then the question becomes: Why is this tweaking taking place on a course that’s still a great golf course for the world’s best players and will host the Open Championship for the 29th time in 2015?

And that leads to an even broader question: Should classic golf courses be renovated?

Mark me down with answers to both of those questions with "I have no earthly" idea and "no," respectively.

Peter Dawson, executive secretary of the R&A, expressed shock that there has been so much reaction to the news that things were being done to the world’s most famous golf course.

In a well-done article by Brad Klein in Golfweek, Dawson said that he was “astonished by the extent of this St. Andrews uproar” and called it “hysteria.”

Nine holes will be affected by the tweak, with work ranging from re-contouring greens to adding/removing bunkers to repositioning bunkers. None of what is being done will fall into the “major renovation,” which is a good thing.

Purists have already cried that doing anything to the Old Course is like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. That’s a bit much, of course, but the plan to “convert a midfairway concave collection area into raised deflective convex mound,” just "because," doesn’t make much sense.

That concave collection area on the par-4 seventh hole has been there for hundreds of years and thousands of golfers have played around and through that area. So why does it need to changed now?

Touching the course where golf came to be just doesn’t seem right.

One of the great attractions of St. Andrews is the naturalness of the site, with the humps and bumps and double greens and no trees—no man-made anything.

In recent years, a number of classic courses have been lengthened in an effort to keep up with the modern game. St. Andrews has done that as well and is a very representative 7,305 yards.

The 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club will buck the size matters trend when 156 players will tackle a course set at 6,846 yards. That’s one of the few major championship venues that hasn’t gotten bigger and more beefy.

Another classic layout, Oakmont Country Club, had more than a little tweaking done to it in the early 1990s when the process began to clear the course of over 5,000 trees. That transformed one of America’s historic landmarks from a gorgeous tree-lined championship test to a barren, linksy-looking course that looks very much like it did when it was opened back in 1903.

Think there was much outcry from the members when those trees started disappearing?

But other than lengthening the championship tees to 7,255 yards and adding and re-contouring some bunkers, Oakmont is and always has been the same supreme test of a golfer's merit.

“Anything that is going to change the character, the way the course strategy needs to be handled and so on is what I’d call major and there is none of that happening,” Dawson said. “I think people here see that. When you live here and you walk and play the course, either in the Dunhill or with your mates, over the years you come to know what the strengths and very few weaknesses of the Old Course are. It is just those few weaknesses that we have tried to address in as symphatetic manner as possible.”

Much like with everything else in life, change is inevitable. But still, I just can’t come to grips with this idea of tinkering with St. Andrews.

And yes, Peter Dawson, I don’t live in St. Andrews or walk around the town. I haven’t even been there. I do know, however, that whether the changes are major or not, tinkering with a shrine like the Old Course at St. Andrews just doesn’t seem right.