x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Breaking down on the road

The treacherous par-four 17th hole at St Andrews has left many a golfer's championship hopes in tatters.

Tom Watson's approach shot on the 17th in 1984 left him 18 inches from the wall. He eventually finished with a bogey that allowed his rival Seve Ballesteros to lift the British Open trophy.
Tom Watson's approach shot on the 17th in 1984 left him 18 inches from the wall. He eventually finished with a bogey that allowed his rival Seve Ballesteros to lift the British Open trophy.

Asked the best way to approach the Road Hole, Arnold Palmer smiled wryly and replied: "In an ambulance ?" Welcome to the most fiendish, the most difficult, the most round-wrecking hole on earth; the 461-yard par-four 17th at St Andrews where ghoulish rubberneckers will assemble later this week to watch the world's best players (plus a supporting cast of A-list celebrities) do battle with golf's greatest challenge during the Dunhill Links Championship.

So what makes this stretch of coast along the North Sea, which Palmer once completed in 10 ugly strokes, such a treacherous minefield? According to the local caddies who gather in the nearby Jigger Inn and swap Road Hole anecdotes amid much hilarity, the prescribed line of attack from the tee consists of a blind drive over the gold- lettered middle "O" on the shed proclaiming "St Andrews Old Course Hotel", to a narrow landing strip of fairway.

If you have avoided going out of bounds down the right and missed the jungle of rough that awaits to the left, your approach shot should be a low, controlled "chaser" on to the obliquely-angled and contoured green, hopefully avoiding the notorious ball-guzzling pot bunker that stands guard in front of the flag. Beyond the green lies further misery; a Tarmac road bordered by an unforgiving stone dyke, over which hang the legion of St Andrews thrill-seekers; folk, like me, who would take great delight in the sight of a nutty professor hurtling down a roof frantically flapping a set of wings fashioned from ostrich feathers.

The cruelty of the Road Hole is that danger lurks every inch of the way. During the 1978 British Open championship, the tournament leader Tommy Nakajima of Japan arrived safely on the rolling green in two only to send his putt off the green and into the sand. From there, he needed four slas-hes to break free on his way to a traumatic nine. The bunker has henceforth been known as "the Sands of Nakajima". He was neither the first nor last man to bid Sayonara (goodbye in Japanese) to the old Claret Jug at this spot.

In 1885 the local professional David Ayton led the British Open by a seemingly impregnable five shots when he came to the 17th on the final afternoon. Short and right of the putting surface, Ayton's approach veered off into the bunker from where he sent his escape scuttling through the green and onto the road. His first chip ran up the bank, stopped and rolled back down...his second attempt flew the green back into the bunker which he had only recently vacated, this time taking three to get out.

Ayton eventually signed for an 11, losing the Open to fellow-Scot Bob Martin by two strokes. But perhaps no golfer has been so bedevilled by the "Curse of the Road Hole" than the five-time British Open champion Tom Watson who strode on to the tee on the final afternoon in 1984 tied for the lead with Severiano Ballesteros. A precision drive left him 183 yards from the pin whereupon he mystifyingly plucked a two-iron - you might as well try to land a ball on the bonnet of a Volkswagen Beetle - and duly sent his approach soaring over the green to within 18 inches of the wall.

Watson could only jab the ball on to the green some 40ft from the flag and a subsequent bogey at the very instant a thunderous roar of approval greeted Ballesteros's birdie on the last. It would be 25 long years before Watson would ever again be a contender in any major championship. (And we all know what happened at Turnberry in July.) Aye, have the medics standing by....

The Dunhill Links Championship has become the Blue Riband event of the celebrity golf circuit, attracting those such as Samuel L Jackson and Hugh Grant...Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones...Sir Bobby Charlton and Johan Cruyff...Boris Becker and Franz Klammer...Shane Warne and Sir Ian Botham...all knees a'knocking on the first tee. "You have to remember that whatever their level of celebrity - and it can be Kenny Dalglish or Huey Lewis - they are highly successful and often fiercely competitive on their own stage but likely to be overcome with nerves when asked to tee off in front of the eyes of a gallery," explains Sandy Lyle. "Some pros dread the pro-celebs which can make for a very long four or five hours out on the course but I've always enjoyed the experience and try my best to make sure my partners enjoy it as much as I do.

"At the Bing Crosby tournament in Florida one spring, I was fortunate to be paired with astronaut Alan Shepherd who smuggled a five-iron and ball aboard Apollo 14 and became the only and only man since the dawn of time to play golf on the moon, 'hitting it miles and miles and miles...' "Alan told me an amusing tale of the night he and fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell were woken by a strange clanging noise in the lunar module.

"'Did you hear that...?' Alan whispered. 'Yeah, what do you think it was...?' Mitchell replied in a similarly hushed tone. "I don't know. Neither do I know why we're whispering when the nearest life form - I hope - is a quarter of a million miles away on Earth..." Alas, not all the stars burn as bright as Alan Shepherd. "There are some, bless them," continues Lyle, "who stand over their eighth shot and ask, 'what should I take from here?'

"'The first flight' would be the kindest reply..." rphilip@thenational.ae