Forty-four summers ago, Tommy Nakajima of Japan was in the hunt during the third round of the 1978 British Open. On the Old Course at St. Andrews — where the tournament will be staged once again this week — Nakajima knocked his second shot onto the putting surface at No. 17, a par 4 known as the Road Hole. Mission accomplished.
Nakajima would now likely make a par, or bogey at the worst, on one of the most intimidating holes in professional golf.
His putt, however, made its way down the wrong slope, taking an unfortunate left turn into a pot bunker with remarkably high side walls. But his troubles were just beginning. From there, Nakajima needed four shots to get the ball onto the green. He ended up recording a nine on the hole, ruining any real hopes of winning the claret jug. He would finish the tournament in a tie for 17th.
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 said to his caddy, “He better be careful,” Weiskopf recalled.
Nakajima’s collapse, as crushing as it was, has hardly been the only calamity on the Road Hole, so named because it is next to a road.
“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 road. He was aiming to win the tournament for the third consecutive time. Such a victory would be his sixth title in the Open; he would tie the record held by the British golfer Harry Vardon. However, Watson’s dream would soon be history.
In 1995, Italy’s 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 at No. 17 — which was lengthened in 2010 to 495 yards from 455 — is to navigate a treacherous blind tee shot, meaning 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 veers too far right, it might end up out of bounds. Players will typically set their target, depending on the wind, for one of the letters on a sign on the shed that reads: Old Course Hotel. Sometimes, balls hit the hotel itself.
No wonder a lot of golfers play it safe by aiming left, but that approach isn’t foolproof, either.
If you go into the rough on the left, “you’ve got a terrible angle to the pin and a terrible angle to the front edge of the green,” said David Graham, a two-time major champion.
Wherever that first shot ends up, the next shot is just as daunting.
“The last thing you want to do is go on the road,” said Tony Jacklin, who won the 1969 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England. “The best you can expect to do with a second shot is go for the front part of the green. I don’t care how in command of your game you are. You can’t guarantee hitting that green in two.”
As Tom Watson knows too well.
During the 1984 Open, Watson was tied with Seve Ballesteros when he sent his drive at 17 to the right. He hit it far enough to clear the wall of the hotel, but the ball wound up on a steep slope.
“The shot you want to play to that green is a low-running shot,” Watson said. “You can’t do that from a severe upslope.”
He flew his two-iron approach about 30 yards to the right, the ball coming to a rest on the road close to a stone wall. With an abbreviated backswing, Watson managed to get the ball within 30 feet of the flagstick. He could still save par.
Before he putted, however, Watson recalled, “All of a sudden, I heard this roar at the 18th hole. I look up and there’s Seve with his fist up in the air. I said, ‘Uh-oh, I’ve got to make this putt and birdie the last hole.'” When he didn’t make the putt, Watson knew it was over. He lost by two shots and never won another claret jug.
Watson, who played in the Open at St. Andrews on eight occasions, strongly advises against challenging the back or middle part of the green.
“If you really play it smart,” he explained, “you never try to hit it more than 20 or 30 feet onto the surface of the green. Try to two-putt for your par and get out of there.”
Or maybe not go for the green at all.
In the 1990 Open, which he won, Nick Faldo laid up short of the putting surface on 17 in three of the four days, including the final round. Leading by five shots and 215 yards away, he saw no reason to take any chances. Faldo walked away from the hole with a bogey. Earlier in that same round, Peter Jacobsen had needed three strokes to move the ball 30 yards from the rough at No. 17, recording an eight.
In 1984, Ballesteros seemed to approach the hole as if it were a par 5, hoping to make no worse than a bogey. Price, the 1994 British Open winner, expressed a similar sentiment.
“If it was really into the wind, I’d lay up with a four or three iron and then chip up,” Price said. “If I made 4, I made 4. I wasn’t going to make six, seven or eight, that’s for sure.”
That the hole comes so late in the round, with a championship possibly at stake, makes the challenge even more formidable. In 2015, the last time the Open was held at St. Andrews, the road hole ranked as the most difficult hole, with the players averaging 4.655 strokes.
Over the course of the entire tournament, there were only nine birdies on 17, while there were 217 bogeys and 32 double bogeys there.
“It’s nearly impossible to make a birdie even once in four days,” Graham, the two-time major champion, said. “If you do, it’s a long putt.”
Bernard Darwin, the English golf writer and accomplished amateur, perhaps put it best in describing the elusive green on the road hole. He wrote that it “lies between a greedy little bunker on one side and a brutally hard road on the other.” Many like it, most respect it, and all fear it.”