How to play... the 14th at St Andrews

How to play... the 14th at St Andrews

In the eyes of the great players and architects, the sheer number of different ways to play each hole on the Old Course is what sets it apart as the strategic test in the game. The vast majority of courses we play, and certainly those we watch the professionals play on tour, have become one dimensional.

In an attempt to defend par and create ‘championship’ setups, narrow corridors through thick rough have become the norm – one route from tee to green where creativity and imagination are shunned in favour of shot execution and strength.

So it was interesting that Rory McIlroy reiterated his belief that Tiger Woods will be right at the business end come Sunday afternoon of the 150th Open. “It’s going to be a game of chess this week and no one has played a better game of this kind of chess than Tiger Woods.”

Indeed, no one in the field knows this links or its thousand subtleties better than the man who won here in 2000 and 2005.

One hole worth knowing is the classic 14th - Long. A hole that exemplifies the strategic choices and challenges of St Andrews.

Old Course
© Joe McDonnell

Alister MacKenzie described this as the greatest hole of its length in the world, while Brian Schneider - of Tom Doak’s Renaissance design team - says he’d go one better and say it’s the best hole in golf.

Why do architects working 100 years apart hold this hole in such esteem? Simply, it’s down to the questions it asks.

MacKenzie described four routes that can be taken along the hole, and how his weekly fourball once tested them all out.

If you look along the direct line from tee to green, you see hazards grouped together down the centre of the space – rather than spread out around the edges. This is the essence of strategic golf – challenging the line of instinct for the best players. Hazards dotted around the edge are there to catch the bad shots, but for the great player on their game, there is normally a route clear of danger. It’s the rest of us who are doubly tormented by having our wayward shots punished!

The first set of hazards is The Beardies – a collection of four bunkers left of the large right hand fairway section – known as the ‘Elysian Fields’.

The routes MacKenzie describes are shown on the plan as A, B, C and D. For the drive, these four players have played right, over, and left of The Beardies – Player A also avoiding the Spectacles bunker and finishing on the lower fifth fairway. Once the challenge of the drive has been navigated, the group must consider where to play their second shots.

Whilst considering this, it’s worth noting the green is protected by a small hummock on the front right corner. Therefore, if approaching from the right, the undulations will always try to carry the ball away from the green. Perhaps even into the Ginger Beer bunkers short left.

Instead, the better side to approach from is the left. So Player A continues advancing their ball along the fifth fairway, while Player C will hit theirs left of the cavernous Hell bunker to join them.

Player B who risked the Beardies off the tee by carrying them can risk disaster again by also taking on one of St Andrews’ most fearsome bunkers. MacKenzie wrote of how pleasurable an experience it was to see one’s ball soaring over Hell! From here, Player B has only a short pitch – but so steep is the front edge that a firm bump and run will be required to hold the plateau.

Player D has avoided much of the risk both off the tee and for their second, playing to the Elysian Fields - now a tougher shot than in MacKenzie’s day, with increased penalty for going out of bounds right - before aiming right of Hell and the Pulpit. From here, with the green running away from them it’s nearly impossible to get close – and a two-putt five is a great return.

Players A and C have also managed to navigate the Beardies and avoid the risk of Hell and, while their pitch up the green is much longer than Player D’s, they at least have a chance of holding the plateau from their angle.

The only one who seemed to master this hole in MacKenzie’s day was the big-hitting Bobby Jones. MacKenzie described the day when, downwind and with the fairways running firm, Jones played down the Elysian Fields before purposefully hitting beyond the green in two – his line shown as ‘E’. The green, pitched front to back when approaching conventionally, was now helping him – giving him a far easier up and down for his coveted birdie four.

Clearly, there is no single ‘correct’ way to play the hole. There are choices to be made and any individual player may pick a different route depending on that day’s wind strength and direction, the firmness of the ground, the score they’re trying to make on the hole and if a part of their game is feeling off.

With the ground again running firm and the strength of the modern breed of player, this will be particularly interesting. How many will go left and take it down the fifth fairway? Playing down the Elysian Fields before going for the green in two might seem like the ‘proper’ way of attacking the hole in 2022 but the same contours that kicked balls away when approaching from the right 100 years ago are still there.

This will have to be a hole the ultimate Champion Golfer handles well.

Sam Cooper is an Associate Golf Architect at Clayton, DeVries & Pont. You can follow him on Twitter here. Hole artwork created by Joe McDonnell.

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