The 17th is where some dig a hole for themselves

Luke Donald of England chips onto the 17th green during the second round of the British Open golf tournament on the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland, on Friday. The 17th brings a slew of unique challenges.
Luke Donald of England chips onto the 17th green during the second round of the British Open golf tournament on the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland, on Friday. The 17th brings a slew of unique challenges. PHOTO: REUTERS

The 17th at St Andrews is often described as the toughest par four in golf. And, sitting at the top of the stands to the side of the green on Friday, with the ocean beating against the coastline directly in front and the famous old clubhouse to the right, it was easy to see why.

This is not so much a hole as a riddle. The drive is blind: You have to hit over the corner of the hotel adjoining the course.

From there, the difficulties multiply. To the right of the fairway is a road, which is in play.

To the left is the infamous Road Hole bunker, also known as the sands of Nakajima, after a Japanese player (Tsuneyuki "Tommy" Nakajima) took four shots to escape while in contention for the title in 1978.

The green itself is a warren of curves, slopes and undulations that thwart traditional geometrical calculation.

In the opening round, the hole was the toughest on the course, with the players averaging 4.833. This compares with just 4.506 for the par-five fifth.

There were no birdies all day and only 54 pars. This compared with 84 bogeys and 18 double-bogeys.

On Friday, with more favourable wind conditions and pin placement, the hole was less severe, but only just.

There had been only four birdies by the late afternoon, the first from Jaco van Zyl of South Africa, whose heroics drew a sustained gasp from the packed stands.

"It is a great hole," he said afterwards, although it was not entirely clear if he was being ironic. "It starts with a tough tee shot and there is no room for error with the second shot: You can bail out short right but it doesn't give you a four.

"Miss it right, you're on the road, miss it left and you're in the bunker. It takes two quality shots and even if you are on the green it still doesn't guarantee you walking off with four ... today it was a good drive and from 195 yards I hit a stinging three-iron to about 20 feet and rolled it in."

Players love this hole, and they hate it. They are drawn to its challenge, even as they fear its reproach. As a hole it evokes, perhaps above all else, the multi-faceted nature of tournament golf.

To score a par, let alone a birdie, requires power, judgment, nerve, and, when you get to the green, the most subtle of computations. This is the timeless beauty of the game.

If you do not have every element, every dimension of skill, you will ultimately fail. In that sense, this is a renaissance game.

On Friday, the 17th also provided a canvas for another cherished aspect of the sport - moral integrity.

When Steven Bowditch, the Australian, arrived at the green, he was confronted with a quandary.

Addressing a three-foot putt for bogey, the high winds caused his ball to move. Not long ago, this would have been an infringement and Bowditch would have been docked a stroke.

The Australian issued a minor expletive, dropped his club, and made sure the official was made aware of the transgression.

With this piece of spontaneous honesty, he did much to symbolise the self-policing imperative of the game.

Yet he had forgotten something. Back in 2011, the rules were changed to remove this rather unjust penalty. Bowditch was in the clear.

"I forgot they changed the rules," he said. "It used to be a penalty, I had a kind of mind-blank. I went from making a pretty soft five to a really mad six to a 'felt-like-a-birdie five' again. When (the official) said that there was no penalty I felt like I'd just won the lotto."

In the coming two days, the 17th will doubtless continue to play a defining role in the Open Championship. It demands skill, courage and a willingness to take judicious risks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'The 17th is where some dig a hole for themselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe