R is for Road
Even the most casual tour follower is familiar with the original Road Hole, the penultimate challenge at The Old Course, which often serves as the deciding test during competitions, such as when Seve Ballesteros parred the hole to Tom Watson’s bogey during the 1984 Open.
The hole begins with some quirk, almost unthinkable in today’s naturalistic age: The player must drive directly over the hotel (formerly railway sheds) at the corner of the dogleg. This artificial blind shot influences the hole’s peak drama, which occurs upon approach. Those who trust their line across the roof will have the “best” angle to the narrow front-right to back-left green (which is still a very demanding shot, even with an ideal angle). Those who play safe to the left of the fairway have very little chance of rolling a long approach past the notorious pot bunker that guards the front of the green. Even poor shots from the ideal angle will potentially funnel down into its maw. Although the name of the hole stems from the street named Old Station Road, which runs immediately behind the green, the term “Road Bunker” traditionally refers to the deadly pot.
St Andrews Old Course 17th hole - courtesy St Andrews Links Trust
An interesting note from the hole’s history is its transition from par 5 to par 4. This occurred during the lifetime of the hole’s original architect, Allan Robertson. A distinguished competitor, Robertson never once carded a birdie at Road after it became a par 4. The ultimate lesson is that regardless of par, whether a short 5 or a long 4, a Road hole must offer some incentive for trying to reach the green, and punishment for those who stumble in that task. Ben Crenshaw believes that “the reason the Road is the hardest par 4 in the world is because it is really a par 5.”
C. B. Macdonald naturally brought the Road concept to the United States, and his first stab came at Piping Rock. The 8th green is considerably larger than that of its predecessor, and front pins are much more attainable for players who don’t have an ideal approach angle, as this Road bunker leaves the front two-thirds of the green more open, with the front protruding forward out of the bunker’s reach. Macdonald pulls one trick from his bag by making the front a more intimidating target. Similar to his Narrows or Double Plateau templates, a fairway bunker short of the green blocks the player from seeing how much room they have to land and run up, creating a new source of tension for approach into this Road hole. The late George Bahto knew more about templates than anyone and his assertion (documented beautifully in The Evangelist of Golf) that No. 8 at Piping Rock is one of the finest Road examples is irrefutable.
Piping Rock 8th hole - George Bahto collection
Macdonald’s admiration for No. 17 at St. Andrews is best displayed in the title of his Road hole (No. 7) at the National Golf Links of America. Although the Old course gave us classic templates such as the Eden, Macdonald chose to name NGLA’s Road “St. Andrews.” This variant on the hole is a short par 5 (but, at 478 yards, it could work as a long par 4 for longer hitters). Although he doesn’t seek to emulate the blind tee shot at The Home of Golf, he does place a large waste area along the right corner of the dogleg; those who can carry the cape get the best look at the green for a potential eagle attempt. Those who choose to take the safe route get an easier passage to the green than at St. Andrews, with wide fairway landing areas. Although the original Road can make even pitches tough from the front, Macdonald did not crown his green to guide poor chips into the namesake bunker. This, and many Road holes to come, feature bunkers at the back of the green, in place of the title “road.”
NGLA 7th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Many takes on the Road, particularly from Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, did not require a dogleg carry from the tee. Their most effective variants, such as the one at Long Island’s North Shore Country Club, still requires a test of skill (or power) from the tee. The best approach into this green will come from the plateau on the right of the fairway, while shots that fail to peak may roll leftward toward a sizable fairway bunker. The original Road is tough to green in its own right, but the North Shore version slopes from front to back, which makes stopping the ball at the correct spot on this deep green a nuisance.
Tom Doak has proven especially keen on the Road concept among modern designers, and his version at Cape Kidnappers (No. 14 called “Pimple”) may be the most daring. The back tees come in at 348 yards, but those willing to tee it forward can make this a drivable variant of Road. The green is near identical to Road specifications, and its front is directly in line with the tees. That shot first requires carrying a chasm separating the tees from the fairway, as well as the pair of bunkers short of the green on the right side. Reaching the green demands a laser-guided shot, as any sort of fade will roll right down into the chasm. As with the debate between “Long Par 4” and “Short Par 5,” a drivable 4 lives up to the exciting matchplay requirements of a Road.
Cape Kidnappers 14th hole - courtesy John Sabino
Although Old Station Road runs alongside the original Road Hole, the holes most frequently mistaken for “Road” only include that element of the original. One such example is the closer at Royal Worlington & Newmarket, which is a reasonably misleading case. On one hand, the player must choose an appropriate line from the tee during this dogleg right, while avoiding the field on the right (in line with a true Road). The similarities end after that. No “Road” bunker exists, and Golf Links Road itself bisects the fairway about 40 yards short of the green. Although this could make for daring strategy from the tee (carry the dogleg 260 yards and bounce up to the green?), it is not a Road hole.
Royal Worlington & Newmarket 9th hole - courtesy RW&N GC
Although some Road holes prove themselves worthy without a dogleg, some are lacking. We’ll be as bold as to suggest that Macdonald’s No. 4 at St. Louis Country Club doesn’t meet his own demanding standards. We’re not bothered by the “Reverse Road” nature of the green, which opens at the front-left and travels back-right around the Road bunker, but we would argue there is not enough difficulty along the left fairway to punish those who fail in seeking out the best angle of approach. If these bunkers were to jut out more into the fairway and sit closer to each other, potentially creating a landing area where players must carry the first and stop short of the last, this would be an ideal solution. But the spirit of the original Road lies in it being one of the most intimidating holes in professional golf.
St Louis CC 4th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
The No. 2 hole at Lost Dunes in Michigan displays Doak again putting unique spin on classic concepts. As with Macdonald’s “St. Andrews,” Doak’s dogleg right involves carrying a large bunker complex at the corner to find the ideal angle into the green. There is no Road bunker, however. Rather, two large native mounds rise to block view of the back two-thirds of the green for those who are not in prime approach position. It’s possible that these hazards do too much to deter an attempt at the green, however. Although it is never wise to attack the Road Hole from the left, the option remains open. And, in the case of Ballesteros, glory awaits those who can pull off the heroic shot. Would Seve have taken the shot if he could not even see the green? Doak’s Lost Dunes innovation is an intriguing one, but perhaps goes a touch too far to be a true Road.
Lost Dunes 2nd hole - courtesy Lost Dunes Golf Club