'Hardest par 4 in the world' has been lengthened

The infamous Road Hole at St. Andrews was dubbed the "hardest par 4 in the world." And that was before it was injected with steroids.

As players prepare for the 2010 British Open, they are getting familiar with an even longer and more demanding 17th hole. It has been stretched from 455 yards to 495, making it the longest par 4 at the Old Course. Gambling Phil Mickelson, of all people, said he will play the Road Hole as a par 5.

Palmer-proofing┬╗ For more than a century, the length of the Road Hole remained unchanged. ┬╗ Prior to the 1964 British Open, however, it was a par 5. ┬╗ When Arnold Palmer reached it three straight rounds with a 6-iron, and Kel Nagle played it in 6-under in 1960, the R&A changed the Road Hole to a par 4.

It is with some bemusement that players have discovered the new tee across a service road, behind a railway shed, and beyond white stakes from the 16th green, marking it out of bounds.

"If anyone is selling four 4s there right now, I'm buying," U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said. "I'll even take two 5s and two 4s to be honest."

Some players are wondering why a hole that played to a stroke average of 4.6 in the last three Opens needed to be lengthened.

Even in winning with a tournament-record 19-under-par in 2005, Tiger Woods played the hole in 2-over. In a practice round on Sunday, with the wind howling, Woods missed the fairway three times from the new tee.

"It's a hard hole no matter how you look at it, whether it's played short or long," Woods said.

Royal and Ancient Golf Club chief executive Peter Dawson explained that the alterations -- which include a wider fairway -- were made to bring more trouble into play on the approach.

Former British Open champion Ernie Els is one who likes the alterations.

"I think they've absolutely got it spot on," Els said. "I think you've got to hit a driver off the tee now, off the back. You've got to slide it left to right like we used to before the equipment changes, and your second shot, the Road Hole, the Road comes into play now, so it's all good."

Calling the Road Hole quirky is an understatement. From the tee, players hit to a blind fairway, over the Old Course Hotel. The approach to a plateau green is complicated by a paved road up the right side, which is in play, and a pot bunker left of the green.

Some memorable shots have been hit off the macadam road. And the small, but deep bunker has ruined many rounds, like when Tommy Nakajima shot himself out of the tournament with a 9 in 1978, needing four shots to escape the bunker, known for the next few years as "The Sands of Nakajima."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com