I wonder if R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers and Championship Committee members were out looking at the Old Course at St Andrews today in preparation for the 150th Open Championship after perhaps suffering a wee scare overnight while watching the PGA Tour’s first tournament of 2022.
They might have been looking for the trickiest pin positions possible to stop the world’s best ripping the old lady of St Andrews to shreds after not one, but three players broke the PGA Tour scoring record in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Cameron Smith had to find nose bleed territory to shoot 34-under-par over the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Hawaii to hold off Jon Rahm by one shot, and Australian compatriot Matt Jones by two. All three broke the previous PGA Tour 72- hole scoring record of 31 under par, which Ernie Els recorded at the same event in 2003.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is it took 19 years for the record to fall given the how far golf equipment has advanced in that time. And Smith wasn’t entirely happy!
“We wanted to get to 35 under,” the 28-year-old Australian said. “We missed it by one. So, I mean, in that sense, disappointing but it's great to come away with the W.”
“Disappointing?” With 34-under? Ben Hogan must be turning in his grave, while Bobby Jones must be wondering whatever happened to Old Man Par.
Of course, the Kapalua layout and the Old Course are not exactly replicas of each other. The former has wide fairways, large greens and preferred lies were in place. (Quick aside: how can the PGA Tour call it a record when preferred lies were in operation?) I haven’t played Kapalua but from what I read, it’s the perfect holiday hacker’s heaven. No surprise then that the world’s best should rip it apart.
But 34 under? An average of 8.5 under per round? A game most of us are unfamiliar with.
Mind you, we’ve got used to rounds in the 60s. Not just in professional golf. Delve deeper into the amateur game or American college golf and you’ll find plenty players returning scores beginning with the number six.
And so to this year’s Open Championship over the Old Course. Slumbers and the R&A will be hoping for four days of traditional Open Championship weather: moderate to strong winds and a fast running links. Indeed, secretly they must be hoping for at least three days of hoolie-like conditions, with sunny skies on the final a day to crown the winner of the 150th running of the game’s oldest and greatest tournament.
The Old Course has been stretched as far as it can, to the point where it has burst outside its former footprint to try withstand graphite shafts, can’t miss clubfaces and balls that fly like freshly spooked birds. However, if this year’s Open Championship is blessed with four days of flat calm weather and soft conditions then the Open record of 20-under-par Henrik Stenson set in 2016 to become Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal Troon in that Duel in the Sun Part II with Phil Mickelson could be in real danger. And Troon is harder course than the Old.
Of course, defenders of the status quo – mostly those with vested interests in selling golf equipment, or hoping to curry favour with said manufacturers to attract advertising money (and there are plenty of those) – will maintain there’s nothing wrong with 34-under winning totals, with pros hitting drives and short irons into par-4s, even par-5s, and who cares what score wins this year’s Open Championship? that the game is in good health.
Will they still say that if the Old Course is ripped apart in July? Good question. Not sure about you, but tour pros continuously hitting drive/wedge to par-4s, reaching par-5s with mid irons is about as boring as a Tiger Woods reveal-nothing-at-all press conference.
Here’s hoping the gods of golf make the wind blow over the St Andrews links this summer. Or that the Slumbers and the R&A source 18 industrial strength wind machines for championship days, and site flags in hard to putt to parts of those great double greens.
#JustSaying: “Until you play it, St Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.” Sam Snead