Guests at the Old Course Hotel, overlooking the tee and the fairway of the 17th hole at St Andrews, better known as the Road Hole, pay thousands of pounds a night to wake up for a view of the Old Course in Open week but are advised to use the balconies at their own risk. The sound of balls fizzing past the roof is a constant from around 10.30am each day and such is the danger of being hit by one of them that the hotel has now closed its lawned garden that lies just a stone wall away from the action.
The boundary of the hotel stands in direct line of the tee shot, with a replica railway shed on the corner acting as both an obstacle and a guide: players use an OLD COURSE HOTEL sign mounted on the shed wall as a target, with most aiming for COURSE and braver souls taking a draw, which starts right of HOTEL. The key thing here is to find the right side of the fairway, from which there is a (slightly) easier approach in.
It’s easier said than done. Ernie Els came a cropper on Thursday: his excellent score of 70 would have been better still had he not sliced his drive out of bounds into the hotel’s lawned garden. “I played good – I just had that one frickin’ tee shot on 17,” said The Big Easy, who double-bogeyed the hole. Brooks Koepka proved to be the victim on Friday, skewing awfully into the hotel grounds, which contributed to the LIV golfer missing the cut here. There have been countless similar mishaps down the years. Phil Mickelson managed to hook his tee shot on to a balcony back in 2010 to give one of the guests a very nice souvenir.
And if you go for a safer shot further left of the hotel, the fairway is so narrow that there is a good chance you will end up in some very ugly rough, as Paul Casey and Sam Burns found to their peril on Friday, on their way to double-bogeys.
Jamie Henderson, a marshal in the grandstand overlooking the 17th tee, is a local with a links ticket who regularly plays here. “I try to hit it over the hotel, some are successful, some are not!” says the 11-handicapper. “A few of mine have ended up on the flat roof.”
The tee shot is, of course, just the first challenge. If you are left-side of the fairway, the approach to the green becomes treacherous, especially if the flag is at the back, between the notorious bunker that guards the front left and the road which borders the back. Fridayday’s flag placement was near the front, atop a steep ridge which is another obstacle to anyone thinking of laying up and putting on from the fairway.
Anything that rolls left is gobbled by the bunker, which is nicknamed the “Sands of Nakajima”, owing to Tommy Nakajima taking four shots to escape it in 1978, costing the Japanese the Open lead. Such is the worry of ending up on the road that Mickelson was seen practising a chip off the asphalt with a one-iron earlier this week. Joaquín Niemann was forced to take his shot from the road on Friday, while Talor Gooch nearly holed his pitch from the fringe of the concrete.
Being creative in sticky situations is all part of links golf and the 17th is the quirkiest hole at St Andrews. Squashed up against the stone wall that lies beyond the road, in 2010 Miguel Ãngel Jimenez sensationally pitched a shot backwards against the wall, with the ball flopping beautifully up on to the green.
“It’s such a fun hole to play. I think that’s one of the special things about this golf course,” said the world No 1, Scottie Scheffler, during practice. “I’m going to go out there and have a good time just hitting all kinds of weird shots.
It’s pretty funny. You hit over the hotel, and then the green, like it is so small. I’m definitely going to do everything in my power to not go in that bunker. It’s so bad down there.”
Scheffler has safely negotiated the 17th so far this week with two pars but, with the American nestled just behind the leaders going into the weekend, there is plenty of time for some late drama on the Open’s penultimate hole.
One of just five golfers to birdie the 17th on Friday, Rory McIlroy nabbed an unlikely three after finding the left rough off the tee. But after a sensational approach he drained a 25ft putt to take him to 10 under par, just three shots off the leader Cameron Smith, to send the nearby grandstand wild.
For the punters in the grandstand overlooking the 17th green it remains one of the best vantage points on the course, with views also down the 18th fairway and the green of the 1st hole. Many in the hotel opt to visit the Jigger Inn, a pub which also borders the 17th fairway.
“There’s actually a glass conservatory in the hotel ground, behind the shed, but they’ve closed the garden while people are teeing off,” explains a guest David Rickell, who is peering over the stone wall by the Jigger. “There’s even a security guard there saying you can’t go out. I haven’t had any balls whizz past my head but it’s early days yet.”