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Rubenstein: The Old Course should stay that way

What's that saying, the one that goes, "Everything old is new again?" But now the Old Course is being made, well, sort of new with a variety of changes meant to more comprehensively examine players when the Open Championship returns there in 2015. That's the idea, anyway.

Various modifications to the Old Course's immensely entertaining and challenging holes have been made over its many years. These changes have mostly been to add yardage or ensure that its pot bunkers – authentic hazards, they are – can be properly maintained. The additional yardage has meant that the players in recent Opens tee off on a couple of holes from property used for other adjacent courses. The St. Andrews Links Trust, formed in 1947 by an Act of Parliament, manages five courses there. They are public courses.

The Links Trust, along with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which conducts the Open, issued its press release with the momentous news last week. Reports indicate that there was no call for public comment about the significant alterations. Golfers who play in the Open are hitting the ball so far, and the ball's composition means that it does not spin and curve off course as much as it should with a poor swing. The R&A and the Links Trust feel something must be done. Martin Hawtree, the R&A's consulting architect on the matter, will reshape some of the ground, introducing new contours and bunkers to the Old Course.

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The famous Road Hole bunker that eats into the front left of the 17th green will be widened on its right. The ground will be reshaped in the area so that a golf ball hit nearby will be more likely to scamper into the deep, forbidding bunker. Work has already started there. Meanwhile, the green at the par-three 11th hole will be flattened at the rear left to generate another pin position.

Hawtree, a soft-spoken gentleman, will be able to come up with the goods to make the Old Course bad, or evil, during the 2015 Open. The Englishman recently reworked the classic Toronto Golf Club's Harry Colt-designed course, having submitted a nearly 200-page report after first inspecting it. Hawtree designed the fast-running, always fun to play Tarandowah Golfers Club in Avon, Ont. The public course rewards study while yielding to thoughtful, creative golf. Hawtree also designed the Trump International Golf Club near Aberdeen, Scotland. It's been getting mostly rave reviews.

Hawtree's work at Toronto wasn't without controversy, especially the cross-bunkering he spread across the fairway in the drive zone at the par-five 16th hole. But all in all, he fulfilled the mandate he had been provided. His work is first-rate; Toronto Golf Club's course looks properly rugged again.

"Martin didn't restore the course [to Colt's design]," property manager Al Schwemler, who worked closely with Hawtree from Day 1, said Tuesday. "He said he looked at the project as if he was Harry Colt nearly 100 years later, and what would he do given the state of the game today? He was working with Colt looking over his shoulder."

Nature and time designed the Old Course, and so Hawtree won't have an architect of record looking over his shoulder. But history, the golf world itself, and today's architects will be staring hard. Meanwhile, architect Tom Doak, based in Traverse City, Mich., and one of the game's most influential and inventive architects, sent a letter asking for support from major architectural societies and intends to petition the R&A to stop its revisions. He considers them draconian and heretical.

"I have told the ASGCA [American Society of Golf Course Architects] that I feel the best course of action would be to write an open letter to the citizens of St. Andrews, who are, in fact, the owners of the course, saying that we as professionals disagree with the advice given to the Links Trust, and encouraging them to weigh in on the changes," Doak wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

Doak said he had received expressions of support from current AGCSA president Bob Cupp and from Graham Papworth, the president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects. Doak said Cupp is "trying to see if he can get [Jack] Nicklaus and Tom Watson and some others involved."

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The situation should not have come to this. The R&A and the United States Golf Association should have regulated equipment long ago so that the ball wouldn't go as far or spin so little. Green speeds should never have been allowed to get so fast that an area of an undulating, steeply pitched green such as the 11th at the Old Course requires flattening.

Peter Dawson, the R&A's secretary, said in the press release, "The [R&A's] championship committee felt there was an opportunity to stiffen [the Old Course's] defences in some places to ensure it remains as challenging as ever to the professionals. The proposals from Martin Hawtree should place more of a premium on accuracy and ball control while retaining the spirit and character of the Old Course."

Doak, in his letter to the architects' societies, wrote: "I think that the default position should be that such an international treasure should be guarded, and that there should be a high burden of proof that changes need to be made, before they can be made."

Writer Tom Dunne noted that the scoring average from the 2010 Open was 73.0665, which suggests that the par-72 Old Course remains a stern test. Where, then, is the high burden of proof that changes need to be made?

Change the rules for equipment. Change the golf ball. Slow down greens. (None of this will happen, though). But don't change the Old Course, at least not without input from more people who care. And many do.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at rube@sympatico.ca . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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