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The "Heathery" 12th

The famous hole has a history of making or breaking an Old Course round

Posted Jul 19, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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The 12th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews is a par-four innocently known as "Heathery" and measuring a modest 348 yards.  This makes it comfortably reachable, you'd think, by most of the current tournament professionals with a well-struck drive.  It is only on hearing it described as a deceptively tricky par-four that you can begin to understand the pivotal role it has played in the destination of at least two Open Championships in the modern era.

With the 17th thought to be falling victim to modern technology, the Royal and Ancient saw fit to increase its length by a full 50 yards, to 495, for this latest staging.  And all the while, it seems that not a second thought was given to retaining the 12th at the same yardage it had in 2005, when Tiger Woods captured the title for a second time at St Andrews.

Whatever about the 17th, which provoked some heated outbursts from competitors who suffered grievously from its extended length, the 12th continued to provide a searching examination, without the addition of even an inch to its length.  It was there that we had a four-shot swing on Sunday - Louis Oosthuizen's birdie to Paul Casey's triple-bogey seven - which effectively sealed the destination of the 150th Anniversary staging of this grand old event.

So what is it about the 12th that makes it so fearsome?  Its menace lies in the fact that the bunkers which threaten the tee-shot are all hidden from view.  There is also the fact that the top level of the two-tier green is only 12 paces deep and requires supreme accuracy with the approach.  Many players try to minimise this difficulty by attempting to drive the green, which, presumably, is what Casey had in mind on Sunday.  The result was a penalty drop from gorse and a blind third shot which he ruinously miscalculated for distance.

It could be argued that the South African's eagle on the ninth had already sealed Casey's fate, but he remained very much in the hunt, in my view, until the 12th.

In the same way, the 17th was generally considered to have been the critical hole in Tom Watson's failure to capture the 1984 Open at St Andrews, where a glorious birdie on the last gave Seve Ballesteros the title by two strokes.  Keen students of golf will recall how Watson, in a desperate effort at hunting down the Spaniard, overshot the green on the Road Hole with a two-iron second shot which went straight, rather than being drawn onto the target as was intended.

From a position within a couple of feet of the boundary wall, Watson then managed to scramble the ball back onto the green, but two putts cost him a bogey five.  This meant needing to hole his second shot on the last to tie Ballesteros.  With a par on the 17th, however, a closing birdie would have done the trick.  But the interesting thing is that Watson made no mention afterwards of where, in my view, he really lost that particular title.

Though measuring an even more modest 316 yards back then, "Heathery" was quite correctly acknowledged as one of the great, short par-fours of the time.  And to highlight the fact that the green could be driven with persimmon, we were reminded that the great Irish amateur, Joe Carr, did just that on his way to victory in the 1958 British Amateur Championship.  And he holed the putt for an eagle two.

Among the leading challengers in 1984, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman made comfortable birdies there.  But, not unlike what Casey was to do 26 years later, Watson hooked his drive into trouble and had to settle for a bogey.  That was his most costly error, in my view, not overshooting the 17th where he found himself forced to gamble.

"Heathery" should be studied by modern golf-course architects.  It would show them that there are more subtle ways of testing the modern player than simply piling on the yardage.

- Dermot Gilleece             

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