Donald Steel is the only man to have worked on all the current Open venues. He gives his insight on course design to us
Donald Steel is one of the most storied and noted golf course designers and journalists in the game.
He was the only writer or architect to have played in The Open as an amateur when he competed in the 1970 championship at St Andrews.
Steel was the Sunday Telegraph’s first golf correspondent from 1961 to 1990, and has built a long list of top golf courses, as well as helping to renovate two courses at St Andrews and Royal St. George’s.
NCG spoke to Steel about all things architecture and course design:
What is your main aim when you visit an Open Championship course?
To keep the challenge fresh from the advances that have been made, particularly with equipment.
Every Open course has had changes in the last 15 years to adjust to the distances the ball is being hit and making sure the positioning of the bunkers is appropriate. You either have to put tees back or adjust the bunkers or both. It is like moving the furniture.
What can the Old Course do to protect itself against the modern-day game?
There is a slight reluctance to move the bunkers. They have pushed tees back on a number of holes but, if the bunkers are not in the right spot, its defences are bound to be a bit dented.
In 2000 Tiger Woods didn’t go in one single bunker. He drove past most of them and managed to avoid the greenside ones, which was a feat in itself.
With the Old Course, everyone is aware of its historical legacy. Understandably, nobody wants to change more than is necessary.
There isn’t an awful lot you would want to do with the Old Course although a watchful eye will be kept this year on the impact of the bunkers from the tee.
Would moving some of the game’s most famous bunkers be almost sacrilegious?
Yes, but if the course’s challenge is to be maximised, it is a subject that warrants careful consideration.
The Old Course is still a wonderful place for the Open, everyone loves playing there, everyone likes going there and it is quite unlike anywhere else.
I’m sure it will be there forever more, and rightly so, but further adjustment wouldn’t be the end of the world. However, the wind is still a course’s best defence.
So what do you make of the new 17th tee?
That is another example where they are trying to shore up the defences of the hole. I’ve not seen it but I guess it will work OK.
I understand Henry Cotton suggested doing something similar but there was a railway in the way then and you wouldn’t have been allowed to have hit from that part of the Eden course.
It remains to be seen whether it will make the hole any more difficult, my suspicion is it probably won’t. It will make the drive a bit more difficult but most players will be able to achieve that and then the requirements will be the same.
You last worked at Hoylake ahead of the 2006 Open where Tiger won so impressively. Is it likely that somebody will be able to prosper this year without using the driver?
Woods’ performance was one of the best displays you will ever see. He decided that he would abandon his driver with the option of hitting longer irons in and it worked brilliantly.
This year, unless it is playing very short, you should find players playing with far more freedom off the tee and using the driver a lot.
Ideally, do we not want every player to have to hit every club in the bag during a round?
If you look at the way players have won the Open then there is no question the further back you go the better they played.
Look at Ben Hogan in 1953. He came over to Carnoustie on a special mission, won by four shots, didn’t defend and never came back, and it was 7,000 yards or thereabouts so he had to drive the ball really solidly.
It was a relentless examination, as it still is, and he then had to face long irons and wooden clubs to those greens.
Nowadays they are hitting drives much further and leaving shorter shots in so there isn’t the same degree of skill, I don’t care what anyone says.
If a champion has a four to win then you want it to be as demanding as possible and a drive and a two iron to win the Open, as Tom Watson did at Royal Birkdale in 1983, seems to be the most challenging demand.
Wentworth has some of the best terrain for inland golf, with sand, heather and pine trees but all these raised greens with bunkers set into them takes away that natural look.
So what could be done to toughen up the 18th at St Andrews?
You cannot get the tee any further back but the part about the hole is that it is apparently so easy. Don’t forget Jack Nicklaus drove it in 1970.
There has never been any suggestion of putting any bunkers in and the Valley of Sin plays the role of a bunker and adds a bit of deception. You can change the pin positions, which they use more and more as a counter to the distance the players hit the ball.
The same could be said of the 1st which also has no bunkers and shares the same fairway. Richard Burton, who won the Open in 1939, defended for the first time after the war in 1946 and, after a seven-year wait, hit his opening tee shot out of bounds.
Who has the final say on any changes made to an Open course?
The final say is with the club and the R&A or, in the case of St Andrews and Carnoustie, their Links Trusts – you work for them.
You put forward your plans and, if they get approval, you go out and implement them but you are always working for a client.
Another famous course that has undergone plenty of recent changes is the West at Wentworth. What did you make of those?
I only saw it on TV and it all looked very artificial, particularly the final hole. If you put sleepers in it strikes a slightly harsh note and the changes were very demanding.
Of course, the pros work on the percentage system and if they don’t think there’s a decent chance of hitting the green on the new 18th they certainly won’t attempt to.
The odds seemed like 20-1 and they played it as a par 5 and left themselves a straightforward wedge, which is a pity as it was always meant to be a bit more of a gamble.
Could you still consider it a Harry Colt design?
I don’t think you could possibly call it a Harry Colt course any more, he designed all the original greens and the greens were some of the major changes.
The layout is, I suppose, still Harry Colt but it has changed so much it would be unfair to the memory of one of the great architects to leave his name attached.
Wentworth has some of the best terrains for inland golf, with sand, heather and pine trees but all these raised greens with bunkers set into them takes away that natural look.
It’s a different character. I would be very interested to hear what the members think.
Finally, what is your favourite Open course?
For setting and beauty there is nothing to beat Turnberry, if you took a poll Carnoustie would come out as most difficult and Muirfield is the fairest and is always popular for that reason.
But you simply can’t beat St Andrews, nowhere in the world can match what it has..
Could the golf ball be rolled back for everyone?