Road Hole now an even stronger test

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- It is awkward, to be sure, even by the standards of the Old Course -- where, technically, the new tee for the 17th hole does not really reside.

Tinkering with the storied links that are considered the home of golf and the venue for the 139th Open Championship has occurred over centuries, but the change at the treacherous par-4 17th -- while involving just a small piece of ground -- is getting a good bit of attention.

At any other time of the year, the teeing area would be considered out of bounds. And it does appear a bit strange to see white stakes so near the line of where players will fly their tee shots.

The idea, or at least the hope, was to get players hitting longer second shots on a hole that has been lengthened by 40 yards.

Perhaps that doesn't seem like such a big deal in an era of ever-expanding courses, but when you consider that the hole had played at 455 yards since 1900, any change will endure scrutiny.

"'Significant' is a good word," reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said of the change. "It's difficult. I don't think it's bad. Was it necessary? Don't know.

"I thought it was a fantastic hole, with a 7-, 8-, 9-iron in your hand. It's going to be an unbelievably good hole with a 3-, 4-, 5-iron in your hand."

And that is what Royal & Ancient officials were hoping to see when pondering the change.

When Tom Watson hit his approach shot to the green in 1984, he was deliberating between a 2-iron and a 3-iron. He eventually settled on the 2-iron, then saw his shot hit on the green and bounce over and nearly up against the wall that borders the road.

He made bogey and lost a shot at his sixth Claret Jug when Seve Ballesteros birdied the final hole.

The decision to move the tee was daunting because guarding the hole is the Road Bunker, a place to be avoided at all costs. It is 6 feet deep with a sod face. Over the green is a road -- hence the name of the hole -- that is backed by a wall.

Today, it is nearly unfathomable to think that a professional in the field would need a 2-iron or a 3-iron to reach a par-4 green. In recent years, it has been perhaps a 3-wood off the tee and a short iron to the green.

So the R&A moved the tee to adjacent property across an old railway line and onto ground that normally serves as a practice area.

Now 495 yards, it makes one of the strangest tee shots in golf even more so, still requiring a blind shot over the corner of the old shed that now serves as a billboard for the adjacent Old Course Hotel.

"I don't think the change was needed," Jim Furyk said after a practice round. "But now that it is there, I think it's fine."

In the end, it might turn out to be much ado about nothing.

But with such an iconic hole, consternation has followed.

Despite huge advances in technology, including going from hickory to steel shafts and remarkable differences in the golf ball, the hole's length had never changed since the Open in 1900.

Of course, it was a par-5 back then and remained so through the 1964 Open.

But the R&A studied the hole for several years and came to the conclusion that too many short irons were en vogue and not enough balls were finding their way into the treacherous bunker or onto the road.

John Daly, for example, hit wedge into the green three times during his 1995 victory -- although he still played the hole in 3 over par. Tiger Woods was 2 over in 2000 (19 under for the tournament). Five years ago, the average score on the hole was 4.62.

So the hole has played plenty difficult, but the decision still was made to move the tee to an area that is otherwise considered out of bounds.

"I think it's a good change," Ernie Els said. "I think they've absolutely got it spot-on. I think you've got to hit a driver off the tee now. You've got to slide it left to right like we used to before the equipment changes. And for your second shot, the road comes into play."

"It's a tough hole to begin with, no matter how you look at it," Woods said. "I know they wanted us to hit more club into that particular green. … It's a hole where you've got to put the ball in the fairway and then your real work begins, just trying to figure out how I should play my second shot."

The hole always has been among the most peculiar in golf. The tee shot is blind, and you can't see the green from the tee because of the Old Course Hotel. Then you've got the high rough on the left plus the bunker and the road.

Now the tee is not even on the golf course.

"If you designed the hole now, you would be shot," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, runner-up to Woods five years ago here. "If you said now, 'I'm going to put a tee over an old railway on a practice ground and get you to hit over a disused course and over a hotel,' people would think you were off your head."

"The way I look at it, you always want to make sure that the guy who wins the Open Championship is tested at some stage coming down the stretch," two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. "There's nobody who is going to get through 17 without thinking about it for four days."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.