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The Open 2019: Royal Portrush is great, but O.B. left on the first hole is a crime

July 18, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Many great golf courses have a bad hole, and for reasons we can’t explain, it’s often the first or last. Pebble Beach’s opener is cramped and awkward, while Augusta National’s closing hole is almost as bad as Cypress Point’s. Where the first hole at Royal Portrush breaks from this tradition is that the untowardness is entirely arbitrary and unnecessary. A pleasant 421-yard par-4 with a really neat, elevated green is bastardized by out-of-bounds stakes on both sides of the fairway. This is not the proverbial mole on Marilyn’s face, it is a festering wound oozing creamy puss.

O.B. down the right is defensible only because there is a corporate hospitality structure hard against the first fairway. The O.B. left is a crime against humanity. It’s far too close to the fairway: just shy of the first bunker the white line is only four paces from the edge of the first cut, with firm, fast turf leading up to it.

On Thursday, especially in the morning, the wind was coming hard from the right, making out-of-bounds in play for any ball with hook spin. Ask poor Rory McIlroy. A lot of air went out of this Open when his opening tee shot sailed O.B. by a yard or two, leading to a brutal snowman.

Out-of-bounds is designed to protect private property, so you’re not playing a shot out of Grandma’s garden; internal O.B., as on Portrush’s first hole, is usually a red flag of a sad mistake, either in the course design or the thinking of the course stewards. To the left of McIlroy’s ball was a lovely expanse of linksland. Left of that is a cart path, and left of that is a grass area trampled down by spectators heading out onto the course, all of if framed by grandstands the likes of which players get a free drop from most every week.

What exactly is this out-of-bounds line protecting? It would be fun to watch players manufacturing shots from these iffy positions. McIlroy (and the handful of others who went O.B. on the first hole) undeniably hit a bad shot. Should it come at a cost? Definitely. Without the arbitrary white line, he would have been left with a bad lie in the scrubby grass, with no angle to the green. That punishment fits the crime. Instead, he got the the equivalent of a firing squad for jaywalking.

Portrush is a fabulous course which has deservedly received uniform praise from the Open competitors. It’s a shame that its only flaw is exposed on the very first swing.