Could someone shoot 59 at the Old Course? R&A chief would welcome it

collin morikawa hits shot at 2022 Open Championship

A record-breaking 59 at the Old Course would send shockwaves through the golf world.

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, is one of the most important golfers in the world. You won’t see his scores, just know his handicap is low single digits. And that he has a better office than you, overlooking the 1st tee and 18th green of the Old Course

Slumbers is one of the most vital decision-makers in golf, and he finally shared some important opinions Wednesday morning. Among them: he’s totally okay with a golfer shooing 59 at the Old Course this week.

Much has been made of how the modern golfer swinging modern technology could make an ancient golf course look like a pitch and putt. The potential is there. As many as five par-4s are drivable, according to Lee Trevino. Ross Fisher carded a 61 on the Old five years ago. That was the same course, but very different conditions. Slumbers knows that. 

During a methodical and occasionally intense press conference, Slumbers was asked about the potential of a golfer shooting 59, a holy grail score, at the holy grail course. What would that mean to him, the man who leads a coalition investigating distance and course setups? He sat up in his chair, a sign he was ready for this query, and delivered a 300-word answer.

“I’m going to deal with that in a couple of ways, if I may. We’ve spent three years getting this golf course to where we are today. The one thing I’ve learned in the last seven years is you need two things to be happening Open week. One is very skilled green-keeping staff and very hardworking staff, and we’re privileged to have that team here. And the second bit is luck, and luck with Mother Nature. 

Martin Slumbers addresses the media on Wednesday.
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“And I think the golf course is exactly where we want it to be. If you go out there today, it’s a lot firmer than it was yesterday. We’ve been holding the greens back because we had very hot weather in the early part of this week. We wanted to make sure that the grass was good come Sunday. The fairways are firmer than the greens, and they’re running really hard. And Mother Nature at the moment is not destined to give us any rain and probably not going to give us as much wind as we like. But we’ve got other ways of being able to set up the golf course. And my philosophy has always been I want to set up the golf course fair, challenging, and let these guys show us how good they are. 

“Now, let me make a comment about 59 because I’ll put that back to you. Fifty-nine is 13 under par around this golf course, that’s 7,300 yards. It’s got greens that are running at 10 1/2 to 11 [on the Stimpmeter]. It’s got fairways where the ball is bouncing 50 yards, and more if it catches the downslope. 13 under par around that, I’ll tell you what, if someone shoots that, I will be the first person on the 18th green to shake their hand because they have played outstanding golf.”

It would be outstanding golf. He’s right about that. He’s also right about the firmness. St. Andrews was softer two weeks ago after a stretch of rainy days. But the month of July has seen next to zero rainfall. The hottest stretch of temperatures has dried out the property to be as firm as any course. The burn waterways that snake their way through town, and even cross the 1st and 18th holes, are dependent on the tide being up. Otherwise, they’re drying up. Slumbers loves that.

It’ll mean that players drive some greens but it’ll also mean players find bunkers they never imagined they could. Maintenance teams have used hidden sprinkler heads in the rough to juice up the trouble areas so they’re as penal as can be. 

All of it perpetuates an idea that low scores will be earned. They will not be given out. And if they happen, so be it. Here’s a handshake. Fantastic playing, chap. Good luck doing it again tomorrow. 

Sean Zak Editor

Sean Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just published his first book, which follows his travels in Scotland during the most pivotal summer in the game’s history.