Why are pros shooting such low scores at the Old Course?

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The top of the 2022 Open Championship doesn’t look like an ordinary major championship leaderboard. Well, the names do. But the numbers alongside them — 16 under leading, eight under rounding out the top 10 — make it look more like a regular Tour event than a major championship.

That may not come as news to avid golf fans, but those who may not watch golf week-in, week-out may be tuning into the Open Championship broadcast and find themselves surprised. Why is it that pros are taking it so low at the famed Old Course at St Andrews?

There’s a more contentious conversation you could have on the topic: About technological advances in equipment and training, and the role golf’s historic courses in the game today. But in this case, that controversial topic doesn’t tell the entire story, anyway. The Old Course has hosting low scores for decades: Since 1984, only one winner’s score has finished under 12 under par for the tournament (John Daly’s six under, in 1995). The winning scores in the other six events have averaged more than 15 under, with the 2022 Open set to joint that group when it concludes.

Which brings us back to the question at the top of this article: Why?

1. Links golf needs elements to be difficult

On paper, St Andrews is a not-too-long course on a mostly flat patch of land. But the beauty of links golf is that it’s not played on paper. It’s not supposed to play a certain way. It’s a canvas that reflects the context around it.

It’s been a dry summer in St Andrews this year, so the course is brown, firm and fast. If it had been a wet one, the course would be green, lush, and the ball wouldn’t roll as much. If the wind’s down when you play — lucky you! — it’ll play easier. The more the wind blows, the more cruel the course will be.

This week, players have been going low because the wind has been relatively low, and the temperature hasn’t gotten too hot. The course isn’t being manipulated to be a certain way, it’s just playing as dictated by natural factors.

“It is weather-dependent,” Tiger said earlier this week. “You get the winds like we did today, it’s a helluva test. On 10, I hit a 6-iron from 120 yards. It was blowing so hard…then again, if you get a calm day on this golf course, you can see some players probably have four to five eagle putts.

The beauty of links golf is that it’s the most dynamic, fluid form of the game that we have. The course can’t really be manipulated to play a certain way. Mother Nature is the one who decides its fate. And this week, she’s been kind to the golfers.

2. The fescue looks scarier than it is

There are times when the rough is a course’s primary defense. Any number of U.S. Opens can serve as an example of that.

There’s plenty of long fescue rough around the Old Course, but it’s not the kind of grass we’ve come to associate with rough in the United States. The St Andrews fescue is patchy and wispy — the product of the sandy, fast-draining land it sits on. It means that more often than not, players will be able to hit a good shot out of it.

3. The course isn’t that long

Quite simply, the course isn’t that long — 7,297 yards this week. For context, that’s about three hundred yards shorter than Augusta National, and about six hundreds yards shorter than Kiawah Island for last year’s monster PGA Championship.

The Old Course isn’t just literally shorter, it’s also playing shorter. The course is dry and the ball is rolling out. There are multiple shorter holes with drivable greens, which sets up lots of easy birdie opportunities. It’s why Rory two-putted for birdied on four different holes, as The Fried Egg points out.

4. The greens are huge

A defining trait of the Old Course is the course’s double greens. One green will have two different pins cut into it, for two different holes. In order to make that work, the greens need to be massive — and they are. The average size of a green at the Old Course is over 22,000 square feet.

It means, quite simply, that pros will have lots of putts throughout the day. They’ll drop some long ones along the way, have lots of two putts, and while no pro will ever be happy with a three putt, a three-putt bogey is better for the score than hacking a double out of rough on smaller-greened courses.

5. Pros know how to avoid disaster spots

Yes, there are lots of bunkers lurking around the course. Hit it into one of those, and it’s an easy bogey or double. Bu players know that, and they spend a lot of time planning around them to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you’re playing well, as those at the top of the leaderboard are, you can be very successful if you stay disciplined.

What St Andrews doesn’t have is lots of places you absolutely can’t go. Yes, there are bad spots and better spots, but there are relatively few tournament-killing mistakes you can make. Avoid the Hell bunker, bail out left rather than out of bounds down the right of the 17th hole, and you’ll be coming out ahead.

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