Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp: Breaking Down the Tough Par 3

July 5, 2016

Of all the holes on all the links that make up the rotation of Open Championship courses, the shortest of all is the par-3 8th at Royal Troon Golf Club. Nevertheless, it is one of the most famous, and one of the most dangerous par 3s in the world.

Royal Troon No. 8
123 yards
2004 average score: 3.09

One look at the scorecard tells you the 8th hole should be marshmallow soft. It’s an itty-bitty thing at 123 yards from the back tees. Truthfully, however, it is a tiny terror. Beginning with the 1923 Open Championship, through the most recent edition in 2004, the hole known as the “Postage Stamp” has been one of the scariest in major championship golf.

Designed in 1878 by Willie Fernie and later refined by James Braid, the 8th was once called “Ailsa,” because there is a postcard view from the tee of the gigantic Ailsa rock that rises from the sea. Willie Park Jr., the 1887 and 1889 Open winner, first coined the present name. Writing in the magazine Golf Illustrated in 1909, he described the small size of the green as “a pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp.”

The hole begins with an elevated tee box from the top of a seaside sand dune, and asks for an all-carry shot over a valley filled with tangled rough and low bushes. The green is propped up, but set below the level of the tee box. It is further protected by a high hill on the left and five bunkers along the perimeter. The bunkers to the left of the green were added before the 1923 British Open to keep players from using the mound to bounce their tee shots onto the putting surface.

What makes Royal Troon’s 8th hole brilliant is the shape of the green and the effect of the wind off the adjacent Firth of Clyde. With the skinny green measuring just nine yards wide at its narrowest and the wind usually across or into the golfer’s face, it is a difficult task to hit your iron with the proper trajectory and still hold the green. If you hit it high, it has a better chance to find the green, but the higher you hit it, the more the wind will have influence. The lower your trajectory, the better it will cope with the wind, but the more challenging it will be to stop the ball on the surface. Complicating matters is that the big hill to the left shelters some of the wind from the flagstick, so it is tough to estimate exactly how the wind will affect your ball.

It is hard enough to hit a quality low shot with a short-iron. Miss your shot to either side and severe trouble awaits, especially to the right, where the steep contour of the ground will send your ball racing away, or into one of two severe bunkers on that side. Both of these bunkers have vertical faces, making recovery shots really hard, with just a sliver of elevated green to hit and hold.

Tom Weiskopf, who won the Open Championship at Troon in 1973, recently shared his strategy for dealing with the Postage Stamp that week. “If I misplayed my tee shot,” Weiskopf said, “I wanted to miss on the left side of the green and end up in a bunker. Otherwise, there was little chance of making par.”

The man who handled the Postage Stamp best was 71-year-old Gene Sarazen, the 1932 Open Championship winner. He made a sentimental return in 1973 to play the tournament one more time. In the first round, with a large gallery watching and millions more tuning in on television, Sarazen punched a five-iron into the breeze, watched his ball land 20 feet short of the flag and roll right into the hole for an ace. It remains one of the most remarkable holes-in-one in history. For good measure, he holed a bunker shot for birdie there the following day.

Not so fortunate was Tiger Woods. In 1997, during his first appearance at Royal Troon, the young Masters champion made a triple-bogey 6 during the fourth round. On that day, not even a golfer of Tiger’s formidable talents could lick “the Postage Stamp.”