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A ‘monstrosity’ or great? Controversial new 17th hole splits opinion at Open Championship

<i>Stuart Kerr/R&A/Getty Images</i><br/>Foster (L) and Fitzpatrick are chasing more major glory at Royal Liverpool.
Stuart Kerr/R&A/Getty Images
Foster (L) and Fitzpatrick are chasing more major glory at Royal Liverpool.

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — Open Championship organizers were hoping their new hole would inject extra drama to proceedings this week. Less than 24 hours into the major, their wish has been granted – and then some.

It may be the shortest hole on the course, but Royal Liverpool’s par-three 17th hole is already proving a tall order for some players at the 151st edition of the tournament.

Lucas Herbert had arrived at the penultimate tee with a share of the lead after an excellent start to his first round Thursday. Six excruciating swings later, the Australian’s name had plummeted down the leaderboard.

“Well, I could have told you there would be carnage,” Herbert said.

‘Little Eye’

Designed by hole architect Martin Ebert, ‘Little Eye’ did not exist the last time Royal Liverpool staged The Open. When Rory McIlroy lifted the Claret Jug in 2014, the 17th hole was a 458-yard par four.

Now though, it’s a 136-yard hop from tee to flag, almost 60 yards less than the course’s next shortest hole.

It’s a stone’s throw for the game’s elite and, playing out towards the ocean, offers a scenic view. Cute, but also deadly; players must clear a swathe of bunkers before attempting to land their ball on an infinity green raised well-above their eyeline.

With steep slopes trailing off into deep bunkers either side, and another sprawling sand trap at the back, there is little room for error. Throw wind into the equation – a likely factor on a coastal course – and those margins become even slimmer.

For the icing on the cake, large grandstands at both tee and green add an extra layer of pressure and drama – exactly as it was intended.

“One of the sentiments that was felt after 2014 … was that the course could do with more drama,” R&A CEO Martin Slumbers told reporters Wednesday.

“I am a believer that the best par-three’s in the world are short. The 12th at Augusta, 17th at TPC, 8th at Royal Troon. This gave us an opportunity to change that hole to create drama.

“It’s hard, but if you want to go and do your research go and compare it to the size of green at TPC, Postage Stamp, 12th at Augusta. It’s a bigger green, the 12th at Augusta, which I think everyone in this room would probably put in the top three par-three’s in the world, and it has a lot of jeopardy in there.

“Whether it’s a great hole or a really great hole, I’ll wait until Monday morning,” he added.

Cameron Smith, who triumphed at the 150th edition of the tournament at St. Andrews last year, got his first taste of the new hole during a practice round on Sunday, and the Australian believed Slumbers’ aims had been realized.

“That’s probably the right word, drama,” Smith told reporters Monday.

“It’s a tough hole. We played it yesterday and it was straight into the wind, 30 or 40 miles an hour, and it was not a tee shot that you want to have.

“There’s not much room for error up there, and I think it’ll be a really exciting finish to an Open Championship for sure. I think it’s a great hole.”

‘Monstrosity’

Not all were as glowing in their reviews as the defending champion.

Billy Foster, caddie for 2022 US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, said organizers had created a “monstrosity.”

“Unfortunately, I think this Open Championship could be remembered for a calamity that happened,” Foster told Golf Monthly on Monday.

“The green is very small. If you land it a foot short it rolls back into a coffin that’s underground, so deep. This is challenging the best golfers in the world that will be making 6s, 7s and 8s.”

Fitzpatrick was coy with his own thoughts on the hole ahead of the tournament. Initially describing it as “interesting,” when the Englishman was asked to explain further, he added: “I’ll leave it at that.”

The 28-year-old was more expansive after his first round. Though an opening one-over 72 marked a disappointing start to his latest pursuit of a second major, he did birdie the 17th hole.

“It’s a tough hole,” Fitzpatrick said Thursday.

“I think if you hit a half decent shot and miss the fairway, miss the green by a couple yards, you’re in the back of the bunker, you’re making double, you lose The Open, it’s going to sting. There’s no doubt about that.

“But at the same time, it’s the same for everyone. It’s going to require a good shot on there, regardless. It is maybe a little bit too penal on that right side, but it is the same for everyone.”

Pete Cowen, coach of May’s PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka, offered a more scathing criticism of the bunker set-up, saying that the hole could “ruin” a career.

“I hate it. I haven’t heard a player say a good thing about it. They’ll just deal with it,” Cowen told golf news site Bunkered on Wednesday.

“It could ruin somebody’s career if the wind goes in the wrong direction all of a sudden or there is bad luck rolling down from the wrong place.

“Why would you make a 120 – 130-yard par-three impossible? It’s called an infinity green and that could be it. They could be playing infinitely backwards and forwards across the green.

Cowen added: “That face on the bunker to the right is probably too steep. The players can’t get enough impetus on the ball to get it up on the green.

“It will just come back to them in the bunker –  that in itself is a problem. If it does that it could come back into a footprint and if that happens, then good luck.”

The R&A referred CNN to Slumber’s statements when asked for comment on Foster and Cowen’s remarks.

Koepka, who parred the penultimate before carding one-under 70, was not surprised by his coach’s comments.

“Sounds like Pete said it,” he told reporters.

“I don’t know, it’s fine. I think it’s a good hole. I think that’s how par-three’s should be. I’m not a huge fan of the 250 [yard] par-three’s. It’s very boring three-iron; you know what you’re going to do.

“All the great par-three’s are nine-iron and less and difficult greens.”

Harsh but fair

The five-time major champion is far from the only fan of ‘Little Eye.’ Even it’s biggest casualty yet is a supporter.

Herbert’s strong start crumbled after his 17th tee drive skewed left to settle at the bottom of the green’s slope. After his next shot sent him over to the other side, the world No. 56 finally made it onto the green with his fourth shot only to two-putt for a triple-bogey.

Having eagled the 15th, it derailed Herbert’s round, dropping him to even-par overall, but he gave the hole his approval nonetheless.

I think it’s a great hole,” he said.

“[If] There’s no wind, it’s a gap wedge and you can make a two pretty easily. But that wind gets going, and you can’t really feel it too much on the tee, it becomes a really tricky shot.

“I saw the group behind me –someone else came off the front of the green in the front bunker. Our group all missed the green … Felt like there was about 5,000 professional golfers sitting around us in the stands watching it. It’s just not easy.

“I could have hit a poor different shot and made a bogey there and got away with one, but as I was, I made a triple. You know, doesn’t make lunch taste any better, but to get myself to the position I was in, that anyone even cared about that triple is kind of what I care about.”

Jordan Spieth, 2017 Open champion, said the hole had potential for “carnage” if winds pick up, but – like many of his competitors, including Jon Rahm – ultimately described it as harsh but fair.

“You have a big enough area to hit,” said Spieth, who parred the hole on course to a two-under 69 first round.

“The greens aren’t surfaces that’ll rip back if you flight the ball the right way. You have to hit a really nice shot. If you do, you have a good look at birdie, and if you don’t you have a difficult par.

“I actually think it’s fair. I wouldn’t necessarily put it in the top three greatest short par-three’s, but I think it’s a really good one, and I think it’ll be really exciting because not only do you have that hole, you have that and then 18 right afterwards that you have to hit two really, really nice tee shots.”

England’s Jason Day added: “I like that hole. I think they’ve done a great job with it.

“There’s definitely a lot more character than what we had before, which was the hole going back down the hill.”

Approaching the end of the first round, the scoring average for the 17th hole stood at 3.14, ranking it as the 8th hardest hole.

Should Merseyside winds pick up, that average could well soar. Royal Liverpool member Matthew Jordan, who impressed with a two-under 69, may be better placed than any other on the field to navigate ‘Little Eye’.

“I think it’s good … But to be honest, not many people have said that many good things about it at the moment, which has kind of surprised me,” Jordan said.

“I thought when we first did it, it might be too easy, but everyone is saying how it could be too hard.

“I’ll reserve judgment until Sunday, I think, and that’s when we’ll all have a better idea.”

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