You have to go through the hole to win the British Open

Forty-four years ago Tommy Nakajima of Japan participated in the hunt during the third round of the 1978 British Open. On the old course at St. Andrews, where the tournament will take place again this week, Nakajima landed his second hit on court number 1.17, par 4, known as the “Road Hole”. Mission accomplished.

Now Nakajima is likely to par or, at worst, bogey on one of the most intimidating holes in professional golf.

His shot, however, went down the wrong slope, making an unfortunate left turn into a pot bunker with surprisingly high sidewalls. But his troubles were just beginning. From there, it took Nakajima four hits for the ball to hit the field. He eventually hit a nine on the hole, shattering any realistic hope of winning the burgundy pitcher. He will finish the tournament with a draw in 17th place.

Nakajima’s partner in this third round was Tom Weiskopf, who won the 1973 British Open.

Before Nakajima landed his first punch, Weiskopf told his caddy, “He’d better be careful,” Weiskopf recalled.

The collapse of Nakajima, devastating as it was, was hardly the only disaster in the Road Pit, so named because it is next to a road.

“A lot can go wrong in this hole,” said Nick Price, who won the British Open in 1994. “It’s like walking through a minefield.”

In 1984 Tom Watson found the way. He aimed to win the tournament for the third time in a row. Such a victory would be his sixth Open Championship title; he would break the record of British golfer Harry Vardon. However, Watson’s dream will soon become history.

In 1995, Italian Costantino Rocca in a four-hole playoff against John Daly, it took three shots to get out of the bunker. It was for him.

The first test for players numbered 1. 17 – which was lengthened in 2010 to 495 yards from 455 is targeting a treacherous tee blind, meaning players can’t see the landing zone on the fairway because the view is obscured by the green overhang on the right.

The preferred landing spot is on the right side of the fairway, but if the ball veers too far to the right, it could end up out of bounds. Players usually set their target, depending on the wind, to one of the letters on the barn sign, which reads: Old Course Hotel. Sometimes the balls hit the hotel itself.

Not surprisingly, many golfers try to play it safe when aiming to the left, but this approach is not reliable either.

If you go into the rough from the left, “you have a terrible angle to the pins and a terrible angle to the leading edge of the green,” said David Graham, a two-time champion.

Wherever that first shot ended, the next shot would be just as intimidating.

“The last thing you want to do is hit the road” – Tony Jacklin, 1969 Open Champion at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England. “The best you can expect on your second hit is hitting the front of the green. I don’t care how much you own your game. You can’t guarantee hitting this green in two.”

As Tom Watson knows well.

During the 1984 Open Championship, Watson tied with Sev Ballesteros when he turned his dial 17 to the right. He hit far enough to bounce off the hotel wall, but the ball ended up on a steep slope.

“The shot you want to make on this pitch is a low-speed shot,” Watson said. “You can’t do that with a serious lift.”

He flew his two-iron approach about 30 yards to the right, the ball coming to rest on the road next to a stone wall. With a shortened backswing, Watson managed to deliver the ball within 30 feet of the flagstick. He could still save steam.

Before he hit, however, Watson recalled: “Suddenly I hear this roar on the 18th hole. I look up and see Sev with his fist raised. I said, “Oh, I’ve got to make that shot and birdie the last hole.” When he didn’t hit, Watson knew it was all over. He lost by two shots and never won the maroon pitcher again.

Watson, who played in the Open at St. Andrews strongly discourages challenging the back or middle of the green eight times.

“If you really play smart,” he explained, “you never try to hit more than 20 or 30 feet above the surface of the green. Try to putt two for your par and get the hell out of there.”

Or maybe not go green at all.

At the 1990 Open Championship, which he won, Nick Faldo fell short of the putting surface in 17th place on three out of four days, including the final round. Leading five shots and 215 yards, he saw no reason to risk it. Faldo left the hole with the scarecrow. Earlier in the same round, it took Peter Jacobsen three strokes to move the ball 30 yards off rough number 1. 17, recording an eight.

In 1984, Ballesteros seemed to approach the hole as if it were a par 5 hole, hoping to do just as well as a scarecrow. Price, winner of the 1994 British Open, expressed the same opinion.

“If it was really upwind, I would put in four or three irons and then fold,” Price said. “If I did 4, I did 4. I wasn’t going to do six or seven or eight, that’s for sure.”

The fact that the hole appears so late in the round, when perhaps the championship is at stake, makes the task even more difficult. In 2015, the last Open was held in St. Petersburg. Andrews, Road Hole is recognized as the hardest hole, where players averaged 4655 shots.

For the entire tournament, there were only 9 birdies at 17, with 217 bogeys and 32 double bogeys.

“It’s almost impossible to make a bird even once every four days,” said Graham, a two-time world champion. “If you do that, it’s a long hit.”

Bernard Darwin, the English golf writer and experienced amateur, perhaps best described the elusive lawn at the Road Pit. He wrote that it “lies between a greedy little bunker on one side and a brutally difficult road on the other. Many people like it, most respect it, and everyone is afraid.”