The R&A - Working for Golf

The Open Championship The Old Course and The Rules of Golf

The Old Course is unique in many ways and will continue to present challenges to the players contesting the 144th Open Championship this July.  Hopefully the sun will be shining and the wind benign resulting in a Rules incident-free championship, although that doesn’t happen all the time... 


The Old Course is the home of the pot bunker, with its 110 sandy iconic traps.  The bunkers are all individually named; Walkinshaw's Grave, Coffins, Lion’s Mouth, Principal’s Nose, The Spectacles, Hell.  Each has a rich history to tell and many have made or broken the scores of some of the world’s best golfers.

Perhaps the most famous is the fearsome Road bunker at the 17th green.  During the 3rd round of the 1978 Open, Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima came to the 17th hole four-under for the day and tied for the Championship lead.  He played a smart approach to the front of the green and his carefully judged putt looked good until it caught a ridge and trickled down into the Road bunker.

D36953457FA245F28C9F0B853D648155His first attempt from the sand hit the face.  His second also failed to get out.  His third did escape the bunker – albeit briefly - before rolling back in. Finally, his fourth settled ten feet past the pin.  Nakajima missed the putt and finished with a quintuple-bogey 9 and thus ending his Open Championship dream. 

Due to the unique design of a pot bunker, if you get too close to the face of the bunker, it is sometimes impossible to play forward.  Many players this July will find themselves playing out to the side; some may even find it necessary to deem the ball unplayable. 

A player may deem the ball unplayable at any place on the course, except when the ball is in a water hazard.  The player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is playable.  If you deem your ball unplayable (Rule 28) you may, under penalty of one stroke:

a. play again from where your last shot was played, or

b. drop a ball any distance behind the point where the ball lay keeping a straight line

between the hole, the point where the ball lay and the spot on which the ball is dropped, or

c. drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball lies not nearer the hole.

If your ball is in a bunker you may proceed as above; however, if you are dropping back on a line or within two club-lengths (options b or c), you must drop a ball in the bunker.

Interestingly, in the face of the Road bunker, there will be a small TV camera that will provide television spectators a close-up of all the action this July.  The camera will be deemed as an integral part of the course in the Championship Local Rules so that players cannot claim relief from interference from it and consequently afford them a better lie in the bunker.

Out of Bounds

In 1991 at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Ian Baker-Finch won The Open Championship playing sublime golf shooting 64 and 66 in the final two rounds.  By the time of the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews, in a cruel twist of fate, his confidence was low.   Baker-Finch stood on the 1st tee of the Old Course, paired with the legendary Arnold Palmer (his farewell appearance at The Open Championship) and snap-hooked his drive straight over the parallel 18th fairway and out of bounds.  Despite it being one of the widest fairways in golf, Baker-Finch had hit it 180 yards out of bounds to the left.

AFB12F45426C48008BB33603A96F7203With its “out and back” design, the boundaries of the course come into play at a number of holes such as the 1st, 16th, 17th and 18th. If, after playing a shot, you think your ball may be out of bounds you should play a provisional ball (Rule 27-2).  You must state that it is a provisional ball (phrases such as “I’ll hit another” or “I’m going to re-load” are insufficient) and you must play the provisional ball before you go forward to search for the original ball.

The wall at the back of the green of the 17th hole on the Old Course defines the boundary on this hole. While it is unlikely that a ball will come to rest on the wall, the Championship Local Rules clarify the boundary by stating that a ball is out of bounds when it is beyond the wall (not on the wall) so there is no doubt.

At the 1984 Open Championship, Tom Watson was seeking his third Open win in a row. He was tied with Seve Ballesteros when his approach at 17th scurried over the green, crossed the road and came to rest close to the boundary wall.  

Faced with an extremely difficult chip, and with the boundary wall impeding his backswing, Watson unsurprisingly could only make bogey.  He lost out to Ballesteros who made an iconic birdie on the 18th to win by two strokes. 

It is worth remembering that objects defining out of bounds are deemed to be fixed and there is no relief without penalty from them.  You can proceed under the unplayable ball Rule or try your luck like Miguel Angel Jiménez did in 2010.

Finding the ball in a near impossible position inches from the boundary wall, Jiménez struck the ball against the wall, the ball then ricocheted off the wall over Jimenez’s head and onto the green.

621C575E613A44279B22BAEEFB91B828Jiménez said, “There was no place to drop it. I took out my sand wedge and hoped to get a good break but I had no idea how it would turn out as you can’t practise that sort of shot!”

Water Hazards

The Swilcan Burn lies in wait on the 1st hole on the Old Course.  Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie all found the Burn when playing in the 2010 Open Championship and had to drop out under penalty (Rule 26-1).

If your ball is in a water hazard (yellow stakes and/or lines) you may play it as it lies or, under penalty of one stroke:

  • play a ball from where your last shot was played, or
  • drop a ball any distance behind the water hazard keeping a straight line between the hole, the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard and the spot on which the ball is dropped.

If your ball is in a lateral water hazard (red stakes and/or lines), in addition to the options for a ball in a water hazard, under penalty of one stroke, you may drop a ball within two club-lengths of, and not nearer the hole than:

  • the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, or
  • a point on the opposite side of the hazard equidistant to the hole from the point where the ball last crossed the margin.

The Swilcan Burn is in parts marked as a water hazard and in parts a lateral water hazard.  So depending on where your ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, determines the options that you have for relief.

7BF4A8DD0C144A428C9DC8C86D860191Of course, you can always play the ball as it lies but sometimes it is better to take your medicine and move on.  In 2000, Notah Begay reached the 17th hole eight under par.  His second shot was too long and ended up in the Swilcan Burn behind the green.  He decided to play from the water, unsuccessfully, and dropped three strokes finishing with a 69.

Double Greens

There are seven “double greens” on the Old Course, i.e. greens that are shared by two holes.  Interestingly the numbers of the holes sharing the green always add up to 18, e.g. 2 and 16, 3 and 15.   

If you are playing the 2nd hole and you pull your approach left such that you are on the portion of the green that is really intended for play of the 16th hole, it does not mean that you are on a wrong putting green (Rule 25-3).  You must play the ball as it lies.  However, if the actual hole cup of the 16th hole interferes on your line of putt, you are entitled to relief without penalty under Rule 25-1b.  The hole cup is a hole made by a greenkeeper and is by definition, ground under repair.   

Some of the putting greens on the Old Course are vast.  It is possible to find yourself on the green 50 yards away from the hole.  The Rules of Golf do not require players to use a putter when the ball lies on the putting green and there is every chance that some players may elect to use a wedge in order to cope with the severe slopes that are a feature of many of the greens. Warning: do not try this at your home course unless you have nerves of steel and are prepared to face the wrath of your club greenkeeper! 


53F232E3CBB64E76B8F1E51348C3CB0CLinks courses are exposed simply because they are located by the sea and wind often plays a big factor.  In 2010, play had to be suspended for 65 minutes during the 2nd round of the Open Championship due to the high winds which were causing balls to move on the putting greens.  

Only one player was penalised that day when his ball moved after address (Rule 18-2b).  Nonetheless, this Rule was amended in 2012 to the effect that there is no penalty if your ball moves after “address” - when you have grounded your club immediately in front of or immediately behind your ball - if it is known or virtually certain that you did not cause the ball to move.  So, penalties for the ball moving after address will be less frequent in high winds and gusty conditions than they used to be.