5 Reasons Why Play Is So Slow At St Andrews

Rounds are taking six hours around the Old Course this week – we look at why we shouldn't be surprised

Slow play
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We’re reminded of this every time The Open rolls into town at St Andrews; play is slow around the Old Course. Very slow. The afternoon wave of players might have got the worst of it but they shouldn’t be surprised to be out there for six hours.

For all the quirks and brilliance of the Old Course many of them lead to these six-hour rounds. Here we take a look at some of the main reasons for these marathons. 

1) The Par 5s Are Reachable

The ball is running a mile this week, it’s as firm as most players remember it and therefore the par 5s are in range for everyone. Look at 14 on Thursday, Tiger Woods managed to muscle one down there 420 yards to the end of the fairway. So imagine the waiting on the tee and from every angle of the fairway for the green to clear.

Here’s how Max Homa saw the par 5 on Thursday: “Got to 14, wait on the tee for a while. And then they said we were going to hit up on them, and they let us drive. So we hit our drive. Then when we got up there, we waited 20 minutes for them to hit, which meant we had to wait another 20 after that for us to hit. It was very bizarre.”

2) And The Par 4s, Too

Depending on the wind the 9th or 10th will also be drivable. Everyone has been making hay at the 9th this week as either players call the previous group up or wait for the green to clear. It might be 352 yards but, given how far everyone now hits it and the fact that it’s so baked, it’s become a long par 3 and long par 3s generally clog up a course. 

Then, three holes later, we have the 12th which is the same yardage, and has the same help from the wind, and therefore everyone is having a go at it. And, at the end of the 12th, is a tiered green where it can make you look very silly and therefore add on the minutes.

3) The Nature Of The Course

As early as the first shot you will be waiting for what’s going on around you as players putt out at 18. Have a look at this graphic for what’s happening at the far end of the course. Players’ tee shots are landing where players are walking and it leads to balls coming in from every angle. We’re told that you can’t go wrong if you hit it left off the tee and that just leads to more players coming into contact with more players. This is St Andrews, it’s not normal. 

Slow play

(Image credit: The Open)

“It's quite stop-start, but I think St Andrews is that way. There's a lot of criss-crossing and waiting on other greens and waiting on greens to clear because the drivable par-4s,” explains Rory McIlroy. “So I think, especially the first two days when it's the full field, it's to be expected. It is what it is. Thankfully it speeds up over the weekend and two balls, and it gets moving a little bit more. But I think playing this tournament, you expect it to be that way the first couple of days.”

4) Those Double Greens

Which leads us to the next point. Another huge charm of the old girl is that there are seven double greens. And, while these players are good, they’re hitting from some very odd places and balls are running forever. Tiger Woods played his approach to the par-5 5th and it ran and ran until sitting beside the 13th hole.

These greens are huge, absolutely vast with run-offs at every angle, but with six players coming into them from different directions there will be hold-ups.

5) It’s A Major

Tee times start at 6.35am and finish at 4.16pm and in between you have 156 players to get round just before darkness falls. Players aren’t going to speed up because the boys at the back of the field might not get in. For many this is the biggest week of their lives, for others they’re just generally slow. To be fair these are links greens, they’re slow, some putts are bewildering and it all takes time. Throw in some gorse bushes and penalty drops and people getting in the way and you’re very quickly, or slowly, up to six hours. 

Back to Homa: “Majors are a different beast in themselves. It's just so hard. Like you're thinking all the time. So it's almost nice at times to have a break so you can just sit and kind of blank for a minute.”

Mark Townsend
Contributing editor

Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.