The 17th hole at Royal Portrush will be driveable for the big hitters
Will we see the Open’s first hole-in-one on a par-4?
The southerly wind presented a fresh challenge to first–time visitors to the Dunluce, not least on ‘Calamity’, the long par-3 16th, and ‘Purgatory’, the 408-yard 17th.
On the latter, players have been routinely booming drives beyond the plateau in the fairway to catch the down slope, leaving themselves with either short chip shots or long putts in many cases. Bubba Watson was one of those who drove the green.
With so many big hitters in the field, and the course drying out in the sunshine, it briefly raised the remote but mouth-watering prospect of the first hole-in-one on a par-4 in the major championship history — on the 150th anniversary of Young Tom Morris recording the Open’s first ace on the 166-yard par-3 8th hole at Prestwick.
Justin Thomas, one of the longer hitters in the field, hit driver in Monday’s practice round and left himself 30 yards from the green. A new bunker at the bottom of the slope, however, will catch anything going left.
‘If you get it off line, and go in that left bunker, depending on the lie, you can probably get it to the front of the green or on the green,’ explained the 2017 USPGA champion. ‘But if you hit it in the right fescue, it’s a crap shoot on if you get a good lie or not.’
Dustin Johnson, who arrived early to familiarise himself with the course, said he ‘liked attacking it’ on 17 but had yet to hit the green.
‘It’s a quirky hole for sure,’ said Justin Rose. ‘It plays quite narrow because of the way the camber tilts right to left. You’ve got to really thread the driver up the right edge of the fairway to get it down short of the green. But it’s very tempting. Unless the wind is hurting, I’ll hit driver.’
The wind on the final day in practice was particularly hurtful. ‘Not being able to get down that hill changes the holes drastically,’ Thomas confirmed. ‘You’re hitting your second shot from anywhere from 120 to 160 yards from a huge elevation and into the wind. It’s tough to control it.’
‘It’s a really unique hole, especially for the 17th in an Open,’ added Rose, who might not have been aware that of the 10 easiest holes in the Open between 1982 and 2019, four were the penultimate hole on their respective courses.
The easiest of the lot was the par-5 17th at Royal Birkdale in 1991, with a scoring average across the four days of 4.22. Also in the top 10 were the 17th at Turnberry, also a par-5, in 2009 (6th equal easiest, with an average of 4.46); the par-5 17th at Muirfield, which was equal 10th with an average of 4.48 in 1992; and the 17th at Turnberry in 1994 (also on 4.48).
The difference is those holes were all par-5s, while Royal Portrush’s ‘Purgatory’ is a par-4. Currently, the Old Course at St Andrews dominates the top-10 of easiest par-4s since 1982, with the 18th hole taking five spots on its own. Depending on the wind, the 17th at Portrush could break that monopoly.
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So there is plenty of form when it comes to the possibility of drama on the 17th at the Open, with serious potential for title-clinching birdies – or better – on offer before the final test of making par up the last.
If the wind is hard behind, we might even see history being made. Currently, Frank Lickliter III holds the record for the longest hole-in-one in recent Opens with his ace on the 212-yard 5th hole in the second round of the 2001 Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
The cheers would be heard on the British mainland if someone was to record the Open’s first albatross on a par-4 — and if it’s going to be anywhere, it will be 17. And should the impossible happen, a name change might well be in order.