In this first part of episode 9 I am joined by registered Old Course caddie John Boyne and he explains to me what life is like as a caddie here in St Andrews and talks me through how to play the famous 17th “Road Hole” on the Old Course.
Life as an Old Course Caddie
John is in his 8th season as an Old Course caddie, having started purely by accident back in 2002. He explained to me how his wife encouraged him to join a caddie program she saw advertised in a golf magazine, which was organized by the Caddie Master at the Old Course. John signed up, completed a 4 day training course and 8 years on he is enjoying caddying on the Old Course for up to 160 rounds a year.
The Old Course caddies’ season begins properly in mid-May, which is when I shot this episode. From May through to the end of October, the main golf season at the Old Course, the caddies work full-on typically doing 36 holes a day. John told me that as well as himself, the St Andrews Links Trust has 132 caddies who are working for them this year on the Old Course as well as caddying on the other six St Andrews Links courses which are also open to the public. Caddies are all self-employed and some of them work 11 rounds a week. When winter descends on St Andrews and the Old Course becomes less busy many of these caddies jet off to Naples in Florida or Las Vegas to caddie for 5 months.
I followed John down to the Caddie Pavilion on the Old Course, which is a second home to the caddies. They spend the first part of their day there until they are booked to go out caddying. In the high season the first tee time on the Old Course is 6.30am and thus caddies are often seen arriving an hour beforehand.
John explained to me that he feels very privileged to work as a caddie on the Old Course. Besides helping him stay in good physical condition, it also has other perks. Every day he gets the chance to meet lots of different people from all over the world who come to play the most famous golf course in Scotland. The stories which John shared with me during the filming of this episode about people he has caddied for are both amusing and give an invaluable insight into life as an Old Course caddie.
Some golfers John has caddied for come back on repeat visits to play the Old Course. During the 4.5 hours out on those hallowed grounds it’s easy to see how friendships are forged and John told me that that many golfers keep in contact with him throughout the year. He believes that when you visit Scotland life and golf are inextricably linked together.
After years of being asked by golfers for his recommendations on where to stay and where to play golf in St Andrews John started up his own golf tour company at CaddieGolfTours.com. He offers straightforward honest advice, for a very reasonable fee, about accommodation to suit your budget and his tips on how to get onto St Andrews’ golf courses as quickly as possible. John also offers information on booking golf vacations in other parts of Scotland too.
If you ever visit St Andrews to play the Old Course I highly recommend hiring a caddie before setting foot onto that infamous first tee. A knowledgeable caddie like John can help you to take at least five shots off your game with his reads, club selection, target strategies and lines off the tees on this championship course. A caddie can also assist in protecting your score by helping you deal with the legendary windy weather which many experience on this course.
John offers more useful information about playing at St Andrews on his web site here.
The Road Hole
Having caddied on the Old Course so regularly John is definitely experienced enough to be able to point out to myself, and my viewers, how we can avoid the many traps on the Old Course which have ruined the scores of many golfers in their first encounter with it.
So in this episode John concentrated on the challenging 17th hole, the most famous par 4 in the world, and talked me through the best strategy for playing it.
The Road Hole, so called because of the old turnpike road which forms a boundary on the right side, is arguably one of the toughest holes in golf and it’s seen by many as the most difficult hole on the Old Course. At 461 yards it is listed as a par 4 on the scorecard but it is actually only 14 yards short of par 5 distance. John told me that during previous Opens Nick Faldo consistently played this hole as a par 5, as do many local golfers.
This hole has witnessed a lot of dramas during the 27 Open Championships which have been played here at the Old Course.
John says that there is always great excitement amongst players on the 17th tee, and that for every different foursome he is caddying for, something dramatic always happens on this hole.
Most players are thinking about their strategy for the 17th hole as they are walking down the 2nd fairway because as they get to the 2nd green they can see the 17th tee, which is adjacent. John told me that many players are worrying that in 3.5 hrs they are going to be playing the 17th, one of the most famous golf holes in the world. He explained that by the time a player gets to the 17th tee he has found that mentally they are pretty screwed up, especially for those not used to links golf courses.
The old railway tram shed (which has been rebuilt since its original installation) has remained over the years as a perfect aiming point for driving off of the 17th tee on the Old Course. A sign with the words “OLD COURSE HOTEL” is fixed to the side of the shed (which houses offices belonging to the Old Course Hotel). The Old Course Hotel and The Jigger Inn both run alongside the 17th hole fairway.
John’s advice for teeing off is to play an aggressive line – play outside the word “HOTEL” on the sign, going quite close to the face of the hotel. He told me that it’s a 200 – 220 yard carry to get onto the fairway from there, so he has to be pretty confident about the ability of the golfer he is caddying before he recommends this to them. It is aggressive but it pays off. You definitely have to trust your swing here because you can’t see the landing area. As John says it’s a shot of blind faith!
If he is with a confident golfer John takes them over the “L” of “HOTEL” on the sign and maybe even another 2 or 3 yards to the right of that. He explains it’s a very tight shot but professionals are going to hit the ball 280 – 290 yards consistently so will be on the fairway and will be in perfect position for the approach shot to the green. They go over the green sheds and garden, over the conservatory of the Old Course Hotel and then into landing area opposite the Jigger Inn. He says the braver you are the tighter you can go to the hotel. It is a big carry but the rewards are extraordinary for the entrance into the green. It’s definitely a shot that needs a bit of courage!
John told me that he always enjoys a fade as a shot on this tee but that he has also seen a lot of golfers play a draw. A draw takes you to the left rough. The fade takes you into the fairway, going round from the left, trying to land centre and right of centre on the fairway will give you a good shot into the green. If like 70% of the golfers John has caddied for you have a fade, John says this hole was made for you!
John also reminisced with me about back in the 70s when he remembered Jack Nicklaus hitting his ball across the roofs of the train sheds during the Open. The Old Course Hotel and sheds were constructioned in the late 1960s early 70s and not in the mid 80s as mentioned in the video.
One of John’s fun stories he shared with me about this hole was when he asked a Japanese golfer he was caddying for to play over the word “HOTEL” on the sign. Somehow his words got lost in translation and the golfer hit the ball right over the roof of the Old Course Hotel into the car park!!!
I highly recommend reading this article on the 17th hole by John and in particular R.T. Jones’ account of a Walker Cup match in 1926
John also showed me the more realistic landing area where the majority of players hit their tee shot to. Typically they end up on the left side of the fairway in the rough which is thick and tangled, which makes it tough. John explained that it’s extremely difficult from this position to get onto the green. He told me that even professionals will leave their 2nd shot short, on purpose, to have a option to play a chip and run onto the green or a long putt.
Hitting Off The Road!
Hopefully if you have followed John’s tips up to this stage you can avoid your ball landing on the path, road or rock wall which are to the right hand side of the 17th fairway and green. If not you might just have to hit your ball off of tarmac! The ball must be played as it lies on this hole. John took me onto the road of this hole and offered advice for players from this position. He recommends a 4 or 5 iron to be hit quite hard to get up the bank from this position to get onto the 17th green. John told me that in the early 80s during the Open Tom Watson overcooked his 2 iron and landed 6 or 7 inches from the rock wall so he had no shot. Thus he turned around, hit the ball against the wall and luckily it careered and bounced up onto the green. He says that during his time on the Old Course he has seen this shot done many times and it does work.
John pointed out that the bunkers short of the green in the left rough rarely come into play. They did however in the 2007 Ladies Open when Lorena Ochoa ended up in one.
The Road Hole bunker has been known to destroy many rounds on the Old Course, including David Duval’s Open fight in 2000 (admittedly he was being agressive to close the lead) and Tommy Nakajima in 1978. John told me that some golfers he caddies for hit their shot into the bunker on the 17th deliberately because they want to take a crack at getting out of it. If you are unfortunate enough to end up in the Raod Hole Bunker John outlines some damage limitation tactics to keep your score down.
On The Green
The 17th has a thin deceptive green. On the day we filmed this episode the pin had been placed favorably but John told me that was not always the case. He pointed out too that the green has a slight tilt on the right which feeds the ball quite gently down to the pin.
As links golf has no great depth perception because it is so flat John told me it is hard to judge distances on a green like this for putting. This can be especially difficult on the 17th when you could have a really long putt. That is why John always recommends someone attending the flag on the green to give some depth perception for the player.
Overall John warned me that you have to use flexibility and imagination to play this hole and be prepared for anything to happen! Have fun.
More on Old Course caddy John Boyne
Tour Enquiries: Click here for John to contact you personally
Email: email@example.com (If you enjoyed this video please email John to say so, many thanks)
Finally, the Question of the Day:
What is your favorite Open Championship Hole? Leave your comments below and we’ll have fun reading them!