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Attitudes to altering St Andrews' venerable links can border on hysteria

For the traditionalists, the debate about the changes to the Old Course at St Andrews is a bit like having a stone in their shoe.

Yes, it can be shaken into a little corner and forgotten about for a spell but, pretty soon, its jaggy annoyance will return to cause much irritation. When the Royal & Ancient and the St Andrews Links Trust announced their plans for some significant renovations at the home of golf, and then hammered on with them about a day after official notice had been given, a large proportion of the golfing world went ballistic and the moral outrage at this besmirchment of so-called sacred ground was staggering.

From Peter Thomson, the five-times Open champion, to the rarely tight-lipped Ian Poulter, the generations were united in fury. Words and phrases like "insane", "sacrilege" and "it's a bad dream" were tossed around in a frenzy of verbal volleys aimed at the powers-that-be. For the masses, the idea of meddling with the hallowed links was a bit like wall-papering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Of course, changes to this celebrated stretch of golfing terrain are not new and various nips, tucks and additions have been part of its history. "It's always changed, a little bit here and a little bit there," said an embattled Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal & Ancient, before adding mischievously: "There used to be a bunker in the middle of the first and 18th and I quite fancied putting it back . . . but no one else would agree."

In a modern era when turbocharged golf balls, propelled by space-aged drivers with heads the size of the Isle of Arran, are hurtling vast distances, many of the game's most cherished courses are under constant bombardment. Rein in the technology and roll the ball back 40 yards is, as many argue, the simple way to preserve the older layouts of the world but until that happens – and the chances of that are slim – relentless course lengthening and defence-bolstering measures will carry on.

The general consensus is that the fear of a future Open Championship at St Andrews being peppered with scores in the low 60s and, God forbid, something in the 50s, is what is driving the latest Old Course alterations.

Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian golfer who won the 2006 US Open, is certainly not a fan of that particular notion. "It's disappointing, in that the whole point of it is to make us shoot a slightly higher score every five years [at the Open], and it's embarrassing – disgusting – that they're doing it for that reason," he said in a recent interview.

The lowest score in major championship golf is 63 and has been achieved 25 times, beginning with Johnny Miller's sparkling final round in the 1973 US Open. Paul Broadhurst blasted his 63 in the 1990 Open at St Andrews, a score that was matched by Rory McIlroy in the first round of the 2010 championship in the Auld Grey Toon. We all know what happened after that, of course. McIlroy was blown away in the boisterous conditions the following day and trudged in with an 80. The average score for that 2010 Open was more than 73 and proved, once again, that the Old Course swill simply not lie down and let itself be trampled over.

George Peper, the respected American golf writer, knows more than most about the lure of the Old Course. He was playing the links in 1983 when a fairly wild slice down the last sent him on an expedition off the 18th. Peper didn't find his ball but he did stumble upon a 'For Sale' sign on a charming townhouse that sits adjacent to the fairway and he would eventually reside there for almost 30 years. Peper is also a member of the R&A and has been keeping a close eye on recent developments. He has now given his own eye opening views.

"The R&A is locked in an ongoing competition with the USGA, PGA of America, and Augusta National Golf Club," writes Peper, in the latest edition of Links Magazine. "None of them wants to be the one to stage the dullest event or produce the least illustrious champion or offer the lowest purse, and just as certainly none of them wants to be the first to yield a score of 62 or lower in a major championship.

"Well, such a running-scared attitude may be appropriate for the other three major-stagers but it doesn't apply when the Open is played at St Andrews. In the Old Course the R&A has something the other three do not – an original – the true and sacred crucible of the game. As such, it should not be bastardized, it should be celebrated.

"Imagine for a moment that none of these changes was made to the Old Course. Imagine in fact that the holes that have been lengthened for the past two Opens at St Andrews were restored to their original distances, so the course played at something close to the length it was one hundred years ago. What would happen when the Open returns in 2015? Assuming decent weather, there would be numerous scores in the low 60s – likely a few in the 50s – and the winning total would be somewhere around 30 under par. That wouldn't be a catastrophe, it would be an unmitigated triumph.

"The R&A and Links Trust have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of in the Old Course. They have a treasure that should be preserved, protected, and shared with the world, and the best way to do that is to leave it alone."

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