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Postage Stamp Has Steep Price

Narrow green on the eighth hole at Royal Troon has been confounding golfers for more than a century

July 12, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

TROON, Scotland — Almost since John Highet, a local doctor, and James Dickie, a builder from Glasgow, came up with the idea of forming a small golf club in 1878 on the Ayrshire shore, the Postage Stamp -- the infamous eighth hole at Royal Troon, 123 yards of mayhem, bedlam and bogeys -- has been delivering lickings to golfers.

The best in the world will try it again at Royal Troon when the British Open begins Thursday.

Royal Troon is where Arnold Palmer won his second consecutive British Open in 1962 even though he never made better than par three at the eighth, using a wedge. Still, Palmer's was a success story, a victory of player over Postage Stamp, the same scenario enjoyed by 71-year-old Gene Sarazen, who aced it at the 1973 Open and followed that up with a birdie the next day.

On the other hand, there is the sad tale of Herman Tissies of Germany, who had quite the opposite experience in the 1950 British Open at Royal Troon.

It took Tissies 15 minutes to play the Postage Stamp, not a single second of them even the least bit of fun.

Tissies stuck his tee shot in a bunker to the left of the green. His first shot from there rolled across the green and into another bunker. So did his next shot.

When they had finally counted it all, Tissies had toured three bunkers, visited the first one he found twice, and hit five shots in one of them before finally reaching the green with his 12th shot. He then three-putted for what might be called a duodecimal bogey 15.

The eighth hole can be played only one way: carefully.

The elevated tee shot is over a gully to a 30-yard-long green that is only about 10 yards wide. The green is nestled snugly into the side of a hill of sand.

Then there are the bunkers. Two are on the left side and another crater is in front. On the right, there are two more bunkers, both steep enough that you might need grappling hooks to pull yourself out.

Tiger Woods didn't like it all that much when he played at Royal Troon in 1997, his first British Open as a professional. On the last day, Woods made a triple when his tee shot hit the far bunker on the right side, and he took two shots to get it out and three-putted.

Woods, who had already won four times in his rookie year by the time he arrived at Troon, wound up tied for 24th, 12 shots behind winner Justin Leonard.

In the 1989 British Open, Greg Norman wound up losing to Mark Calcavecchia in a playoff that he could have avoided if, on the last day, he hadn't made bogey at the eighth hole when his short tee shot found one of the bunkers.

Many believe the Troon badge is a tribute to Highet because it features a snake, the emblem of medicine, wrapped around five clubs that represent the original five holes of the course.

Others may consider the snake to represent the eighth hole, which hasn't always enjoyed great popularity. The Postage Stamp earned its nickname when the course underwent a series of changes in 1910.

Before, the hole had been much longer, required a blind tee shot and played over a large sand hill to the left of the present green.

Certainly the golf correspondent for the Glasgow Herald didn't think much of the hole:

"The green is shaped like a dining room table, it is ridiculously small, and, even although there are no bunkers in the vicinity, it would be extremely difficult to make the ball remain on the surface after it had stopped."

The bunkers were added and so was a nickname when Willie Park, whose victory in the first British Open in 1860 was one of his four Open championships, described the hole as "a pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp."

And so the game was on, a short, skinny hole surrounded by sand, facing off against the best golfers in the world.

Royal Troon did not stage its first British Open until 1923, when Arthur Havers defeated Walter Hagen by one shot.

Sarazen was there too, but he shot an 85 in qualifying and didn't make the field.

He came back for the 1973 British Open, to give it one last go. This time, Sarazen left happily and wrote about it later.

All it took was a hole in one and a birdie at the dreaded eighth hole to erase a half-century of pain.

"For many years, the Postage Stamp hole had haunted me; I feared it, so when I walked on to the tee and faced the wind, I must admit I was somewhat nervous. I selected my five-iron as I was determined not to be short.

"When the crowd roared and I realized the ball was in the hole, I felt there was no better way to close the books on my tournament play than to make a hole in one on the Postage Stamp and call it quits."

His birdie the next day wasn't too shabby either, so Sarazen had the upper hand at last.

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