As far as most architecture aficionados are concerned, talking about course design can be as enjoyable as playing the holes themselves. We love extolling the virtues of an Alps, especially the original at Prestwick, and the beauty of a Biarritz at, say, Mid Ocean. We relish debates over the quality of various Redans, and the ones that compare most favorably to the prototype, which is No. 15 on the West Links at North Berwick. And we appreciate back-and-forths on how a modern links like Bandon Dunes or Tara Iti stacks up against a classic like Royal Dornoch.
Short par-4s are another frequent topic of conversation. And while the overall merits of that design concept are largely recognized, there is plenty of discourse as to what makes them so good – and which are the preeminent ones in the game.
Loosely defined, a short par-4 runs 300 yards or so. The greens are generally small, well-contoured and well-bunkered. A long hitter is able to reach them with a tee shot, and the most engaging ones give golfers a way to run drives onto the putting surfaces. Yet, short-4s also allow players to hit an iron off the tee, and give those who decide to go that way plenty of room to land those shots, the only drawback being longer approaches into the green.
The first decision comes on the tee. Is it a driver or a hybrid? Maybe it’s a mid-iron. And it is not just the tee shot but also the approach and what club a player wants to then hit into a green.
Ask course architects about the best attributes of a short-4, and the first words out of their mouths are invariably “risk” and “reward.” And more than anything else, that is what hole design is all about. It forces golfers to make choices. The first decision comes on the tee. Is it a driver or a hybrid? Maybe it’s a mid-iron. And it is not just the tee shot but also the approach and what club a player wants to then hit into a green. Perhaps it’s a full pitching wedge. Or maybe a knockdown 8 or 9. Position is key, too, and the most interesting short-4s present a couple of different ways to play. Take the safe route on the drive, and then deal with a more difficult approach that may feature mounding that obscures views of the putting surface, and bunkers that protect it. Or select the tougher line for the drive, where fescue and fairway bunkers might come more easily in play, in return for a more open and less daunting second shot. The possibilities are indeed endless. And one way to gauge the value of a short-4 is by considering how many clubs a golfer takes to the tee. If it is more than a couple, then the hole is doing just what the designer no doubt hoped it would – messing with a player’s mind.
I also like how a short-4 tests the ability to hit both driver and wedge, and to be able to execute different types of short shots, from flopping a 60-degree or bumping a 7-iron. In addition, that style of hole has a way leveling the playing field between the bombers and those who possess far more modest distance, because there is so much more at play than pure distance. And as a golfer of diminishing length, I have come to see a short-4 as a much-welcome respite during a round, for it allows me to hit a short iron into a green for a change as opposed to having to reach yet again a fairway wood or hybrid. Finally, I appreciate how well short-4s have stood the test of time. They have been a part of golf from the very beginning, and they continue to challenge players of all abilities by compelling them to manage their golf swings through the bag, and also their emotions. Few aspects of the game have been as unaffected by advances in equipment technology, club fitting, course conditioning and physical fitness.
Short par-4s go back to the beginning of the game. The Old Course at St Andrews has two of the greatest, in Nos. 12 and 18. Prestwick, the site of the first Open Championship in 1860, has a pair of nearly perfect short-4s in its opener, which runs along a working railway line, and the 15th, with all its humps, hollows and bunkers. That design can also be found on the most historic golf courses in the New World, from the National Golf Links of America, which has a couple of gems in the first and 17th holes, to Garden City Golf Club, which starts off with a very drivable 300-yarder with a green bordered on the left by an old sand pit.
Fortunately, the concept remains in favor with modern course architects. Tom Weiskopf devotes a section on his design firm’s website to what he calls “drivable par-4s,” saying the concept of using them came to him while he competed in the 1970 Open Championship in St. Andrews – and led to him including at least one of those on any layout that he designed. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are also sure to include one or two short-4s on their creations, and the same can be said of Gil Hanse, David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak.
They have also proved popular on the professional tours and in major championships. When he was still setting up U.S. Open courses, USGA chief executive Mike Davis liked to employ a drivable par-4 whenever possible. Like the sixth on the West Course at Winged Foot (in 2006). And No. 17 at Oakmont (a year later). Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America does much the same thing when he works on golf courses for that association’s championship, with his work on the 14th at Hazeltine in 2009 being just one of many recent examples of that.
Recently, I turned to a handful of well-traveled golf buddies who share my passion for course design as well as for a short-4. And with their help, I came up with the following list of favorites, in no particular order. The number totals 22, and that seems appropriate given that for some time in the mid-1700s, 22 was the number of holes that constituted a round of golf on the Old Course:
Nos. 12 and 18 – The Old Course – St Andrews (Scotland)
The hidden bunkers in the middle of the fairway, and the split-tier green, make the 12th a difficult par, indeed, especially when the wind is up. As easy as it looks on the card and from the tee, the 18th plays so much harder. The emotions that historic finisher understandably stirs in golfers, and the fear so many have of blocking their tee shots right or blading their approaches over the green, make it much tougher than it looks.
Nos. 1 and 15 – Prestwick Golf Club (Scotland)
It’s the stone wall running down the right side of this first hole, and the railway line just beyond it, that make this opener so interesting. It’s a tough one, too, as the best drive is also the riskiest one, down the right side of the fairway so golfers have the best possible angle into the green. As for the 15th, which plays from the clubhouse back into the dunes, it throws a lot at a golfer with a tight landing area (hence its name, Narrows) and a mostly blind approach shot to a sloping green.
No. 8 – Pine Valley Golf Club (New Jersey)
This may be the perfect short-4, with enough room and length for a driver or 3-wood off the tee and then two of the tiniest greens imaginable. A 50-yard shot has never felt more intimidating, especially given that one rarely gets a flat lie in that fairway, and the mere thought of spinning a wedge into one of the bunkers that surround them can cause the knees of even the stoutest souls to knock.
No. 3 – Augusta National Golf Club (Georgia)
Big hitters often can’t resist hitting the big dog on this often-overlooked, uphill hole. But the sliver of a green is almost impossible to hold with a wedge or short iron, let alone driver.
Nos. 1 and 17 – National Golf Links of America (New York)
You feel a certain majesty standing on the first tee on this historic C.B. Macdonald course, and the opening drive seems simple enough, whether you hit driver or fairway, hybrid or iron. But the multi-tier green makes birdie near impossible, even if wedge is all you have in your hand on the approach. And par is not a sure thing either, even if you get on in regulation. As for 17th, the view of Peconic Bay from that elevated tee is among the most scenic and exhilarating in golf. But hitting the green is no easy task, even with a wedge, and many a medal round has gone awry here when second shots are dumped into the bunkers that surround the putting surface.
No. 2 – The Country Club (Massachusetts)
This uphill hole plays as a par-3 for tour professionals. But it’s a four-par most other times, and a very good one. Those players who hit their tee shots down the right side with have a short iron into a slightly crowned green – and a very good chance at birdie if their distance control is right.
No. 1 – Garden City Golf Club (New York)
This is a classic opener, with a tee that backs up to the pro shop and a fairway wide enough to put players at ease. But it forces you to think about strategy right away. Aggressive golfers can bomb driver down the right side in hopes of running it up to the green. But the safer play is to hit something shorter down the middle of the fairway, and then a short iron in.
No. 2 – Yale Golf Course (Connecticut)
A dramatic green complex is what makes this hole special, starting with a bunker that falls some 20 feet below the putting surface on the left. That is death to anyone who pulls his or her approach. Just as troublesome is the right side of the massive green, which is banked in places like a bobsled run.
No 11. – Sunningdale Old Course (England)
A blind tee shot. Brilliant bunkering. Swaths of heather, and a small green. Who could ask for anything more?
No. 5 – Royal Dornoch Golf Club (Scotland)
Called Hilton, this four-par runs along a slightly canted ridge and overlooks the Dornoch Firth. The left side of the fairway is somewhat level, but anything landing to the right kicks right. So, what seems to be a wide fairway plays much narrower. Same with the green, which is guarded by a trio of devilish pot bunkers.
No. 10 – Riviera Country Club (California)
This is the gold standard for short-4s, in large part because of the risk-reward options the heavily bunkered hole offers off its slightly elevated tee (driver or iron) and the different lines a player can take to the slightly angled green. It also says something when it is praised for its strategy and the pleasure it provides by PGA Tour professionals (who see it every year in the Genesis Invitational) and rank amateurs alike.
No. 10 – Royal Melbourne – West Course (Australia)
This is often cited as the best hole on the best golf course Down Under, and it represents some of Alister MacKenzie’s best work. A slightly uphill dogleg left, it boasts a massive fairway on the right side and a smallish green with a pair of gnarly bunkers on the left. A small swale in front eats up run-up shots that don’t have quite enough juice.
Nos. 8 and 9 – Cypress Point Club (California)
Two of the finest holes at this hallowed layout also happen to be two of the shortest. And two of the most difficult. Similar as they may be in those regards, however, they play in opposite directions. And while the eighth presents a pair of partially blind shots, No. 9 is right there for all to see.
No. 6 – Ridgewood Country Club – Center (New Jersey)
This hole is said to have been dubbed “Nickel and Dime” by none other than Byron Nelson, who served as an assistant pro at Ridgewood in 1935 and often played the sixth with a 5-iron (nickel) and a pitching wedge (dime). Members love this well-bunkered 290-yarder, and it has presented its fair share of challenges to the tour professionals who played it during the Barclays.
No. 7 – Sand Hills Golf Club (Nebraska)
In many ways, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw ushered in the second Golden Age of golf with this design. And in creating this hole, they also reinforced the notion that short-4s add great value to a golf course.
No. 6 – Kingsbarns Golf Links (Scotland)
A well-struck draw that stays right on the top plateau of the sixth at this seaside, links-style layout can trickle quite easily onto the green, which has two levels. But if you overcook your tee shot, as a rightie, and yank it left, you are left with a testy chip.
No. 16 – Bandon Dunes (Oregon)
David McLay Kidd aced it with this short-4, which runs along cliffs that overlook the Pacific and is as strategic as it is stunningly beautiful. After clearing a chasm with their drives, players are left with a short iron into the ocean-backed green.
No. 7 – Country Club of Fairfield (Connecticut)
This, too, is very much a driver/wedge hole. But the drive needs to be hit down the right side to assure the most open approach to a green that runs downhill from front to back. The best approach lands on the front edge and then trickles to the hole. The fact that the seventh on this Seth Raynor track is flanked by Long Island Sound only enhances its allure.
Top photo: The 16th hole at Bandon Dunes. Photo: Steven Gibbons, Copyright USGA
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