Legendary golf course architect Alister Mackenzie once described the 11th hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews as the “closest hole to perfection” in golf. In his book, “The Spirit of St. Andrews,” MacKenzie raves about the hole—noting how it can be played myriad ways based on the wind direction and the pin placement in proximity to the two bunkers, Hill and Strath.
Jack Nicklaus described it as “the best short par 5 I’ve ever played.”
Bobby Jones tore up his scorecard after playing it, famously walking off green and vowing never to return. (He did, of course. Golfers were drama queens even back then.)
And recently, on an epic golf trip to Scotland, I was lucky to walk away with a bogey after putting the Strath bunker between myself and the pin on my tee shot. One of my playing partners wasn’t so fortunate. He landed in Strath and walked away with a snowman on his card. (To his credit, he smiled about it afterward.)
That all speaks volumes about a hole that’s just 174 yards.
I used the word “just” unconsciously, I really did. And I believe that’s because in today’s golf culture it’s become ingrained at all levels, from course architects to Saturday morning hackers, to dismiss the short par 3 as being inferior design. This is a big mistake.
What got me thinking about the subject was I was reviewing my recent round at the Tumble Creek Course in Suncadia. Tom Doak, the world-renowned architect genius behind Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes, designed the Tumble tract, so I had looked forward to playing the course. It’s a fine challenging mountain course, but something gnawed at me about the design. It wasn’t the long, but fair par 4s—all featuring excellent landing areas and thoughtful, well-placed bunkers. It wasn’t the par 5s that, save for the 4th, were fairly nondescript and forgettable. It was the par 3s. Except for the masterful 11th, three of the five par 3s were 200+ yards long—some playing longer thanks to a headwind. Worse still, they were all straight ahead, flat and feature-less bores with nondescript bunkers that were design afterthoughts and rarely came into play. The more I thought about this group of par 3s, the more they irritated me. I expected more from Doak. A lot more.
Doak isn’t alone, though. The long 200+yard par 3 has become an ingrained lazy and uninspired convention of modern golf architects who, through their own faulty reasoning, believe they have to account for modern equipment and tournament play. It’s as if architects have dismissed the possibility that a short hole can be just as challenging (if not more so) as a long par 3. They also seemingly forget that the majority of the golfing population has little shot at par on a 215-yard par 3, no matter how flat and friendly the design.
Outside of golf architects, the bloated egos of many good or even marginally good players believe short par 3s are not a real or stern test of golf. What rubbish. The off-the-top-of-my-head list of short, famous and instantly recognizable par 3s (to most devout golfers, anyway) would far surpass a similar list of long par 3s: #7 and #17 at Pebble Beach; #12 and #16 at Augusta; #3 at Spyglass; #17 at Sawgrass; #8 at Kapalua; #15 at Chambers Bay and the aforementioned #11 at St. Andrews. All of them punish even the slightest inaccuracy with a short club—and all are well under 200 yads.
The long par 3 list? Well, there’s only one long, noteworthy and memorable par 3 in the world, and you most of us can’t play it—the 16th hole Cypress Point, another McKenzie masterpiece.
Let me make clear that I don’t believe it’s the intention or purpose of a par 3, or “one-shotters” as McKenzie called them, to act as respite from the rest of the course. No, sir. Like all holes, they should act as a chance to challenge a player’s skill—only with a short club in just one shot. The holes in question at Tumble Creek utterly failed to do this, with most requiring a hybrid or very long iron for players above a 7 handicap—including myself.
I appreciate and respect Doak’s philosophy of wanting to move as little earth as possible when designing a course—it’s an honorable nod to McKenzie’s philosophy and aesthetic. Yet nowhere was that present at Tumble. Doak could have shortened many of these holes and incorporated more of the surrounding forest features—kept logs, rocks and manzanita shrubs near the green sides, creates mounded or plateaued or rolling greens, etc. For example, on the slightly uphill 205-yard 17th, he could have shortened the hole, moved it left and closer to a natural marshy area, kept some of the mature log pole pines and, like Pinehurst, let the pine needles act as the rough. During my round, it played closer to 225 thanks to a post-thunderstorm headwind and wet, heavy air that required me to use a three-quarter 3-wood to reach the green. A 3-wood. On a par 3. Ridiculous. (I parred the hole.) And yes, I know that some short par 3s–particularly in the UK—can require a hybrid or more but that’s largely due to the conditions–not based on the hole’s original layout and length.
In the end, this is a siren call to course architects everywhere: get rid of the 200-yard+ par 3. All of them. Blow them up and rethink them. If you need to build them for professional play, fine, build back tees. But let imagination and creativity and the surrounding land inspire to create par 3s of greatness, not length. Players will come back to play again and again. i guarantee it.