Golf's Finest Par Threes
The Art & Science of the One-Shot Hole
By Tony Roberts, Michael Bartlett, Jennifer Knoch
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2011 Tony Roberts and Michael Bartlett
All rights reserved.
A Trinity of Threes
"Imagination is more important than knowledge." — Albert Einstein
St. Andrews, Scotland, Summer, Sometime in the late sixteenth century
The band of players made its way along a peninsula in the Kingdom of Fife, home to the town of St. Andrews, an important seat of culture with its castle, cathedral and eponymous university. Contoured by the Firth of Tay to the north and the Firth of Forth to the south, Fife resembled an arrowhead aimed at the heart of the North Sea beset by capricious winds, alternately stinging and soft. The area trod by the group had all the characteristics of true linksland — the irregular footprints of sun and sea that nurtured ragged marram grass, prickly gorse, springy turf, punctuated by colorful heather and butterwort; and stretches of sand sculpted into dunes, mounds and hollows that became sheltering refuge for animals and punishing prisons for errant golf shots.
This seaside strip was alive with hundreds of people engaged in a hodgepodge of pursuits. While a decree of 1552 permitted the community to rear rabbits on the links and "play futbul, schuteing ... with all other manner of pastimes," and ensured the proprietor was bound "not to plough up any part of said golf links in all time coming," the golfers still shared the space with grazing sheep, fishermen tending to nets, archers sharpening their aim, laundry hanging on bushes to dry, townspeople out for a stroll and anyone else who wandered into what was the first golf course in the world.
Well, some of it. At this imaginary point in golf history, St. Andrews had six recognizable holes that ran in a line out toward the Eden Estuary. The group of golfers was really a committee charged with adding to this number and making sure players could turn back toward the first hole and complete a loop without their golf balls conking others on the head. As it turned out, they fulfilled this mandate and added a groundbreaking innovation.
St. Andrews' first hole demanded two well-placed shots to reach the putting area. The group's leader, Fergus, took his stance and swung. The ball rose, got caught in a breeze and fell to earth a paltry 100 yards out. Fergus muttered a quiet oath. The next tee shot landed short and right. Then Duncan, a lumbering giant, smashed his ball 180 yards, in great shape to reach the putting area in two.
Each player at the ready — no wasted time for a Scotsman — they quickly covered the six holes (as we know the Old Course today): Burn (a two-shotter 370 yards long), Dyke (playing at about 450 yards), Cartgate Out (just under 400 yards), Ginger Beer (the first long three-shot hole at 480 yards), Hole o' Cross Out (at 570 yards, a huge test marked by the cluster of bunkers set right in the landing area and called the "Beardies"), and Heathery (named for the bushes lying in front of the teeing area and playing something over 400 yards). Standing on the sixth green, they surveyed the area and saw they could fit in one more hole before reaching the estuary. This became St. Andrews' seventh and they called it "High-out."
Maybe it was the shafts of sunlight through the clouds but something made them pause, and then came an illumination.
Duncan noted all seven holes took two or three shots to reach the putting area and opined he was tired of having to knock the ball so far to finish. All chimed agreement and decided the next one would take only a single swing to get near the target. But how to decide the distance? Easy, have Fergus (the short hitter) play a tee ball and wherever it landed, there the putting surface would be. Miffed at being chosen for this task, he cracked it to a spot within reach of most players. Cheering this historic stroke, everyone agreed they had St. Andrews' first one-shot hole. In no-nonsense fashion they named it "Short" and cut the hole in back of some sand mounds to add an extra challenge. The group continued the loop back toward the first tee with a ninth and tenth hole, both medium length, and capped their work with another one-shot hole, number eleven.
Like its newborn sibling at eight, it played at 170 yards but was much tougher. This time the design team positioned the tee shot so it had to avoid three threatening sand hollows. The first was to the right, large and shaped like a cockleshell, so they named it "Shell." The second, guarding the left side, was a deep crater of sand, and they called this "Hill." The third was an exclamation point, a tiny pot bunker front and center that became known as "Strath." Over centuries innumerable balls would be swallowed by this menacing trio. In a final touch, they extended the seventh hole's putting surface onto a tricky sloped area not far from the Eden, and this became the eleventh green. They named the hole "High-in," although eventually it became better known as the "Eden." Their task done, the proud architects hurried off to tell the town and celebrate with another important contribution to the world — Scotch whisky.
If they had been able to see the future, they would have relished how great players — Robertson, Morris, Park, and others — met the challenges posed by numbers eight and eleven. Of St. Andrews' two short holes, it was the Eden that grew in stature, touching the careers of Jones, Sarazen, Nicklaus and Woods, and earning accolades as a truly great three. And because the Old Course became a revered template, architects throughout history also sought to create superior one-shot holes.
The Coast of Northern California, 1926
On a March morning winds whipped the water into plumes that painted the shoreline of California's Monterey Peninsula. A young American woman and a distinguished looking gentleman stared out over a cove at a small spit of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean. Behind them lay fifteen holes of routing for a golf course situated on what was described as "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world."
The project at hand was the Cypress Point Club, intended as an exclusive golf club located on one of the rarest properties on earth. The woman, Marion Hollins, was the scion of a wealthy Long Island family. When her father lost his fortune in a bank failure, Hollins headed to California and landed a job working for Samuel F. B. Morse, the man behind the Del Monte Properties Company. In 1919 Morse opened the Pebble Beach Golf Links and the Lodge at Pebble Beach. These were an instant success and sparked a rush by the wealthy to populate the gorgeous littoral area 100 miles south of San Francisco.
Part of Hollins' job was scouting for other potential golf course developments. She found 150 acres just north of Pebble Beach. The Spanish called it "La Punta de Cipreses," or Cypress Point. When Morse hesitated about investing in such wild terrain, Hollins raised the necessary funds, acquired the property and commissioned architect Seth Raynor to design the course.
In addition to her entrepreneurial talents, Hollins was one of the era's premier athletes. Born to ride, she achieved recognition as a world-class polo player, the only woman to compete regularly with men. The Scottish pro Willie Dunn tutored her in golf, and by 1921, at age 29, she won the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship. Strong-bodied with a powerful swing, she could whale the ball 250 yards. The press dubbed her the female Bobby Jones.
Raynor had roughed out plans for the Cypress Point course when he died prematurely at age fifty-one. Fate then sent Hollins the man who would complete the task. After early success in the United Kingdom established his reputation as a golf course architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, a former surgeon in the British Army, embarked on a world tour that took him to Australia, where he completed Royal Melbourne Golf Club's esteemed West Course, among others. California was next on his itinerary, and there mutual friends introduced him to Hollins, who hired him immediately.
Cypress Point begins by weaving inland through wooded hillsides. Walking from the fourteenth green, the golfer crosses Seventeen-Mile Drive and comes suddenly onto the dramatic ocean's edge defined by rocks, the swell of the waves and the sounds of sea life. The plan called for number fifteen to be a par three, slightly downhill over water, playing at about 140 yards and requiring anything from a wedge to an eight iron. And so it became.
On to sixteen. As Hollins and MacKenzie stood looking at the rocky outcropping some 200 yards from the teeing ground, they had different visions about what to build. Originally, MacKenzie had wanted to push the tee box back 100 yards to make it a strong short four. A two-shot hole would follow the rules of course balance (no consecutive threes) and, besides, asking golfers to reach a green where winds might force a carry in excess of 225 yards was not to his liking. One of MacKenzie's cardinal rules was that golf should be fun for everyone.
As the wind and spray slapped their faces, Hollins argued strenuously for a one-shot hole. Defiantly, she threw down three balls, teed one up and, using a brassie, launched a shot over the cove and onto the green site. She followed with two more. Confronted with this performance, MacKenzie agreed to the heroic carry that would forever tantalize players of all stripes. He did win his argument that a fairway should be built left so that, for the conservative, an iron off the tee and a deft chip would yield a safe four or possibly a one-putt three. No less than Ben Hogan often used this strategy. Later, MacKenzie was to write an account of the design of Cypress Point and the creation of the sixteenth, graciously acknowledging Hollins' role: "I must say that, except for minor details in construction, I was in no way responsible for the hole. It was largely due to the vision of Miss Marion Hollins."
In the end, the big-hitting amateur champion and the artistic course genius teamed up to create a superb par three; one many vote best in the world. It has not changed much since Cypress Point opened in 1928 and still sets the standard for the ultimate test of length, accuracy, nerve, strategy and luck in the pursuit of a 3 on one's scorecard.
Coincidentally, the collaboration between Hollins and MacKenzie led indirectly to the creation of two more of the world's great short holes. Bobby Jones had come to California in 1929 to compete in the U.S. Amateur. Losing in the first round, he extended his visit to play Cypress Point, judging it "almost perfect." He also met MacKenzie, found a kindred soul in design philosophy, and shared his plan to build a course in Georgia. In 1930 they began work on the Augusta National Golf Club layout. Augusta's two back-nine par threes would someday become as famous as Cypress's sixteenth.
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, 1980
The man touring pros later dubbed Darth Vader was knee-deep in rattlesnakes and marshland wondering what it would take to finish a course unlike any made to this point. British golf writer Peter Dobereiner summarized the commission this way: "Deane Beman said, 'Behold this tract of jungle swamp. Pray, turn it into the world's first golf stadium.' Pete Dye glanced over the uncompromising acres of marsh and said, 'Certainly, bring me a bulldozer and two quarts of Mountain Lion Sweat.'"
Dye never intended the course nor its par-three seventeenth to be as tough as they turned out. On the other hand, a round of golf with him invariably elicited a favorite aphorism, "Golf's not a fair game." Of affable mien with a no-nonsense Midwestern attitude, Dye was a gifted player. He won the Ohio State High School Championship, had good showings at five U.S. Amateurs and at the 1957 U.S. Open finished ahead of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
In 1963 Dye qualified for the British Amateur. With the eminent Richard Tufts of Pinehurst fame as a mentor, he and wife Alice O'Neal Dye, also a top amateur, made a whirlwind tour of Scotland's courses. The Dyes filled notebooks with observations, snapped pictures and absorbed every aspect of this utterly natural form of the game — pot bunkers, wild grasses, crazy bounces, maddening greens tilted at unreal angles and sweeping sand dunes. From this time on, his work incorporated oddly shaped fairways and waste bunkers that mimed old world courses. He added punishing fairway and green contours that made some people say he was one of golf's Four Horsemen.
When he agreed to help Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour, build a course worthy of hosting the Tournament Players Championship (inaugurated in 1974), Dye didn't know his excruciating layout would lead to outright revolt by the Tour pros. After the first Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in 1982, even "Gentle" Ben Crenshaw was inflamed, exclaiming, "This is Star Wars golf. The place was designed by Darth Vader!" Seventeen epitomized the penal nature of the course; it was not only a dramatic creation that teased player and spectator, but also a brilliant Vaderesque lightsaber that hung perilously in competitors' minds for sixteen holes.
Dye had long been known as a hands-on designer; in fact, he and Alice moved into a motel near the site to keep an eye on construction, and it was Alice who became the catalyst for seventeen's final version. Pete found the best sand for use on the fairways in the area where he had planned the seventeenth, originally a mild-mannered 150-yard carry to a green protected by water on one side. However, as more and more sand was hauled away, voilà, there sat an island green sans water.
Here a bit of design evolution kicked in. In 1948 the Dyes had played the nearby Ponte Vedra Club course designed in 1928 by Herbert Strong. It included one hole set out in water; in this case, the green was surrounded with sand bunkers and lots of grassed berm allowing for bailout positions. Looking at the emerging island on seventeen, Alice Dye had an an "a-ha" moment. She and Pete hurried to Beman, told him their idea and he gave hearty approval.
When finished, the hole had an apple-shaped green 26 paces long and 30 wide. At the bottom of the apple, Dye placed a single pot bunker right, leaving a narrow stem leading to land. Looked at one way, it was difficult for any golfer, including a pro, to find fault with a 137-yard shot from a perfect lie to a 3,900–square-foot green. But when it's all water tee to green and the green surface runs almost to the edge of the island, the chances for ruin increase dramatically.
Greg Norman summed up the challenge when he called it, "under pressure the hardest 142yard [sic] par three in the world." Statistics bear Norman out. At the first TPC, the overall scoring average was 3.79; it has fallen since, but the hole's reputation has risen steadily. It now ranks as one of the most dangerous one-shot holes ever and regularly validates writer Bernard Darwin's opinion that "Golf at its best is a perpetual adventure ... it ought to be a risky business."
The stories behind the making of three famous holes can only be exemplary of thousands around the world. In each case, the common thread was an inspired, pivotal moment that led to a singular golf hole.
At St. Andrews' eighth and eleventh, it was the invention of the oldest one-shot holes we can still play. It's possible the first golf holes were short, since one can imagine early players picking a target they could hit in one stroke. In time, they extended the game so that two- and three-shot holes dominated. At some point, as in the eleventh at St. Andrews, the focus became more on how many challenges could be built into a short distance; like subatomic physics, designers discovered new worlds in a smaller sphere.
Every architect hopes for a site so naturally perfect that the course is already "there." Alister MacKenzie did move trees and earth on the first fourteen holes at Cypress Point, but at the ocean holes there was little alteration to what nature had been sculpting for centuries. The genius of the sixteenth comes from not changing anything and settling on the one shot across the cove. As much as it would have made a fascinating short four, the sixteenth was preordained to be the world's most dramatic par-three hole. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Golf's Finest Par Threes by Tony Roberts, Michael Bartlett, Jennifer Knoch. Copyright © 2011 Tony Roberts and Michael Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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