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March 30, 2010

Thinking Small

Playing a short par-four is one of golfs toughest intelligence tests

A great short par-four hole—any two-shotter 350 yards or less—represents the art of the possible. You have four strokes to spend, and a green that is frequently fully in view and enticingly close.

This is the one place on a course where an average-to-high handicapper can know just what it feels like to play as the professionals do: A driver or fairway wood, followed by a respectable wedge shot, puts you on the dance floor putting for birdie. (Possibly your best such opportunity of the round.) Depending on weather and wind, better and stronger players may be tempted to go for the green in one swing, a gamble that can yield an easy eagle, or even the rarest sort of ace.

Once upon a time, for a variety of reasons, the golf world was full of such holes, which I like to call small wonders. Almost every great linksland in Scotland and Ireland features one or two short par-fours, either because land was limited, or—an explanation I like better—the original builder was a canny old cuss who understood that variety is the spice of golf.

"There's no question that a brilliant short par-four hole is a pleasure to play, and a great one makes you wonder why designers got away from creating them for a while," says Rees Jones, the American golf course designer who has distinguished himself by restoring many of America's finest old courses to their original luster, including Donald Ross' Pinehurst Number 2, The Country Club in Massachusetts Brookline (site of the 1999 Ryder Cup), and Black Course at Bethpage (site of the U.S. Open in 2002). Jones' own short par-four vita includes a few dazzling small wonders: the 331-yard 14th at the new and heralded Nantucket Golf Club, the fabulous third hole at The Atlantic Golf Club on Long Island, and the stunning elevated fourth at the new Rio Secco Golf Club in Las Vegas, where confident players can take a poke at the green from across a beautiful canyon floor.

As Jones points out, the short par-four started becoming an endangered species post-WWII. The popularity of oversize drivers, and the advent of long-hitting prodigies who could play the average par-four with no more than fairway wood and pitching wedge, were making short holes obsolete, or so the thinking went. (Course builders who were creating signature layouts with at least one eye on the real estate to be sold around them didn't help matters.)

"For a while, golf courses were being stretched well over 7,000 yards in length and holes were often set so far apart you frankly couldn't even walk some of these courses the way you could an older course," says Jones. "The idea seemed to be bigger is better. Short par-four holes didn't fit into this scheme of thinking.

"I think since then we've become much more sensible about the real challenge facing the golf course architect—to provide players of all skill levels with as many different shot values and challenges as possible, and most of all to make a course that fits the landscape. As some of the great classic short par-fours prove, length alone is no match for a clever design."

I encountered one such gem recently on my first visit to Pine Valley Golf Club, the renowned George Crump jewel set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, an hour or so east of Philadelphia. This course is perennially ranked as the number-one layout in the world by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest for its exceedingly high shot values and brilliant routing. What isn't often pointed out, however, is that Pine Valley has perhaps the world's finest collection of short par-four holes, one of which is the 300-yard eighth.

I arrived here in a four-ball match that was all square. Both sides wanted to make something happen, and this seemed the opportune moment. The wind was at our backs, and even though the fairway slightly widened and doglegged somewhat to the right as it spilled downhill, there was a fairly flat landing area. From there it looked like but a sandwedge shot to the pair of well elevated, heavily bunkered greens. (The original green's diminutive size—about 2,000-square feet—and the heavy traffic it endures made the golf club add the second "relief" green several years ago. The pin is shuttled between the two putting surfaces.)

But as longtime Pine Valley club member Jim Marshall later told me, the hole is a legendary graveyard for par shooters.

Marshall recalls watching four matches at number eight during the '86 Walker Cup. "Every player wisely hit an iron instead of driver off the tee," he remembers, "and every player had an easy sandwedge to the green. Only one reached the putting surface in regulation." He smiles as he relates this tale of Presbyterian pain and suffering, perhaps because he holds the distinction of being the one player anybody can remember who has actually chipped in for eagle on both of number eight's greens.

Deciding I'd play the hole smart, I touched off a smooth three-wood shot; however, it drifted a bit too close to the inside of the dogleg, caught the steeper part of the slope, and scampered merrily down to a large unraked bunker at the original green. I was not only blocked by overhanging branches on the right—and the pin was on the righthand green that day—but was faced with an exceedingly difficult flop shot of about 60 yards from a slight downhill lie. In addition, I had to carry a couple of deep bunkers and land like a butterfly on a putting surface. Not surprisingly, the shot came out too hot and lacking backspin. The ball landed on the green, but rolled off the left side into one of the bunkers. They have such prominent lips that the only way out is often via the back door.

"I once saw a famous Tour professional take eight to get up and down from that spot," said Rocky Carbone, my caddy and a longtime Valley legend, as we surveyed the damage. (His business card reads: "Wind & Yardage Consultant.") He recited a few other memorable disasters at this, the Siren Hole of Pine Valley. There was the fine amateur golfer (he had reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur championship) who went back and forth from bunker to bunker, finally holing out at 16. "I once had a guy who one-putted the hole," Rocky quipped, "for a thirteen. His best shot was the divot that landed in his beer."

I'm a pretty good sand player and caught a good lie (a bit of luck since Pine Valley traps have no rakes and it's possible to wind up in somebody's shoeprint). My ball popped up, flew past the pin before settling on the green, ran to the very edge where it paused to peek over the lip into another lethal bunker, and then, miraculously, decided to stay put. I coaxed the ball into the jug with three wary putts and left the green woozily with a double bogey. Rocky looked at me and smiled slyly. "Count your blessings, pro," he said in his thick Jersey accent. And I did, for this was a one-of-a-kind experience, one of the toughest holes I had ever played, maybe even the perfect small wonder.

One of the designers who early on saw through long courses is Pete Dye. He contended the average player would quickly grow weary of hitting long irons or fairway wood approach shots at faraway greens all day long. He also said that creating a tough and demanding short par-four hole was perhaps the greatest challenge a course designer faced; that the shorter a par-four is, the more diabolical it ought to be.

This was the thinking that went into the marvelous layout Dye created at Harbourtown Golf Links on Hilton Head, arguably his first masterpiece. There the old Ohio master used tightly cinched fairways, sculpted bunkers, railway tie bulkheads, and tiny greens to create one of the sternest tests in all golf. From the rear tees, the course measures just over 6,900 yards (6,110 from the men's tee), fairly puny by modern Tour standards. The course, however, is revered by professionals and better ballstrikers. Two of Harbourtown's most admired holes are the first and ninth, a pair of short par-fours that average about 325 yards. On both, the slightest mistake can result in bogey or worse. "The inspiration for these demanding little holes," Dye told me, "came directly from Scotland. There are hundreds of classic little par-fours over there that look so easy but can break your heart in an instant."

He reminded me that while the Old Course at St. Andrews is no doubt most famous for number 17, the 461-yard-long Road Hole—in my opinion the toughest par-four in the world—the venerable links also boasts a set of quirky short par-fours, holes nine (356 yards), 10 (380 yards), and the diabolical 12th (316 yards). All are within range of the big hitter if the wind is right, but all feature pot bunkers that are hard to see from the tee, wicked gorse left and right, and greens that sometimes simply look like mowed-down bumps. I once went for it on the 12th and was certain I'd reached the putting surface only to discover that my traitorous ball had buried itself in a pot bunker 30 yards shy of the pin. Instead of putting for eagle, I was scrambling like crazy for par—exactly what a small wonder makes you do. I holed out for double bogey, and vowed never to go for this damn green again.

Tom Weiskopf credits the Old Course's small wonders for an epiphany. "I had a memorable experience at St. Andrews the first time I played it," he says. "One that may have later influenced my thinking as a course designer. During the week of my first Open there, I drove all four of the short par-fours—numbers 9, 10, 12, and 18. The conditions were perfect, I suppose, and I just made four nice swings—which is exactly what a good short par-four is supposed to make you do. It gives you a chance to go for the glory and rewards you for performing the shot properly. That is what golf is all about, in my book."

Weiskopf is widely viewed as one of the emerging superstars of course design, and two of his best small wonders, in my view, are the driveable ninth and 14th at beautiful Loch Lomond Club in Scotland. This pair of sweet temptations looks closer and more benign than they really are. But the deep rough, tricky elevations, and sand can ruin your day fast.

"I happen to love short par-fours," says Weiskopf, "because they're natural spots for that kind of drama, not unlike the way a reachable par-five hole is. As a result, I try and build at least one if not two short par-fours on every course I do." He pauses, then laughs. "I think I can even be accused of forcing a short par-four or two where they didn't belong. I try to be careful about them, though. A brilliant short par-four hole is difficult to design because it has to be entirely natural, a good fit. A great short par-four tests both the character of the designer and the player."

My favorite short par-four in the world lies up the Sutherland coast at Royal Dornoch, designed by old Tom Morris—the spiritual caretaker of St. Andrews and the man who shaped Scotland's finest layouts. The treacherous 15th, just 290 yards long from stem to stern, has a slightly raised crowned green, bunkers right and left, and a 20-yard opening between them if you've got the moxy to take the shot. The catch is the large grassy mound that rises like a whale's back in the fairway 30 yards shy of the green: Only a perfect drive over the mound will do the trick. A miss left leaves you knee-deep in sea grass with no hope of a pitch to the green; a miss right—my usual spot—often leaves the ball resting on hard sandy waste ground. Try executing a flop shot off that hardpan surface and you may find yourself fetching your ball from the beach over the dunes. I've played the hole six or seven times and have managed to par the damned little thing only once.

If you are fortunate enough to snag a spectator ticket to the '99 Ryder Cup at Brookline, station yourself at the tiny but fierce 320-yard fourth hole. The club made this par-four easier to play during the '50s but damaged its brilliant character in the process. When Rees Jones began restoring the Willie Campbell layout several years ago, one of the first things he did was narrow the approach to the putting surface—"to give the long hitter a stronger invitation to try and reach in one, if he's daring enough," he says—and shrink and narrow the green by nearly half, adding or improving several small bunkers around the shoulders. The green remained virtually invisible from the tee, but that didn't prevent every player in the 1988 U.S. Open practice rounds from taking a crack at it in one.

"They had to learn the hard way that what seems like a golden opportunity could be disaster in disguise," Jones said. "During the competition, almost no one went for that green in one, and the hole's stroke average, in fact, remained at par."

Jones' hunch is that Brookline's fourth will play a dramatic role when the Ryder Cup comes to Boston. "Short par-fours—like short par-fives—are holes of powerful natural drama," Jones explains, "the logical places for a player to try and make a move or do something spectacular. They are tailormade for matchplay competition."

That's certainly been the rule of Ryder Cup play in recent times. The Belfry Golf Club in West Midlands, England, is a newish course built on old potatofields and—for the most part—no match for the great linkslands of Britain and Ireland, save for the dramatic 18th and the 260-yard par-four 10th, where a lion's share of the drama occurred in the '93 Ryder Cup. It was here that Tom Kite—not considered one of the game's long-hitters—took a swat at the green, which sits across a pond, and was rewarded for his gamble. He reached it in one and took command of the match, in which he was paired against a seasoned Ryder Cup player, Seve Ballesteros.

"I think a hole like that," says Weiskopf, "simply stays in the memory of a player much longer than any other kind of hole, which is what makes a beautiful short par-four hole so special. You look for other small par-fours like that—Merion's 10th, Pebble Beach's fourth, or Cypress Point's eighth and ninth: back to back short par- fours, an interesting rarity. They're holes of subtle brilliance and beautiful ingenuity. I tried to keep that sort of thinking in mind when I designed the fourth hole at Troon Golf & Country Club in Scottsdale, an uphill 300-yarder that plays over a wash to a three-part hogback green. It was one of my first attempts at a clever short par-four, and it's one of my best. If the wind is right, you are almost required to take a crack at the green. But there's plenty of trouble in view, and that's what makes a short par-four so great—you can often see the things you must avoid, which creates its own mental tension. Do you have the nerve to make the big perfect swing? That's the million-dollar question."

Golf history supports Weiskopf's view that short par-fours endure in the mind's eye. Take one of the most famous blasts in the history of the game, Arnold Palmer's heroic swing at Cherry Hills Country Club, outside Denver, in 1960. Trailing Mike Souchak by seven strokes at the start of the final round, Palmer reared back and drove his teeshot onto the first green, electrifying the crowd, making birdie, then going on to win the U.S. Open. That one shot defined his "go for broke" style, as he later wrote, and created "Arnie's Army."

That notwithstanding, discretion can be the better part of valor at a short par-four. "Knowing when not to go for a short par- four," says Rees Jones, "is at least as important as knowing when to go." This is a lesson a lot of us, I suspect, are doomed to learn repeatedly. Take what happened to me later that same day at Pine Valley, when our little four-ball arrived at the 17th. The hole is a rugged-looking uphill par-four that measures 335 yards—no more required, say, than a crisply struck long iron or fairway wood followed by a smooth nine-iron or pitching wedge. The surprisingly large green sits atop the hill, is protected front and rear by nasty bunkers and bisected by a Valley-of-Death swale, and tilts dangerously toward the fairway.

The key to the hole is to carry your teeshot over the yawning sand areas that bulge into the fairway from the right, but land short of a second sandy waste that crosses the fairway about 190 yards out—a little like desert target golf with a Jersey accent. In other words, a classic finesse hole, one requiring more intelligence than strength.

I displayed more of the latter and wound up a maddening foot into the second waste area. I now faced a 110-yard shot from uneven sand that had to land softly—one of the most difficult shots in the game. The good news was, I lay a mere 110 yards from the green with nothing but blue sky between my ball and the hole. Conceivably, I could hole out for an eagle.

"Whatever you do," my wind and yardage consultant warned me, "don't be above the hole on this shot. I want your ball to fly a hundred and ten yards tops."

I made solid contact and watched the ball sail directly at the pin—then watched in dismay as the orb bounced on the back of the green and plunked into the bunker behind it. I glanced at Rocky, who smiled as best he could. "That could be death."

It wasn't death, just a triple bogey—and a memento mori that a great short par-four is a thinking man's hole. But did I forget to think—or think too much? In any case, I will always remember my big day at the country's number-one-ranked course for the way I played its two shortest par-fours: Five over on less than 650 acres of fairway. For what it's worth, we lost the match.

Small wonder.


The Dirty Dozen

TPC of Scottsdale No. 17
The large horseshoe green is a perennial siren to Tour players during the annual Phoenix Open. If you're Davis Love, go for it. Everybody else, lay up.

Loch Lomond Golf Club No. 14
Only take a poke at the green in one if the wind is right—from the mountains.

Royal Dornoch No. 15
An innocent-looking 290-yarder that plays down the prevailing wind and comes at a critical moment on this famous British linksland. The huge grassy mound between you and the elevated green—which is larger than it looks—spells death. Best strategy: an easy three-wood to the flat approach area in front of the green.

TPC at River Highlands No. 15
This little critter, just 270 yards long, with water left and a difficult Redan-style green bordered to the right by OB (out of bounds), routinely tempts the Tour's best players to have a go in one. Many Greater Hartford Cannon Open hopes have perished right here. Be smart. Play a mid-iron, then a smooth nine.

Troon Golf Club No. 4
Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, who collaborated on this course, are leaders in bringing back the short par-four hole. This beauty, one of Weiskopf's first par-four efforts, is almost perfect. You play over a wash to a difficult hogback green that is driveable when the desert wind is helping from behind...murder when it isn't.

Pine Valley No. 8
The ultimate 300-yard Jekyll-Hyde golf hole. A mid-to-low-iron teeshot is the smartest play, and placement to left-center of fairway is critical if you want any hope of escaping with par. Be content with bogey and forget birdie unless your short game resembles Phil Mickelson's.

Old Course at St. Andrews No. 12
A 316-yard gem that invites the unwary to blast away with the driver. And why not? There's no trouble in sight. But lying unseen out there are bunkers, two directly in front of the green. I've learned the hard way to ignore this hole's whispers of grandeur: I hit a five-iron off the tee and am happy to settle for par.

Gleneagles King's Course No. 14
The elevated tee makes you think that the green is closer than it really is, so coming up short in the bunkers is the biggest danger. Use more club than you think, and remember that the green slopes wickedly from right to left.

La Costa South Course No. 15
"Golf's Longest Mile," as the four concluding holes on this course are popularly called, begins with this 320-yard par-four. A sign at the tee says it all: "Position of drive is critical." Keep your layup fairway wood to the right to avoid the overhanging trees. Otherwise, it's a good walk spoiled.

Harbourtown Golf Links No. 9
Pete Dye's first great course is still perhaps his best. The main obstacle at this 320-yard hole is the mammoth bulkhead bunker in front of the green. The green itself is indecently narrow in places. Play smart: three-wood and wedge.

Sea Island Golf Club No. 5
Coming after a great short par-four that bends along the marsh, this "breather" features an elevated green fronted by a yawning bunker. The putting surface can be reached with a stout drive, but I advise against it. The green is larger than it looks and has contours that are difficult to read.

Ventana Canyon, Canyon Course No. 4
Just 272 yards from start to finish and the green invitingly in view. It's a mirage, though, because to reach the putting surface you have to thread your shot through a pair of Tom Fazio bunkers. Eye of the needle.


The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans

One Great Course
On a recent ramble around Ireland I stumbled (through swirling mist) onto the new Old Head Golf Links near Cork, possibly the most beautiful course I've ever seen. It sits atop a 200-acre peninsula with no fewer than nine holes in which steep cliffs and ocean come into play—7,100 yards of golf like you've never seen it. $69-$82 per round. Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale, Co. Cork; 353-21-778-444.

Bobby Grace Putters
The new medium mallet-style Soft Lady (right), featuring a patented HSM compound insert, heel and toe weighting, and a Tri-plane sole, will appeal to anyone who grew up wielding a Ram Zebra. The size and heft of the head make it easy to stay on target. A second new model, the Lo-Pro I, crafted from stainless steel, resembles Ping's famous Pal Putter (without a hosel) but has a more substantial feel. And it puts a roll on the golf ball that makes the green seem like it's been bikini-waxed. Soft Lady: $125. Lo-Pro I: $142. 800-843-5464.

Course Offering
My favorite New England golf resort, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, is expanding its highly regarded Centennial Golf School. This year the three-day sessions will run from May 22 to July 3. Starting at $125 per person per night plus tuition (midweek: $250; weekend: $300). Best of all, you get unlimited play on the resort's marvelous Donald Ross course. 800-255-0600.

Titleist Tour Distance Ball
I was skeptical, I must admit, when Titleist stated that this new ball would give me 10 more yards and the feel and workability of a traditional wound ball. But now I'm a convert. $45 per dozen. 888-848-5347.

Mizuno T-Zoid True Blade Irons
If you're a low handicapper, pick up these new irons, long preferred by many of the Tour's best players. The great advantage of these clubs is the extreme consistency of the face, which is critical to working the ball aggressively. Plus superb balance and weight. $960 per set (including three pitching wedges). 800-925-4292.

Ping Isopur Putters
Five of these stainless-steel models now feature the Isopur inset, which makes the club slightly heavier and gives it superb balance. $120. 800-474-6434.

Ping Hoofer Golf Bag
I've finally found my ideal carry bag: dual straps, five spacious pockets, and a design that gives maximum room top and bottom. Great value: $175. 800-474-6434.

James Dodson is Departures magazine's contributing editor for golf.