Hands up: who likes a golf course that has a weak beginning and then gets weaker? No-one, of course. Now, who favours a golf course with a gentle opening and a memorable conclusion? Most hands will now go up, but not mine.My perfect round is one that starts strongly and finishes strongly.
I think a golf course should instantly reward the player who has made an effort to prepare himself – the golfer who has hit a few meaningful balls on the range, and gained some feel by stroking a few putts on the practice putting green. The opening hole, or the opening sequence, should not be used for warm-up purposes.Moreover, in my view the very best opening holes are those that offer substantial benefit to the player who has not only physically prepared himself, but who also thinks about where best to position his opening tee shot and then executes successfully.
Some examples of really good first holes? Two marvellous (and wonderfully contrasting) championship courses immediately spring to mind:Winged Foot and Royal St George's. I wouldn't describe them as extraordinary holes, rather they are honest and demanding, but most significantly, they reveal the quality and character of the ensuing challenge.
A classic opening hole is the first at Machrihanish in the remote south west corner of Scotland. It features a swashbuckling, bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare drive across the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. An ill-prepared mishit here could demoralise you for the rest of the round.
A par five first hole is often considered a gentle break-in, but if it's potentially reachable in two, as many are now, it can be very demanding for pros and top amateurs as they expect to make a four, and so the pressure is on from the get-go. By contrast, one of golf 's most intimidating opening holes measures little more than 300 yards, namely the first at Prestwick. Not too many golfers can stand on the tee here and muse, "What railway line?" – the threat of finishing up on the wrong side of the tracks is ever present.
And what an intimidating 19th hole this makes! Given that so much amateur golf is matchplay, the sudden-death factor is a further reason why a first hole ought to be a worthy examination.
Of course there are some examples of great courses that begin rather tamely – Troon and Pebble Beach, for instance – but they are the exception and, as a rule of thumb, I would suggest that when the opening holes of a course are described as gentle, you can be fairly confident that this is a euphemism for dull.
But we are all in agreement, aren't we, that the ideal golf course is one that builds to a thrilling finale? Since the closing holes are inevitably going to be the most remembered, then as far as nature and other factors permit, they might as well be the most impressive, most striking and the most imaginatively conceived.
I think variety is another essential component – that is, variety in terms of hole length, orientation and shot-making skills demanded, as well as visual variety.
And last but not least, there is the fear factor. For a sequence that incorporates variety, beauty and more than a hint of intimidation, the 15th, 16th and 17th at Cypress Point may be in a class of its own, although unfortunately the final hole there is a bit of a let-down.
So which are golf 's finest final holes? Personally, I have a predilection for strong par fours – holes that require two very precise strokes if they are to be mastered. In America the 18th holes at Oakmont and Shinnecock are two of my favourites, and among Open Championship venues the closing holes at Muirfield and Royal Lytham particularly stand out.
I often hear people describe the 18th at St Andrews as a weak hole or an anti-climax after the drama of the Road Hole. I disagree.Many of Britain's ancient links, including Prestwick and North Berwick, conclude with a short, seemingly straightforward par four. In fact, what these holes encourage – and often reward – is bold, attacking play, again particularly in a match play situation. Of course, it also provided Yours Truly with his proudest moment in golf.
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.