The challenge of short par fours


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

The great virtue of the short par four, whether it be a drive and pitch hole or a death-or-glory potential one-shotter, lies in its ability to stir the heart of every standard of golfer.

Standing on the tee of a short par four, perhaps after slogging through a sequence of 450 yard plus holes, the player typically feels a mixture of challenge and inspiration. Golf is intended to be fun, after all, and, although a par on the course's hardest hole may be inspiring, for the majority of players, it is probably a rarity.The short par four, by contrast, offers the weak player a reasonable chance to match – perhaps even beat – the card, and, for a few moments, to fantasise that par is his normal game, rather than something he achieves a few times a round at best.

Great short par four holes divide roughly into two categories.

There are the holes that ask the player whether he has the skill, strength and nerve to drive the green, and there are those that don't offer a realistic chance of reaching the putting surface in one, but which test the golfer's ability to place the tee shot and pitch accurately to give an opportunity to score a birdie. David McLay Kidd, designer of Bandon Dunes in America, and currently occupied building the new seventh course at St Andrews, prefers the all-or-nothing approach to short par fours."When I think about a great short par four, I'm thinking reachable from the tee," he says. "I want the good player to be tempted to take his driver, or at least his three wood, and I want the safe alternative to leave a reasonably difficult second. The thrill is in the difficulty of the choice – you want to push the good player towards taking the driver. In a matchplay situation, these holes are fantastic deciders." "After I built Bandon Dunes, a journalist wrote that it was very obvious I was a Scot, because the closing holes are so clearly designed for do or die matchplay, the kind of golf you play all the time at Scottish clubs," says Kidd. "In retrospect, that's true, but it wasn't until someone else pointed it out that I realised it." At 363 yards, Bandon's 16th hole is longer than most of the classic short par fours – and hardly driveable for normal mortals – but, with its split fairway, offers a clear advantage to the player bold enough to take the driver and accurate enough to make it pay.

Though the course as a whole may not be great architecture, the tenth hole on the Brabazon course at The Belfry, venue of so many dramatic Ryder Cups, is a classic example of the all-ornothing school.With water in front and on the left of the green, the player who takes on the challenge must carry the ball between 260 and 300 yards, depending on the position of the tee.

The alternative is a mid-iron down the fairway and a wedge across the lake to the green.

Architecturally, the problem with the hole is that the payoff for the heroic shot is arguably insufficient. The green is relatively narrow, and even if the drive avoids the water, it is far from certain to finish on the putting surface – it is tough target with a driver or a three wood – and eagles are fairly rare.Missing right results in a chip that, in difficult conditions, could easily run through the green into the water. And, for the best players, the safe tee shot leaves a relatively easy pitch from a level fairway to a green that is not dramatically contoured and, with a wedge, is an inviting target, giving an excellent opportunity for birdie even for the cautious.

What the Brabazon shows is that a spectacular heroic option does not, in itself, make for a great short par four. There must be enough difficulty in the second shot, for those who play safe, to give a clear reward to the brave and successful. In practice, this means that the green complex must be built in such a way as to make a relatively tough second, even if it is only a short pitch.

"It all comes back to green design – the thing must be made by the green," says architect Martin Hawtree. "The green must dictate the drive, and putting must be challenging. There are practical problems, in that common sense dictates that a short hole should have a small green, but modern greenkeeping machinery and wear patterns – especially the damage that can be caused by high-flown balls – demand more space on the green. So larger greens are increasingly necessary, but they must present their own challenge." On one of America's classic short par fours, the problem of wear on a small green is resolved by the use of an alternative green. Played to its original green, the tenth hole at Riviera, in California, is widely regarded as among the finest such designs in the world. At 315 yards, the player is tempted to try for the green, but the penalty for missing can be severe. Alternatively, the layup tee shot must be carefully placed, ideally close to the fairway bunkers, to provide the best angle for the approach. Despite the absence of obviously penal features, Riviera's tenth has enough teeth, particularly in the tricky green, to make the player stop and think – the key to enjoyable golf.

The Old Course at St Andrews, of course, is the poster child for large greens that present many different challenges. The twelfth hole on the Old Course, 316 yards from the medal tees, but extended to 348 yards for the 2005 Open Championship, presents the unwary with an apparently straightforward opportunity to blaze away. None of the fairway bunkers that threaten the drive are clearly visible from the tee. The bunkers can be carried by the brave and strong, leaving at most a short chip for the second shot, but the alternative is to play left of the large Stroke bunker, leaving a tricky approach to the shallow green. A substantial ridge across the green makes putting difficult if the approach is not precisely placed, but, as on so many other holes at St Andrews, it is the placement of the tee shot that is key.

A problem with some short par fours is that they can appear contrived. Golfers somehow regard teeing off with a medium iron as unnatural, and, when the player chooses not to take a bold option, the ideal position from which to approach the green may well be some way back. To play a five or six iron and a wedge to a 300 yard hole might make sense for the higher handicapper trying to maximise his chances of a par – or the better player who chooses not to go for the green, but wants to leave a full shot for the second – but to many golfers, teeing off with such a short club is not what the game is about.

Like it or not, short par fours require strategic thinking. For Nick Faldo, this is what makes them great. "To my mind, these are invariably the most interesting holes in golf. Typically they call for good strategy and skilful shotmaking, and they reward a mixture of precision, finesse and bravery," says Faldo."As well as forcing golfers to think and make decisions, good short par fours often throw down the gauntlet," continues Faldo.

"Because they are relatively short, the player senses the chance of picking up a stroke, and yet to do so he must play a courageous stroke – he must take a risk and earn the reward." Physical beauty is a good thing for any golf hole, but for the short par four it is perhaps even more important. Sunningdale's short eleventh is among the most attractive short fours, but the glorious surroundings should not distract the golfer from the challenge in front of him. The blind drive demands precision, but the greatness of the hole lies in the choice of approach shot to the elevated green.

Spyglass Hill's much-photographed fourth hole is "simple yet wonderfully conceived" according to Faldo, and cited by architect Kyle Phillips as a key influence. "I think it's the most creative green I've ever seen by Trent Jones Senior," says Phillips. "The big landform that guards the green means that if you try to cheat the corner, you have a blind approach, and missing the green is costly." Phillips' sixth hole at Kingsbarns, like Jones' masterpiece, poses a number of key strategic choices to the golfer, over and beyond the simple 'go for the green or lay up' options. Two bunkers set into a diagonal ridge split the fairway in two, creating the first key question – can I carry them? To carry the first bunker from the championship tee requires the drive to fly 225 yards; the second bunker, 255 yards. A tee shot left below the ridge will require the player to hit a tricky blind pitch to a green whose contours do not favour an approach from the left side. The middling option is to carry the first bunker, but to aim for the right-hand part of the elevated fairway; this opens up the green for the approach, and enables the golfer to use the contours to his advantage. The heroic option is to fire the tee ball directly over the further of the two fairway bunkers; this demands not only length, but also accuracy, but, as Phillips himself says, creates the possibility to drive the green and hope for an eagle putt.

As with all great short par fours, the sixth at Kingsbarns demands clarity of thought and accuracy of execution from the player. "The easy play is to the left," says Phillips, and indeed there is plenty of room for the more cautious golfer to play the hole as a safe drive and pitch option, albeit that the pitch is made more difficult by the angle of the green and the landforms that surround it. Bolder options exist, and promise rewards for those prepared to take them on, but penal bunkering, thick rough and a hidden burn behind the green await those whose execution cannot match their intentions. And so a hole that should be a safe par four for most players, and which offers plenty of opportunities to beat the card by one or even two strokes, can bite back.

Holes such as the sixth at Kingsbarns, that were conceived from the start to be drive and pitch, or possibly even reachable, are one thing. Quite another are those that, because of the onward march of club and ball technology – and the emergence of young golfers who have absorbed the swing lessons of players such as Tiger Woods – are now effectively only a drive and a wedge. In a world in which a par five of more than 600 yards is reachable in two and a long par four is one that gets close to the 500 yard line, anything around the 400 yard mark could be considered a drive and pitch hole. "Holes that were never intended to be short par fours are becoming so," says former Walker Cup great and course architect Peter McEvoy. "At the Lytham Trophy in 2004, which was played off the Open Championship tees, I watched players drive the green at the fourth hole, which is 391 yards, reach the 334 yard tenth and the 340 yard 13th with a three wood and have a pop at the green from the tee at the 16th, too." The winning score, by the way, 266, or eighteen under par, was eight shots better than David Duval's total in the 2001 Open. "The young players coming through now are even longer than the pros," says McEvoy. "The young tyro now hits the ball 50 or 60 yards further than they used to. But the 24-handicapper isn't hitting it any further than before, and that means you must have more tees.

The essence of the short par four is risk and reward – that you can play the hole conservatively, but you will have a tougher second – but to maintain that risk/reward concept when players are hitting totally different lengths, the only answer is multiple tees."McEvoy, a member of the R&A's Equipment Standards Committee, says that he believes the game's administrators have caught up with the advance of technology, and that further leaps forward are unlikely. But a technological freeze will not change the reality of golf today – that, for top players, anything less than 400 yards is short. The defences of the short par four of tomorrow will have to be more cleverly conceived to reduce the advantage of the power player. To do this while still appearing natural and uncontrived represents the architect's challenge.

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.