The enticing charms of par-free golf

By Bruce Charlton

Yes, you read the headline correctly: I said par-FREE, not par three. I think of this as not unlike the sound of one hand clapping: what would it be like to play a golf course that had no designated par? I was playing golf with one of the editors of this magazine at Pinehurst a few years ago, during a conference of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, when we first started kicking around the subject.

When many American golfers undertake their first pilgrimages to the UK, they're surprised to stand on a tee box and see a sign that only indicates the hole's yardage – and maybe a clever or confusing or hard-to-pronounce Scottish name like 'The Butts' (on St Andrews' Jubilee Course), or 'The Lang Spane' (at Downfield), or 'Cat Ha Brae' (at Crail).

The sign says 450 or 274 – that's all. It doesn't indicate what par is or how difficult the hole might be by offering a handicap number. Is the 274 yards a short risk/reward par four that allows bolder players to set up an eagle possibility by hitting the perfect tee shot? Or is it a super-long par three, maybe downhill with lots of roll? But an even better question is: does it really matter? We've all played holes where bogey seems like a perfectly acceptable score. In such cases we played the hole, not the par – maybe hitting iron off the tee, laying up to the safe side of a well-protected green, and making three unlikely but also making seven an even more remote possibility. In the overall scheme of things the par of a hole – or even of an entire golf course – just doesn't mean anything: what's of critical concern is who has the lowest total score at the end of the round (or who has won more holes in match play).

Robert Trent Jones II's recent work at Chambers Bay, in Washington State (just chosen by the USGA to host the 2010 US Amateur and 2015 US Open), provides a great example of how the notion of par affects the work of golf course architects.

At Chambers, our original idea was to throw away the concept of par and just build the best golf holes, some of which could play (depending on conditions or set-up) as either par threes or par fours, or in some cases, par fours that could also be played as par fives.

As we worked on Chambers Bay I discussed this often with Robert Trent Jones Jr and our associate Jay Blasi. I think the best architects try to think purely about shot values when designing a course, and don't worry so much about the number of strokes in regulation. And since we built the course with the specific goal of hosting a major championship someday, we figured we'd give tournament officials the opportunity to make some holes play to whatever par they thought most appropriate. For the average player, some of the holes at Chambers would play to a different concept of par depending on local conditions such as wind, rainfall, topography, and vegetation. For example, the fourteenth hole is 522 yards, but it plays downhill and so the green is reachable in two shots to some players, though it sounds like a par five.

Par is normally an indication of how many strokes it should take to reach the green, but at Chambers this can be misleading. Players will have to play the hole, not the par. Another good example is the well-known 242-yard sixteenth hole at Cypress Point. I once watched Johnny Miller play it as a par four during the Bing Crosby Pro-Am because of the wind and because he had a muscle pull and couldn't execute a full swing. He didn't even hit his tee shot at the green, but he went on to win the tournament. The notion that every hole must have its own specific par makes us lose sight of the roots of the game, which are simply to get the ball in the cup in as few shots as necessary. Par builds expectations: if it's a par five and you make a five you've played it well (which anyone who's seen their opponent make an 'ugly par' knows isn't true). There's also a sense of disappointment if you don't make the official par – even if the hole is playing long or into the wind. And that disappointment can carry over to the rest of your round. One objection to getting rid of par is that it's what the handicap system is based on: how can you know what your handicap should be if you don't know whether you shot three over or three under? But handicapping is actually based on the slope rating of a course anyway.

And if you look at the Golf Digest rating panel requirements, they have one entitled 'resistance to scoring.' It's not called 'resistance to par.' Perhaps the key issue here – especially for golf course architects – is that there may well be a lot of great pieces of land out in the world where golf courses aren't being built because owners can't get a 7,400-yard, par-72 course.

This is especially important in the current era, when architects aren't necessarily getting the great sites, as earlier architects did, when there was more land and fewer regulations. But what's wrong with a 6,600-yard par-69 course if it's still a great test? Many of Scotland's classic courses are even shorter. Not only are good sites not being used in some cases, but architects are being pressured to produce courses that may not represent the best use of the land they are given, which in turn can prevent us from doing our best work.

I really like the idea of thinking outside the tee box and simply playing a golf course as a conglomerate of 18 holes – which I still find difficult to do! My own personal yardstick is that I love to shoot under 80, and on a mediocre day to keep it under 90. I know that on a 560-yard hole five is good and eight is bad. That's as far as it has to go. As architects we could have a lot of fun with this and take on the golf establishment in a friendly way and show them what else we can do given the right opportunities. I'll bet that if you ask Tour players before a major what it will take to win they'll give you a total score, not a number under par. That's an insight into how the best players are already thinking: not about par, but about how to get to the clubhouse in the least number of strokes. In this case, such forward thinking may seem radical but it is actually backward thinking: getting rid of par returns us to the roots of the game. It opens up huge opportunities to be creative, both as architects and as players.

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