How strong is long?

  • How strong

    The par five ninth hole at Muirfield, Scotland

  • How Strong

    The closing par five at Kyle Phillips’ Yas Links in Abu Dhabi

  • How Strong

    The thirteenth at Augusta National is one of the best-known risk-reward par fives

  • How Strong

    The par-five eighteenth hole at Pebble Beach in California

  • How Strong

    “The fives fell as they fell,” says David Kidd of the three-shotters at Mammoth Dunes

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Par fives can be the ugly ducklings on many golf courses, often placed by golf course architects to use up the least interesting land. But, by simple mathematics, they should be the most strategic holes – on the logic that the more shots, the more options. So what makes for a great three-shotter? Adam Lawrence asked architects.

There’s something inherently unloveable about par fives. Maybe it’s just because the longer the hole, the more scope there is for disaster, but three shot holes are only occasionally listed among the favourites on any given course. And though the list of great par fives is long, it pales into insignificance when compared with similar lists of one and two shot holes. “To be honest, I can’t think of very many courses that have four really good par fives,” says Tom Doak. “My list of courses with the best par fives is full of courses with three of them, like Muirfield, or even two, such as Pine Valley and Crystal Downs.

Why should this be? Well, it is undeniably true that, for average and weak golfers faced with a 500 yard plus par five, there is more capacity to go wrong. I remember playing Bruce Charlton and Robert Trent Jones, Jr’s Bro Hof Slott in Sweden. The opening hole was a par five of around 580 yards. I hit a great drive, an average five wood second and then another five wood, this time pure, for my third, and finished in a bunker to the front of the green. Putting together three good shots on that scale is pretty tough for many of us!

So a lot of the time, the fives that people like tend to be the shorter, easier ones. It is easy to make a par five too tough for many, even if, on paper, the hole is a cool one. Take the eighteenth at Kyle Phillips’ magnificent Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. The hole is an epic par five that offers players the chance to carry the sea and shorten on both drive and second shot. On paper, it must have looked like a slam dunk, and for those good enough to engage with it, I am sure it is. But the flipside is that it is all too easy to walk off the hole having dumped two balls in the Persian Gulf (Phillips would doubtless, correctly, point out that taking on the water is entirely voluntary and the hole can be played more safely by steering well clear of the Gulf).

Just as architects use par threes to cross the wildest ground on a site – because a par three does not need a fairway – so the fives are often used to eat up any less interesting terrain. Even the great Harry Colt did this, for example at Southfield in Oxford, where back to back par fives, the ninth and tenth, get the player back to and away from the clubhouse, over some pretty boring land.

“Finding good par five holes on the ground is difficult,” says Doak. “If you think about it starting at the green end and working backwards, the further back you go, the less likely you are to have good visibility of the target areas, which for many golfers is imperative. A par five is expected to ‘work’ and be a good hole whether the player is approaching from 280 yards or fifty – and that’s tremendously more difficult to find than a par three where you only have to find a place to put a tee, or a par four where it’s more kosher to make golfers play for particular spots off the tee.

“I do think par five design is suffering today because too many designers use them to get the total length up to their target number. I’ve seen several courses lately with four par fives all at 570 yards or more from the back tees! That’s not much variety for the average guy – it’s a real slog. I still like to have one per course that isn’t much more than 500 yards, or even less. I know they would call those holes a par four if they ever played the US Open there, but they’re not going to.”

Danish architect Phillip Spogard agrees. “For me the courses with great par fives are those that encourage heroic golf and shotmaking, where the par fives tend to become holes where the golfer really has to make up his mind whether or not to take big risks to receive big advantages – as opposed to just transporting the golf ball forward to a layup area a pitching wedge distance from the green,” he says. “What makes them difficult to design is that they take up a larger land area – and by doing so the land has to live up to more criteria to accommodate a good golf hole, like severe slopes, vegetation, natural hazards and features. Often land is relatively expensive to acquire and few architects can freely work on massive pieces of land, which naturally offers a multitude of great holes. Designing in more confined areas is difficult when it comes to par fives.

“The par fives are also the holes which highlights the biggest differences between the shorter and longer hitting golfer. A longer hitter can hit 600 yards in two shots where a shorter hitter might only reach 350. It is close to impossible to deal with this difference using only bunkers. Holes like the eighteenth at Pebble Beach are naturally interesting and challenging for all golfers, because the reward is obvious for taking risks – but at the same time allowing alternative safer routes. For many golfers, par fives are par sixes or sevens as they don’t have the ability to reach the green in three shots. So on many par fives, there is more than one transportation shot. It is really difficult to deal with as it demands more hazards to add interest to individual shots and as a result the holes can then become quite freakish with a ridiculous amount of hazards.

Read: Golf course architect Jason Straka’s five rules for outstanding fives

“Variety is mentioned by many architects. Shortly after I became a golfer and a budding golf course architect at age 12, Golf Digest had an article from Gary Player on what makes a great golf course,” says Jeff Brauer. “He mentioned a par five reachable by all, two in between, and one true three-shotter as an ideal balance. That always stuck with me. Par four holes efficiently create strategy in two shots, the set up (the tee shot) and depending on that, the key shot (approach shot). Three shots is simply not required for strategy. Historically, I gather they were introduced in limited fashion either because the land forced it, or for variety, and then became standard fixtures. I think the second and third shots on a non-reachable par four, or second, third and fourth shots on a par five for average recreational women players, repeated over a dozen times a round, is the most boring. We should probably do something about that before worrying about good male players even more. The obvious solution is appropriately shorter tees.”

English architect Robin Hiseman has a slightly different take. “If you’ve found four parts of the site with different characteristics then you will have individual character for each of the holes. It’s no more of a contrivance to have variety between four par-five holes than it is a hole of any other par value,” he says. “Space is really important. The best fives are those with the space to twist and turn. If you have diagonal play lines, then you have in-built strategy. I think they are easier to design than strong par fours. The challenge lies with finding the best routing at the initial stage of the design. With maybe only four to design, as opposed to upwards of ten par fours, I find the design of the fives gives me the chance to play with strategic options. I do try hard to vary the play lines and hazard types on my fives. Falling back on design tropes and template solutions is never a good thing in my view. I like my fives to have surprising elements and hidden levels.”

“Within a routing I like to see one that is reachable without a lot of risk, but a very large green where you either make or break the hole. In other words, to get it in position for the eagle it takes a bold move to get close and overcome the challenge at the green,” says Forrest Richardson. “A second one should demand two very risky shots in order to be reachable, with a very safe alternative route that guarantees getting there in three. The third is probably a longer variety, reachable by only a few. On this one the green needs to be heavily guarded. The fourth is a bender involving heroics. It would probably have two doglegs to a button hook green. Of course, I also like the routing with an extra par five because I think it can be an equaliser, a hole that does not always rely on length as its primary defence.

“In the end, I think the best par fives are those that beg for one or both of the first two shots to be throttled back, even a bit. The lay-up shot in golf is under used, yet it is how we design for creative play as opposed to the smash-it-on-every-swing type of play. I also think there is some excitement when we find a way to give the player a three-shot hole that is under 500 yards.”

“Fives are more challenging to design than par threes, but not so challenging as short par fours in my opinion,” says David Kidd. “I strategise every hole from the green back to the tee; naturally a par five has lots of options back to the tee. It takes a bit more effort to come up with multiple playing options for a par five both strategically but also for varying levels of ability, distance and risk profiles and keep it interesting. All too often the middle shot on a three-shotter is just a ‘t’ward’, no strategy, no choices, just punt it forward. But lots can be done, the simplest is centre bunkering which forces a player to pick a spot around the hazard, short long left or right. Visibility also works; play short and get a look at the pin, or play long and it’s semi-blind but a wedge! Mammoth Dunes opened as a par 73 with par fives at 3, 7, 11, 15 and 18. I wasn’t looking for a 73, the fives fell as they fell. No-one has told me it’s a weakness, especially as the course has four real par threes and two (or even three) further one-shotters if you care to try. Variety is the key!”

“To make a par five a stronger challenge for the longest players can be difficult without making the hole really difficult for the average length to shorter player,” says Tripp Davis. “While more length will often turn a par five into a ‘stronger’ challenge for the average length to shorter player, length alone will not often turn a par five into a stronger challenge for the longest players. To make a par five a stronger challenge for the longest players, some physical traits that help are not allowing them to use length off the tee as a strength, requiring more precision with lay-up shots, or providing less margin for error on and around the green. Mentally, you can challenge the longest players by enticing them to play lower percentage shots off the tee, or into the green. Creating a tough hole of any kind is not always about challenging a player’s strengths, as doing things to expose their weaknesses can be as or more impactful.

“For the average to high handicap player, par fives are already tough relative to par. So when trying to create a tougher par five for a better player, the challenge is to give the average to high handicap player room to choose more playable options, without having such room limit the challenge to the better players. This will often require design where the average to high handicap player has to learn how to choose the playable options, even when that may require not trying what, for them, would be a heroic shot. Design may require them to choose very conservative options along the way.”

“Great par fives put pressure on the tee shot,” says Steve Smyers. “If the first is not properly placed then there are several placement areas in which to play their third. In order to reach these areas, different levels of execution should be required. The more difficult an area is to reach, the less demanding will be the resulting approach. While angles are important, it is much more critical for the modern player to be able to control flight and spin when hitting an approach. The great fives pay particular attention to the slopes and contours of the fairway and rough areas and make the golfer think through and understand how these contours, and the lie of the ball, match up with certain hole locations.”

This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.