At the end of this year’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, which was held in January at the Kyle Phillips-designed Yas Links, Tyrrell Hatton, the 2021 champion, was not happy. Hatton finished sixth in the event, three shots behind winner Thomas Pieters, but that was after taking seven on the par-five eighteenth on day two of the tournament and nine on day three.
The home hole at Yas is a huge par five, 646 yards long and with the Persian Gulf – or at least the sliver of it that separates Yas from its neighbouring islands – all the way down the left-hand side. Architect Phillips has set the hole up to offer clear decisions on both the first and second shot: one can cut the corner, going over the water, and shorten the hole, or one can bail out to the right, making it a certain three-shotter. A central bunker in the drive zone separates the two routes. It is a highly strategic hole.
Hatton, however, let fly at the hole with both barrels when talking to reporters after the tournament. “What’s wrong with it? Where do you start? It shouldn’t have a bunker in the middle of the fairway, and it shouldn’t be over 600 yards from a forward tee,” he said. “If you hit a good drive as a pro you should have at least a chance to go for the green in two, otherwise the hole becomes a par three, and that’s if you play it well. Hardly anyone will get there in two with the wind even slightly against you.
“I would love for a bomb to drop on it and blow it to oblivion to be honest. It’s just such a terrible finishing hole. And the fact that they moved the tee back today is ridiculous. I hit a really good tee shot and still had 290 yards to the front. I could peg-up a driver and still not get there. It would be a much better finishing hole if you’re actually rewarded for hitting the fairway, which as it stands, you’re not.
“As for me, I hit my tee shot straight down the middle into that ridiculous bunker and thought my best route out of there was to steer my second over to the tenth fairway, although that still left me nearly 220 yards to the pin for my third.”
“I don’t think the hole needs defending,” architect Phillips told GCA. “The wind was huge that week, and all the folks involved in the course setup felt it held up amazingly well to remain playable all week. In that wind, you had to be careful and thoughtful all week. The safe play from the backmost tee was short-right into the 50-yard-wide fairway. It is a hole that can be a three-shot five some days, but if the tee is forward by one box, it becomes a two-shot. From the pro tee it allows professional players to risk hugging the shoreline and being rewarded with reaching the green on the second shot. Playing from forward tees, higher handicap players can tack around the shoreline in three shots and avoid having to make a heroic carry over the water.”
Part of Hatton’s rant can safely be considered as the outpourings of a very disappointed man. That a professional golfer would be unhappy at a central fairway bunker is hardly surprising, but at the same time, that fairway is about 75 metres wide where the bunker is. If the fairway were half the width and lined by trees, no-one would be complaining. The bunker, we can safely conclude, is a perfectly legitimate strategic device used by Phillips.
Where his rant gets interesting, though, is his assertion that all par fives should be in principle reachable by a professional golfer who has hit a good drive. Golf architect Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design, for one, does not agree. Of Hatton’s comments, he says: “I thought he was actively deflecting responsibility away from himself for poor decision making and shot execution. The hole in question was within range with a good drive. He just hadn’t hit one. The key word here is ‘always’ and I don’t agree with that. In reality now, any par five under 600 yards falls into that bracket and quite a few above, so holes which are out of range for the tour pros are few and far between. Provided the hole poses an interesting strategic choice for the lay up then I think a true three-shotter is perfectly valid, albeit undesirably long for the other 99 per cent of players.
“Essentially it is the same design task as you would face on a shortish to medium length par four, assuming a drive into A1 position. The approach is as easy or as difficult as their lay-up makes it, but I’d like a target with hole locations that will make them vary their thinking as to the side of the fairway and distance to the hole that they choose to lay up at. A forced carry with no variation other than distance would be dull. There’s no one answer, but it is the same conundrum that all the rest of us face with pretty much every par five!”
The young English architect Clyde Johnson says: “It does pose an interesting challenge, if stopping those guys from getting home in two is going to get in their heads! Length alone isn’t the answer to that. I can see what Tyrrell is getting at, about it becoming a par three, but not all par threes are created equal, and the key difference is that not everyone is starting from the same place. Making it interesting to get to the best starting point for that becomes the challenge for an architect in that case.”
Tom Doak has thought about this issue for many years. “The first big article I did for Golf magazine in 1982 [when I was 21] was about all the par five holes that had never been reached in two,” he says. “There were about two dozen of them in the USA back then, although, of course, a place like Crystal Downs was never visited by Tour pros so its two long holes were both on the list.
“One thing that comes from that is that these types of holes get us talking about the longest hitters, when in fact they are beastly holes for the 95 per cent of golfers with higher handicaps. For most people, any par five is a three-shot hole, and an ‘untouchable’ par five is probably a four-shot hole if you miss either of the first two.
“As part of that article I interviewed a lot of architects, and the consensus back then was Augusta’s reachable par fives were the most dramatic type of hole, and most architects felt that you shouldn’t have any hole that players didn’t even think about reaching. Pete Dye would usually build one that was only rarely going to be reached, but I think he sort of agreed with Hatton – if it was really totally unreachable then players would just hit two lay-up shots, and that would be boring to watch. He wanted them to hit driver off the tee and be actively thinking they might have a slight chance.
“What I noticed about that type of hole back in the old days was that short hitters played them the best. Hitting it in the rough off the tee made for a difficult slog and keeping in the fairway was paramount. None of the holes were really long enough that a great player would have more than a wedge third shot if they kept it in play on the first two, so the long players’ length advantage was pretty well negated, whereas on most par fives it is pushed right to the front.
“For my own designs, I generally build less than four par-five holes, because I think they reward the long hitter too much, and the long hitter already has a lot of advantages. I’ve only built a handful of holes that are usually not reachable in two, the best known of them being the fifteenth at Cape Kidnappers, 650 yards, where two cautious shots to stay in play could leave you a very long way in. Sure enough, though, in their second pro exhibition there the wind was howling at the players’ backs, and Sean O’Hair reached that green in two with something like a 6-iron. The annoying part was that right after that, they suspended play because the ball was ‘wobbling’ on the green – but really because none of those players wanted to play the last three holes back into the teeth of that wind.
Doak hits on a key problem with unreachable par fives. The wider dispersion of length between average and elite golfer that has emerged over the past twenty years is inevitable a greater problem the longer the hole becomes. To take two extremes: for a veteran woman golfer with an extremely slow swing speed, a three-shot hole could easily be less than 200 yards: but for a young male professional or elite amateur, holes in excess of 650 yards are potentially reachable in two. Elasticity is an important component of good golf design, but nothing can stretch that far. British architect Jonathan Davison says: “I think a course should have a genuine three-shotter if possible, but it is very hard now because elite golfers hit it so far. The seventeenth hole on my Heritage course at Penati in Slovakia is over 500 metres into the prevailing wind, but when the Challenge Tour played there, the guys were hitting long irons into the green. I guess a genuine three-shotter for pros is the par six on Penati’s Legend course, but that hole is 783 yards long!”
The second shot on an unreachable par five has been referred to as the most boring shot in golf. Kyle Phillips says he sympathises with this view, but not absolutely. “There are examples of par-five holes where the lay-up second shot has plenty of pressure of both distance and accuracy in order to achieve the preferred spot to get up-and-down for birdie,” he says. “Yas Links’ eighteenth is an example of this, as is the eighteenth at Pebble Beach. The yardage on the card at Pebble is less, but there is less dogleg to bite off on the second shot, out of bounds looms tight on the right and both trees and bunkers cut into the fairway and approach to the green.”
An additional complication is that reachable par fives are one of only a few occasions where professionals are required to hit the sort of long, challenging approach shot to a tightly guarded green that has been the hallmark of the champion throughout the game’s history. Citing the eighteenth hole on his colleague Ross McMurray’s Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor in Wales, Robin Hiseman says that testing this sort of shot remains an important goal for golf architects. “It’s the eagle/double bogey gambit,” he says. “The ‘hero’ shot is very enticing and par fives offer this more than other holes. One needs a potent jeopardy for it to work most effectively. The eighteenth at Celtic Manor does this – it is, in conception, the same as the fifteenth at Augusta, but longer.”
Jim Nagle of Forse Design says that no hole should be an automatic go- or no-go decision. “The chance of reaching a green in two is dependent on the overall distance, but nothing should be guaranteed,” he explains. “I find it much more interesting to tempt them to go for it in two but also to provide the option to lay back. Additionally, a well-designed green with tucked hole locations to the perimeter will make the ‘par three’ element equally as exciting as going for it in two. If it’s going to be a par-three approach, make them play to the appropriate distance and angle to attack the pin. Then build strategies around the lay-up.”
This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.