In these days of 500-plus yard par fours and of courses closing in on 8,000 yards, there is a certain frisson to be had from stepping on the tee of a tiny par three. When the difference between two regular golfers with a driver can be 200 yards, the short par three is pretty much the last remaining equaliser in our game.
When a hole measures 100 yards or so, virtually every player will have a short iron in hand. Even the hack will be thinking to themselves ‘I can and should get this close’ (though they rarely will). It is, basically, the only occasion in our game when the weak feels they can compete with the strong.
But there is more to the short three than that. It is perhaps ironic, given the distance professionals hit the ball today, but when a tiny three appears in a championship routing, it typically ends up as one of the course’s feature holes. Think of the seventh at Pebble Beach, around 100 yards and downhill, or the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon, 123 yards long for Open Championship contenders, and difficult enough, with its tiny green to prompt a hearty sigh of relief when it is passed. Or, a more recent example, the sixteenth hole at Himmerland in Denmark, host for several years to the European Tour’s Made in Denmark event. Known as ‘Himmerland Hill’ and created by architect Philip Christian Spogárd deliberately with the pros in mind, in the 2015 tournament the hole was the shortest in European Tour history, measuring just 79 yards in the final round.
“The short par three offers the prospect of the ultimate prize – a one on the scorecard – to the largest possible number of golfers,” says Spogárd. “Brute length is less of a challenge and as a result the hole becomes inviting and fascinating. Everyone has his or her eyes on the prize. It can give a sense of comfort that the target is so close. However, with really short par threes, the lack of length actually starts posing difficulties, which you often only encounter on really short shots. The really short par threes require great attention to the ball flight and especially the spin on the ball. If you are hitting a sand wedge to a green you risk spinning back out – or stalling completely in a headwind. You can guard the green more tightly than you would on other holes, as you can expect more golfers to actually hit a high and soft-landing shot on the green surface. Himmerland Hill demands great precision to find the right levels. It almost plays like an island green, as any shot not on the green surface is extremely likely to result in something higher than a par. But the shortness of the hole lures you in and gives you a false sense of comfort, which is almost the main hazard to be aware of.
“In my opinion golfers prefer the shorter holes – not just par threes, but in general – as they provide more golfers with the chance to reach the green in regulation and actually think about course management, as they can most likely reach the target in a variety of ways – which is what each hole should offer. For many golfers a par four plays like a par five and many par fives play as par sixes or even sevens as golfers can’t reach the greens in regulation even with their best shots. As a result, the number of transportation shots increases – arguably the most boring shots in golf – and the experience becomes less enjoyable. With a short par three you are guaranteed at least the illusion – when standing on the tee – that you can actually play the hole as it should. Therefore, I personally believe that many golfers actually enjoy playing courses with an overall par of less than 72 as these courses have less transportation shots. Some often ridicule short holes. It is very difficult to design a good short par three, and I find that they work best when they are supported and defined by the constraints of the overall landscape. Take the seventh at Pebble Beach: it is super short, but it is obvious to all that the hole cannot be longer as the landscape does not allow it. And it is equally obvious to all that the hole has to be part of the routing, as the experience is so special. This is again the same with Himmerland Hill where the overall features of the landscape dictate the location of tees and green. A short par three on an open piece of land with less overall defining features will be extremely difficult to create. They have a tendency to look like ‘par-three course holes’, which is not a desired look or feel for any hole on a golf course.”
Legendary architect Bill Coore is another who is fond of a short three. “Ben and I have, throughout our careers, been enamoured of pitch shot par threes and short fours. We think they provide interesting golf across the ability spectrum. It so equalises the game, and strength is no longer the priority,” Coore says. “Both of us grew up playing par-three and nine-hole courses that had short holes. But I don’t mind admitting that we look for opportunities to include short par three holes just because we like them. They come in two basic forms, one when you need to link two interesting holes and there is broken ground between them. The other is when there is just a small area of dull ground to cover. Obviously the first example gives you visual drama, and while the second needs to be built, we have always taken the view that if we can’t build a short par three of interest, we should probably look for a different kind of work.”
A fine example of this second sort of hole was the eleventh at Coore & Crenshaw’s Sugarloaf Mountain course in Florida, now no longer in existence. A tiny par three on flat ground, the architects put doubt into the players’ minds by pushing up the front of the green slightly so the back was not visible. This led players to convince themselves the putting surface must be an absolute sliver and trying to baby a shot over the fronting hazard, with mostly inevitable results. This writer played the hole in a fivesome of golf industry types, all of whom were tolerable golfers. Only one hit the putting surface.
Coore himself cites the ninth at Old Sandwich. “A completely manufactured hole – there was a road where the green is now,” he says. “Nothing there, no feature, nothing to guide you – except that we wanted to get from here to there.”
California-based Neal Meagher says: “When thoughtfully designed and well-executed, the very short par three hole is like the Swiss Army Knife of golf course design. Packed within its 110 yards, or so, the potential exists to make even the keenest and most adventurous golfer scratch their head. And speaking of heads, it usually gets quite inside the heads of all players who encounter them owing in large part to them being seldom used. Part of their utility to the designer is the ability to help link holes within a routing where nothing else will work. And this goes for very uphill or very downhill situations especially. In fact, using the very short par three on this type of terrain is favoured, as the uphill shot adds on distance and mystery owing to the inability to see the green surface, whilst the downhill shot creates such a short hole that it is almost impossible to not overshoot the green, even by the less than skilled player.”
English architect Jonathan Davison built a very short uphill par three on his Heritage course at Penati in Slovakia, the twelfth. “I like greens within greens, because you’re hitting a short iron. If you miss the right area, you are left with a difficult putt. And if I build one, I normally go a bit funky on the green. It’s easy to say, build a tiny green, like the seventh at Pebble or the Postage Stamp, but that obviously has maintenance issues. And you obviously need to allow a large amount of tee space, because if everyone is hitting a short iron, you know it is going to be cut up. The twelfth at Penati is useful because it got me to the top of the property, which gives great views and then gives an elevated position for the tee shot on the thirteenth.”
A good example of the kind of hole Davison describes is the new fifth hole on the Himalayas nine at Prince’s in Sandwich, Kent, designed by architect Martin Ebert. ‘Bloody Point’, as the hole is called, plays to a green set right against the beach, a green that is actually quite large. It may be sizeable, but the severe slopes of the putting surface mean that a ball that is not under control when it lands can run almost anywhere.
Oklahoma-based architect Colton Craig says: “What I love about such holes is that they can be a little devil or an innocent pitch and putt. I think where it is placed on the property and how it fits in with the flow of the routing are key. If there is a really special view from a certain point of the property and you want the players to spend as much time there as possible, a short par three will accomplish this. Usually you see this at resorts that have limited coastal frontage for golf.
“It could also be a skyline of a downtown that has a perfect angle and it only works in that particular area. It could be late in the round and be an all or nothing two or 20 type hole, a big chance to make up some shots. But it could also be an innocent little hole that’s perhaps after a long four-hole stretch of tough pars and acts as a deep breath. I don’t like super short par threes when it’s obvious they are just trying to squeeze in a hole to make for nine or 18 holes. TPC Sawgrass’s seventeenth is the ultimate two or 20, but I have to say that I don’t like it, because of the big pond carry more than anything. I’m not against building an island green if it’s two creeks wrapping around the green in a Y shape, but ponds are not great for visuals. Water stays on one flat plane. I like to see movement in the ground, not pure flatness.”
“I really think a golf course is incomplete and not well-rounded without a hole where anyone can get a birdie or a six,” says Ron Forse, who has worked on any number of short threes during his career as a restoration specialist. “They round out the test of golf, and they can equalise the course demands and enjoyment for the shorter hitter as well as equalising the scores a bit. There is often a great disparity between high and low scores in a day on these short holes which I think makes them good. Also, you can justify tucking the pin close to trouble where you could not for a longer approach. They complement other types of holes beautifully. I love how they call for extreme precision which is such a contrast to so many other shots on the golf course such as drives and three woods. The keys from a design standpoint are plenty of tee space and quite often a total surrounding of the green with a hazard, the sort of thing that cannot be done on long holes – it makes them unique and complementary. A favourite shorty is the second at Whitinsville. Ross did a very similar hole at Seminole and we put it in at the Country Club of Orlando, number seventeen. My last example is number eight at Tedesco Country Club, north of Boston, which we worked on two years ago – a small double-tiered green with bunkers totally redesigned all around.”
Architect Bill Bergin says: “They are usually located in a special environment that might be more of a discovery than a creation. We are currently working on Highlands Falls in North Carolina (read more on page 21). Joe Lee nestled a tiny hole practically underneath a gorgeous natural waterfall. On a personal note, I missed the cut in the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach by one shot after playing the ‘damnable’ seventh hole in three over!”
This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.