Blind holes have been part of golf since the beginning, and some of the most famous and iconic holes in the game are blind. But in how many cases is the blindness central to the appeal of the hole, what actually makes it great? Adam Lawrence investigates.
Blindness, we can safely assume, has been a part of golf since the game began. Those fishermen and farmers who first started hitting things around the links of the east coast of Scotland would have had no conception that they might be able to alter the natural ground to provide themselves with better visibility, and it was really not until the principles of the strategic school of golf course design began to be formulated in the early 20th century that blindness started to become a dirty word.
Throughout the first big golf boom, during the second half of the nineteenth century, blind holes were created almost wherever new golf was laid out. The reduction in the cost of golf caused by the invention of the gutty ball saw the game emerge from its home in eastern Scotland and start the process of conquering the world – first the rest of Scotland, then England, Ireland and Wales, and then overseas – but the men laying out these new courses were almost all Scots who had grown up on the ancient links. Blindness to them was just part of a normal day’s golf, and, indeed, because of the perceived need to put greens in hollows wherever possible so that rain would funnel down on them and keep the grass alive, they probably created more than their share of blind holes. Plus, it isn’t hard to imagine a group of men, in the 1880s, out investigating a piece of ground with the thought that it might be suitable for a new golf course. They’re armed with gutty balls and hickory shafted clubs – equipment that made getting the ball airbone quite tricky. It seems to me totally in character that they’d stop in front on the largest dune on the site and one person would say to the others ‘I bet I can hit my ball over that, and you can’t’. And so, began many of the famous blind holes.
When architects began to theorise about hole design around the turn of the twentieth century, blindness came under fire. That’s not to say Golden Age architects always eschewed blind holes: they were happy to use variable visibility as a strategic tool, and if a landform required that a particular hole, necessary to bring a routing together, was blind, then blind it was. But certainly, they saw visibility as important, and worked hard to achieve it on their courses. Hugh Alison, Harry Colt’s longtime partner, in his early 1920s report for Toronto Golf Club, said of one suggestion: “A long two-shot hole, if introduced at this point, would be a complete failure, as it would be impossible to achieve visibility.”
Today, blindness is still regarded with suspicion, verging on outright hostility in places. Ed Carton, golf architect with civil engineering and landscape design specialists Hurt & Proffitt, exemplifies this view when he says: “Number seventeen on the Old Course, from the greenside bunker, that’s as blind a shot as I like. I believe a golf course should be straightforward, offering the golfer options not questions.”
And yet, some take a completely different view. Mexican architect Agustin Piza begs to differ. “My design philosophy calls for a bit of mystery with two blind shots wherever possible on a golf course,” he says. “The beauty of the blind shot philosophy is it can be aesthetic, strategic or functional, but you have to use it wisely. I learned it from Tom Fazio when I had the opportunity of working with him at Querencia in Cabo, Mexico. There he designed a nice blind tee shot on hole 16 and it was the first time I ever heard of such a thing in a design philosophy. This was back in 2000. It wasn’t until 2003/04, during my Master’s degree, when I had the chance to play top links courses in Scotland that I understood, appreciated and cherished the blind shot. From then on, I made it my own and have integrated it into a few of my designs like Las Parotas in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico. Although the blind shot is usually a hard sell to my clients in Latin America, I am fortunate to have a few that respect my artistic expression, thus being the courses that have won awards or mentions.”
Australian architect Harley Kruse says: “Blindness in golf holes is always a reminder of the three classical landscape characteristics of surprise, variety and concealment. It provides that element of surprise with the unknown as your shot disappears over the brow and the journey as you walk forwards to then be finally revealed with all asunder. The effect of blindness in golf design can be a great tool as it helps with the distortion of distance and challenges a golfer’s judgement. On the tee of Royal Melbourne West’s par-five fifth, one is presented with a huge and blind uphill tee shot. It is dramatic in every which way as the hole reaches up to the sky almost. A cluster of three large, stunning, sand-faced crater bunkers are set high into the crest of the ridge. A narrow alley of fairway between these bunkers on the left and vegetation on the right provides an enticing play line up the hill. A good drive that carries the crest and is not too far right to avoid the heavily right sloping part of the fairway, is then rewarded of a decent kick forwards from which the green then becomes most reachable both in distance and angle of shot.
“Another great blind hole in Australian golf is the par-five fifth at New South Wales in Sydney. From the tee the golfer is presented with a rugged carry over low vegetation, then a valley in the fairway leading up to a bold cross ridge at some 230 yards or so off the tee. Beyond the ridge the hole is blind. It disappears, and the view is of the distant ocean horizon beyond. While the ridge creates blindness and drama it also ensures the hole is incredibly flexible for a range of golfing ability and in a range of winds, including hitting directly into a cold southerly or having a summer noreaster sea breeze to lend a hand. With a tee shot over the ridge then there are big gains to be made with the downhill slope. Short of the ridge and you will be held up in the valley from where a blind second shot is over the crest as it meets the sky in dramatic fashion.”
David McLay Kidd provided his perspective on blindness in golf, with a focus on Machrihanish Dunes in Kintyre, Scotland.
A key question that we asked architects to consider was to identify holes whose greatness was inseparable from their blindness. Denver-based Rick Phelps says: “I have three holes that most accurately fit your ‘precisely because’ definition. The first is the Dell at Lahinch. One of the factors I kept asking myself when considering all of the great blind holes out there was ‘How would the hole look and play if the blindness were simply removed?’ The Dell would be a very bland, medium-to-short par three, and nothing more. My other two choices fit into more of a semi-blind category, but that is precisely what makes them such fantastic golf holes. The golfer is tempted by the blindness, under the sometimes false assumption that the more boldly he conquers the blindness, the better the result. The fourth at Royal St Georges, fits this description perfectly. The golfer who is unfamiliar with the hole would assume that the blindness from the tee is challenging him take on the enormous and deep bunker to favour the right side of the landing area, when, in fact, the tee shot should be played down the left side to provide the best angle into the green.
However, that angle on the tee shot will likely cause the second shot to be blind, as well. In other words, the design of this hole involves the brilliant use of ‘false strategy’ on the tee shot, causing a more difficult approach after making a seemingly bold play from the tee.
“The third choice in my list is the ninth at Pacific Dunes. This one is another example of the semi-blind feature, but I felt compelled to include it simply because of the way the fairway fits the ridge. The tee shot is uphill, over the leading edge of a broad ridge, which is angling away from right to left, and sloping away in the same direction. The player is asked to decide how far left to play the tee shot, with increased carry distance and blindness the farther left he plays.”
Links golf is home to most of the famous blind holes, so it isn’t surprising that many of those mentioned by architects come from the links. Martin Ebert, for example, highlighted a number of well-known blind links holes. “The Sea hole (the thirteenth) at Rye is a great example,” he says. “Many people would like to drive a huge great valley through the dune ridge which divides the fairway from the green. However, for me, the blindness makes the hole. A good drive ‘over the pipe’ (a raised and exposed culvert pipe) is required to give the golfer any confidence that the ridge can be cleared. Then, using the two marker posts (I am not sure I have seen that anywhere else) to help line up the second shot, an estimation of the club required must be made.
“There are two possible blind elements to the seventeenth [formerly fifteenth] on the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush. If the drive is well struck, it will run down the dune hillside, a feature which is rare in links golf. The fate of the tee shot will depend on the line taken. Slightly right and an awkward lie in the rough will result. Slightly too far left and the new bunker lies in wait leaving an awkward length recovery to the green. Just right and the drive will bound towards the approach to the green, and possibly onto the green. Into the wind, however, and the drive is more than likely to stay on top, probably leaving a blind second shot to the wonderful Harry Colt-designed green. Darren Clarke describes that shot as the most difficult at Portrush, with only the purest strike with a low trajectory having a chance of not being blown up by the wind rising up the dune slope.
“The sixteenth hole at Askernish can be a real brute when played into the wind. The fact that you get a glimpse of the green and the flag from the tee before you drop down the dunes lets you know what challenge awaits. The green surface is one of the wonders in the world of golf and its folklore has been added to by Tom Doak’s suggestion that it should be reshaped, which I hope with all my heart will never happen.”
We hear from Jeff Danner and Martin Ebert regarding the ninth hole at Royal County Down. The hole was cited more than any other as an example of blindness at its best.
But there are modern blind holes too. American designer Mike De Vries highlights a couple he himself designed. “The first thing I think of with blindness when designing something is how to allow blindness to creep into a hole’s design but not all the time. For instance, in looking at the third and fourth at Kingsley Club in Michigan, the land is constantly moving, and players have an idea of where to play the ball, but a mishit will find their ball in a deep hollow, with a blind shot to the green. The player is not dead and has information but there is still that bit of angst in the coming shot. Kingsley’s fourth tee shot has more obscurity to it and quite a bit of information but is still hard to play because the crown in the centre of the fairway spills balls left and right – it is super wide but punishing if you hit it wayward and roll into the long rough. The ninth at Cape Wickham on King Island in Australia has another open look but blindness if you don’t get your drive in the right spot. The safe drive to the right requires a layup to the visible left or a blind shot over a massive dune. Options galore but still scary depending on your game that day and the conditions. But I also love the old blind holes, such as the bathtub green on the fourteenth at Cruden Bay! It’s so cool to think you can just hit to this big gathering hole but hope you don’t run up a side and get caught with an awkward lie. Simple, yet effective!”
Jay Blasi also cites two modern examples, both of which are partially, not totally, blind and thus use visibility to create strategy. “The places where I feel blindness is best is when the player is given the option to avoid it,” he says. “Two examples that come to mind are the sixteenth at Chambers Bay in Washington and the fourteenth at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin. Both holes set up in a similar fashion: short par fours with trouble on the right of the tee. As such, the player can choose to play away from the trouble, but if they do, then the approach to the green will be blind/semi-blind. And given the short nature of the approach shot, having a good sense for what is going on at the green and where you want to land your ball is important.”
The article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.