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The Good Life

Three is a Magic Number

Par-3 holes offer some of the most beautiful sights— and most compelling drama—in all of golf
By Jeff Williams | From CBS Sunday Morning, May/June 2020
Three is a Magic Number
Photo/Larry Lambrecht
The fabled Pebble Beach golf course, located between Monterey and Carmel, California, is famous for its epic views and challenging landscape.

Standing on the tee of the seventh hole at Pebble Beach, at the crest of Point Arrowhead, the sense of awe is breathtaking. To your right is Stillwater Cove, to your left Carmel Bay and straight in front is the endless mighty Pacific. Just below you is the green of what is likely the most photographed hole in golf, the marvelous and miniature seventh, just 103 yards from the back tee on the scorecard.

It’s an indelible image that will never leave you if you’re lucky enough to experience it. Waves crashing against the rocks, a seal or sea lion or otter lolling nearby. Depending on the wind, it’s one of the simplest wedges you will ever hit or a 4-iron blasted into a gale.

“Greatest short, short hole of all-time,” says cigar lover and three-time major winner Nick Price. “What is it, 108 yards? It’s the best hole of that length in the world. I’ve hit a 5-iron on that hole. I was playing with Phil Blackmar who chipped a 4-iron.”

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Danzante Bay in Mexico features dramatic cliffs and pristine greens.

The seventh at Pebble could be at the very pinnacle of memorable par-3 holes, the ones that provide the average player the best chance at par or birdie, the best chance at equaling or beating a far better player and of course, the best chance of making golf’s greatest memory, the hole in one.

Golf’s shortest holes are often long on aesthetics, long on history and the symbols of the courses they grace. You can’t think of Augusta National without thinking of the devilish 12th and the scenic but dangerous 16th. The island green of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is the late Pete Dye’s ode to terror, a hole that claims an estimated 100,000 golf balls every year.

In the world of par 3s, there are tiny postage stamps wrapped in sand, islets across a crashing sea and green fortresses that repel all but the most precise shots. There’s more drama and more anticipation for the average player on a par 3 than any other hole, knowing he’s got one swing for glory.

Robert Trent Jones, a golf course architect who left a footprint around the world, was especially fond of par 3s. “My dad called them the charm holes, everybody liked that phrase,” says his son, designer Robert Trent Jones II. “Charming meaning sort of an unexpected happiness in the round. They can be pretty or interesting or dramatic or scenic. I think people anticipate par 3s with some joy in their hearts.”

Pebble’s Unforgettable Quartet

Pebble Beach has an unmatchable quartet of par 3s that start at the 196-yard fifth, a gorgeous stretch along Stillwater Cove that leads to a ledge-type green. Pebble is 101 years old, but the hole is far younger, created in 1998 by Jack Nicklaus after the Pebble Beach Co. shucked out $8 million for the land adjacent to the old par-3 fifth. The hole on its own is among the world’s finest, and is best played with a tee shot to the left side of the green, the ball hopefully bending right toward the more dangerous pin positions.

The green on the dramatic seventh is surrounded by a fair amount of sand. On calm days, it’s a pretty easy shot, but when the wind blows, you need to be brave and creative. As lore has it, Sam Snead once encountered such brutal winds here that he putted the ball down the walking path toward the green, pitched on from there and made the putt for a par. Tom Kite encountered such vicious winds here during the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open it was all he could do to maintain his stance on the tee box. The wind pulled his tee shot into the rough, but he chipped it in for birdie on his way to winning his only major championship.

The 12th is Pebble’s only inland par 3, and at 202 yards it’s deceptively difficult. The green is wide but shallow, and getting a ball to fly the right distance to carry the large trap in front—but not bounce over the putting surface—is tricky even in calm weather.

Then there is the final par-3 gem, the 17th. Its peanut-shaped green is pretty easy to hit if the pin is on the right, but in competitions—especially U.S. Opens—the flag will be on the left, a dramatically smaller area. This 208-yard beauty has played a role in determining at least three U.S. Opens. In the final round in 1972 Nicklaus struck what he has often referred to as the best shot of his career, a 1-iron into the wind that took one bounce, hit the pin and stopped inches away, setting up a birdie and an insurmountable three-shot lead.

In 1982, Tom Watson was tied for the lead with Nicklaus, and pulled his tee-shot on 17 into the deep collar rough left of the pin. He holed out with a sand wedge, which became one of the most famous shots in golf, making a birdie and, ultimately, winning the championship.

In the final round of the last year’s Open, Gary Woodland hit a poor flared tee shot to the far right part of the green 100 feet from the hole. He had a two-shot lead at the time. He elected to pitch it off the putting surface into the hump in the middle, killing the speed and nearly holing it on the way to saving par and locking up the trophy.

Augusta’s Storied Par 3s

Augusta National has two par 3s with aesthetic beauty, and enough history that could fill a book. The 12th, known to the members as Golden Bell, is a mere 155 yards, but it’s well defended. Rae’s Creek runs along the front of the green, which angles from left to right, and the right side is totally exposed to the watery grave. The hole sits at the middle of Amen Corner and has caused no end of consternation to the game’s greatest players, especially when the wind swirls among the pines and the azaleas shimmy in the shade.

In the 1980 Masters, Tom Weiskopf made a 13 here, hitting five balls in the water. Jordan Spieth, in contention for his second green jacket in 2016, hit two balls in the water on 12 and made a 7. Nicklaus ran afoul of the hole in a Sunday duel with Watson in 1981. He came off his shot, the ball thudded into the embankment and rolled into the water for a double bogey that sent Watson on his way to victory.

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Mauna Kea in Hawaii has some of the best views you can find on a golf course, or anywhere else for that matter.

And for maybe the only time in history when it really counted on the 12th, a shot came up short but stayed dry. It was 1992, and the shot was hit by Fred Couples. Because of rain, the grounds crew hadn’t done its customary mowing and the grass was just shaggy enough to grab his doomed ball and keep it alive, sending Couples to victory.

Augusta’s 16th hole, known as Redbud, is a cathedral of the game, sitting among the pines and azaleas, a pond to the front and left of the green. Nicklaus nearly made an ace on this 170-yarder on his way to his sixth and final Masters win in 1986. As good as that was, who can forget Tiger Woods’ pitch in for a two here at the 2005 Masters that ultimately led him to a playoff win over Chris DiMarco.

Woods had pulled his 8-iron long left and the consequence was a pitch of about maybe 40 feet with 20-odd feet of break. His caddie Steve Williams pointed out an old pitch mark the size of a dime as both the line and landing spot for Woods’ ball. Woods did just that, the ball taking slow-motion time getting to the hole. It stopped on the lip for 1.8 seconds and fell in to a thunderous roar.

The 16th hole was created in 1947 by Robert Trent Jones at the request of Bobby Jones, adding the pond to what was called back then a “pitch over a ditch” by Gene Sarazen. The result was stunning. “For sheer beauty, architectural perfection, 16 at Augusta is the best,” says Price. “One of those holes you just can’t wait to hit a tee shot.”

The Terror of TPC

Par 3s can be charming, challenging and some are truly terrifying. And that’s where the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass comes into play. It’s only 137 yards—some sort of wedge for the pros—but its surrounding waters have gathered up balls by the dozens every year in The Players Championship since the course opened in 1982. The PGA Tour estimates that as many as 100,000 balls find the drink every year during public play. It’s a Tin Cup kind of hole.

The green is just shy of 4,000 square feet and has three distinct sections, front left, back left and the more dangerous right. A back pin placement requires a very precise shot in order not to trickle over the bulkhead ringing the green. It’s a hole that many golfers don’t look forward to playing. Including Price.

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Water crashes along the shores of the picturesque Mauna Kea golf course in Hawaii. (Photo/Christian Horan)

“It’s the worst hole ever designed in golf,” says Price. “The green makes it difficult. I’ve probably hit six really good shots on that hole that ended up in the water. You can destroy your round and not hit a poor shot.”

While that speaks to many of the pros’ opinions about the hole, it’s unquestionably the crowd favorite, and Rickie Fowler took full advantage of it to win the 2015 Players. He birdied the hole two of the first three days, then made three straight 2s during Sunday’s round: first in regulation then twice more in the event’s first-ever aggregate playoff. The final birdie clinched the biggest win of his career.

“I’ve always liked playing 17,” says Fowler. “It’s been good to me.”

Redans And Other Defensive Measures

A hole known as a Redan is a stern challenge, and the most copied type of par 3 in golf, taken from the 15th hole at the North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland. The term Redan originates from a French word for part of a fortification for castles and such, an arrow or V-shaped embankment directed toward an expected point of attack. Redan holes feature elevated, shallow greens running from front right to back left, sloping away, with one or two very deep bunkers guarding the approach of what is usually a 180- to 200-yard hole.

America’s first true course designer, Charles Blair Macdonald, brought back the concept of Redans upon completion of a trip to the British Isles early in the 1900s. He incorporated the Redan into his National Links of America on Long Island as the fourth hole. He also built famous Redans at Shinnecock Hills, the Yale University Golf Course and the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda, among many.

The Redan seventh at Shinnecock stirred up the outrage of players and fans on Sunday during the notorious U.S. Open of 2004. The green became so hard that players couldn’t keep the ball on it, and at one point when play was halted to spritz the green, fans threw beer cups at USGA officials. Retief Goosen parred it all four days, a major contribution to his victory. 

Many par 3s are reachable by a wedge, but that’s not the case for one of the most famous holes in golf, the third hole at the Mauna Kea Resort Course on the Big Island of Hawaii. Robert Trent Jones created the course, which opened in 1964, but from the back tee box added by his son Rees in 2008, this hole can play 272 yards across the bay. Thankfully, the green is large and there is plenty of room for bailout.

“When [developer Laurance] Rockefeller showed him that land my father was truly excited,” said Rees Jones. “That hole has resonated for 50 years since dad built it.” 

Jones himself came up with what is likely the most photogenic hole in the world when he designed the 17th at TPC Danzante Bay in Loreto, Mexico. Sitting on a rock outcropping that appears to be a seamount and surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Cortez, this 178-yarder is pure spine tingler.

It wasn’t even on the original routing. Jones built the course in phases and was about halfway into the project when he and his design assistant walked up a hill to discover the spectacular site.

“The owner Owen Perry was at the hotel so we went back and they had two housing [lots] there, and we said we could build one of the great par 3s in the world here, could we have this land,” says Jones. “He said ‘absolutely.’ ” The result of that decision? “People have gone to Danzante Bay because they wanted to play that hole.”

Cypress Point’s 16th is a 233-yard brute requiring a 200-yard carry from the hero tee over the bay and the craggy rocks. It’s stunning, but many think its predecessor, the par-3 15th, is even better. It’s a 135-yard pearl with a green on a rock ledge pretty much surrounded by sand with the bay on the right. “Cypress Point’s 15th hole is one of the most interesting short par 3s you could ever hope to see,” says Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw’s design partner. “Not just its spectacular setting on the ocean but the way the green is configured, the bunkering.”

While many par 3s can be described as muscle cars, the minivan is the widely heralded eighth at Royal Troon in Scotland, known fondly as the Postage Stamp, just 123 yards. If the long and extremely narrow green didn’t have ominous bunkers on either side of it you might mistake it for the forward tee on the hole. The 10th hole at iconic Pine Valley is also short, only 142 yards, but lord help you if you miss the green. There’s no water, but a lot of sand and one bunker in particular stands out. The ridiculously deep pot bunker short right of the green is known as the Devil’s Asshole. No other description needed.

“I think you could say par 3s are the holes that are most likely to be enjoyed by the greatest variety of golfers in terms of skill,” says Coore. “Shorter par 3 holes are the ones that give the higher handicapper a chance to compete with or even win a golf hole from a far superior player. Ben and I have always been fans of shorter par 3s for that reason.”

Coore and Crenshaw created a pair of memorable shortish par 3s on the Old Macdonald course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, the third and 16th holes that share a massive lumpy green on a promontory overlooking the Pacific. They also built a very old-style short par 3 at Old Sandwich in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on what was a dull piece of ground. “If you had seen it in its raw state, there is absolutely nothing here,” says Coore. “But it’s so far easier to construct a short par 3 on extremely uninteresting ground than it is a longer hole. You can really concentrate on the details.”

Perhaps that’s what makes par 3s of any length so endearing, the details. With one broad view you can take them all in, with one deep breath steel yourself for one shot. And with just the right amount of luck you can collect the greatest memory in golf, the ace.

Golf

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