In an age where previously unimagined power has come to dominate the professional game it is ironic the short par four has become a more dangerous beast than it was when the ball flew reasonable distances.
Holes where players routinely played safely from the tee with irons and pitched to the green are now temptingly within reach and the best of them taunt players into taking risks many times they would be better off leaving well alone.
One of the best is Alister MacKenzie’s extraordinary 280 metre 10th at Royal Melbourne.
The great Spaniard Severiano Ballesteros was hitting the most audacious of drives at the green in 1978 when even Greg Norman was playing safe. Here was a great hole designed by a great architect being played with power, skill and daring by a great players. Those who saw Ballesteros play the hole that week were left with memories for a lifetime. MacKenzie did all he could to encourage bold and exciting golf and he’d have adored the way Ballesteros went about playing the game.
The hole asks a really obvious question. All the great short fours do. The strategies are obvious to anyone even half thinking about what was going through the architect’s head as he shaped and placed the features.
At Kingston Heath’s 3rd hole you play over by the left bunker to open up a green angled to favour an approach from the left. Every yard to the right of the ideal a yard harder the angle of the approach. It’s not really ‘risk and reward’ but rather more subtle ‘shades of grey’.
The 15th at Victoria, the 3rd at Royal Adelaide, the 14th at Lost Farm and the 14th at Lake Karrinyup ask similar vexing questions from the tee without resorting to the easy solution of building a pond by the side of the green and passing it off as ‘strategy’.
Whilst the questions the best holes ask are quite obvious the answers are the complicated part.
The best of them ask the perennial ‘what do I do here today’ question and the right answer changes from day to day depending on the weather, the position of the flag and even the state of the tournament.
Arnold Palmer, the champion of the Australian Open fifty years ago at Royal Queensland, was seven from the lead in the 1960 US Open when he famously took a driver from the first tee at Cherry Hills and recklessly drove the ball onto a green just over three hundred yards away. He caught them all with his 65 but the whole tone of his day and the championship was changed by a little par four and one great shot.
This week at Royal Sydney the course opens with another short par four, this one reachable from the tee by almost the entire field. In contrast to so many of the great holes of its length the question it asks is not particularly obvious. Bunkers abound, the green is wide but with no particularly obvious place to approach from and in the past most have taken a driver from the tee and fired away at the green.
In contrast the short uphill par 4, 8th this week is perfectly confusing and asks all the right questions. It’s not unlike the 15th at Victoria in that the closer you drive to the green the narrower the gap and there is the awful threat of the sixty metre bunker shot, a shot not even the best players in the game play with any surety.
The opening tee at Royal Sydney, right outside the grand dining room window, will earn its share of attention simply because its where they all start but it is the 8th at the far end of the front nine where some of the most interesting choices will be made.
It is a hole worthy of more than cursory observation this week and a fine example of the genre of hole coming back into favour and for good reason.