A cursory study of the majority of finishing holes on Australia’s best courses would reach the assumption that the role of an 18th hole is to test a player’s ability to play two accurate and powerful long shots.
There is nothing wrong with that and there is any number of good ones including:
Royal Melbourne West
Royal Melbourne East
St Andrews Beach
With the exception of Woodlands and Victoria, all are par-fours between 380-430 metres. Those two are excellent holes played over really interesting ground and, in this age, nothing more than long two-shot holes.
When the others, the finishing fours, were designed in the 1920s and 1930s, they probably played close to how the short par-fives work in this era of unimagined power.
Whether they do or do not in this modern era, all were designed to test the playing of two long and well-struck shots – and there is never a thought of hitting any club other than a driver from their tees.
The narrowest tee shot is at Victoria and the widest at Royal Melbourne’s East, but none are so narrow to suggest a 3-wood is an option, nor is there a single hazard placed to suggest the same.
Royal Melbourne East’s home hole is a perfect example of trouble on one side of a hole dominating everything. The tea-tree down the left threatens a chip-out at best and an unplayable lie at worst, but driving close to it shortens the approach considerably and for most parts of the green opens a better line to the hole.
Perhaps more surprising is while there are so many tremendous short par-fours in Australia, very few are employed as finishers. A notable exception is Adelaide where the three best courses – Royal Adelaide, Kooyonga and Grange West – all finish with drive and pitch holes.
Another is the 300m finishing hole at RACV Healesville, a hole capturing the essence and principles of an interesting short hole. It is a hole designed to force a player to make a choice and take a risk. In a tournament, a player one stroke ahead might play the hole completely differently from a player one stroke behind – and two shots can easily swing either way. It’s an easy hole to make a safe four (a long iron and a wedge, probably) but it takes either a long and accurate tee shot to get on, or close, to the green – or a great pitch from anywhere from 50-100m depending on your drive.
It isn’t asking for a drive and a 5-iron and testing the execution of two full shots. It’s asking a player to make a choice – the essence of great holes including Victoria’s 15th or Royal Melbourne West’s 10th – and, arguably under the pressure of trying to win a match or a tournament, it is just as interesting to test a player’s ability to think as the ability to hit two good shots.
Hitting those long shots often doesn’t take much thought. Sure it takes nerve and skill, but must they always be the default position when it comes to making an 18th hole?
The finisher at Durban Country Club in South Africa is a 280-yard par four to a precariously positioned green and anything from a two to a six is possible.
Are not the possibilities of those wild swings of fortune an important part of finishing up a round? Aren’t the “half-par” holes the ones to induce the most excitement at the end of a round?
The most famous short, finishing four is at The Old Course in St Andrews.
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It is such a simple hole, but one made endlessly fascinating by the “Valley of Sin” and its ability to incite a mistake – see Doug Sanders and Constantino Rocca.
It is the role of the famous 17th, the Road Hole, to test the great drive and the precise long iron and the 18th is an ode to absurdity and greatness all at once. There is not much of a choice off the tee, yet how to properly play the short approach has confounded golfers for centuries.
St Andrews is golf’s greatest teacher and is there any better place in the game to finish up a round of golf?
That it isn’t asking for a drive and a 4-iron is to teach us convention isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.