Date: February 18, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Two magical ‘little’ par fours


Well-designed ‘little’ par fours – holes under 300 metres – are one of the great genres of holes in golf. There are any number of them around the world asking vexing questions of the best players in the game whilst still giving the bogey golfer their best chance of making a birdie.

All it takes is one good approach shot for a 20-marker to make a three and one bad decision for a tour pro to make the most annoying of fives.

This week at the Women’s Australian Open at Royal Adelaide and the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, two of the best in golf are on show and they make, and have always made, fascinating watching.

There is, of course, little wonder both are great holes given they were designed respectively by Alister MacKenzie and George Thomas, two of the brilliant architects. They were responsible for of the ‘Golden Age of Golf Design’ from 1913 and the National Golf Links of America through to the building of Augusta National, a course and club barely surviving the depression which bought a halt to course building until after the War.

The interesting thing is how a pair of short two-shotters can ask remarkably similar questions whilst being utterly different looking holes.

The fairway at the 10th at Riviera as flat as a Dutch hockey pitch while MacKenzie’s hole at Royal Adelaide is made by the natural tumbling dune land of Adelaide’s sandbelt.

The green is clearly and temptingly visible from the tee at Riviera whilst the driving area and green are both blind in Adelaide. Maybe it’s a source of criticism for some but not for me. It only adds to the quirk and the charm.

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The fairway in Adelaide is narrow, at its narrowest barely 30metres wide and whilst it sounds reasonable, it is lined left and right with unplayable lies. So unplayable that in the 1938 Australian Open the great Norman Von Nida made nine at the third hole, and threw away his winning chance with one unwise gamble from the tee with his driver.

By contrast, George Thomashad a vast and quite unpromising tract of flat land down the hill from the Riviera clubhouse to deal with, and he made a hugely wide fairway, perhaps 80 metres from the left edge to the right edge of the fairway.

He created the interest and one of the most famous visuals in golf by cutting a huge and spectacular cross bunker covering the driving area of those playing safely back from the green with an iron.

The third at Royal Adelaide does not even have a single bunker, rather relying on the sand dune to the right to threaten the crooked shot, and a high diagonal ridge on the left of the green rendering blind the pitch shot for those who have driven into the left half of the fairway.

Riviera’s green is tiny if the measurement is from side-to-side even thought it’s quite long, a feature allowing for it to play quite differently through the course of a four-round championship. So narrow and tilted is the back of the green anyone missing in the right bunker, or worse, right of the right bunker, have almost no chance to stop the ball on the green.

If an architect built the same feature in this age, the crowd who like their golf predictable, conventional and ‘playable for all’ would decry it as unfair. As the 10th hole shows, ‘playable for all’ does not mean every single shot on the golf course needs to be playable for every single player on the golf course. There are many great holes with hazards impossible for the lesser players to manage.

In contrast the third green in Adelaide is relatively wide and difficult to miss with a short shot but for whatever reason it’s not easy to get the weight of the pitch exactly right.

Whilst so different both holes ask the eternally fascinating question of everyone who plays them. What do I do here today?

The answer is never obvious and it is dependent on the wind, the position of the pin, the state of your game and the state of the tournament or the match. We are in an era when the distance that the ball flies has distorted what MacKenzie and Thomas saw in their courses and great holes, and these little holes are now temptingly within reach from the tee.

But who takes the lure of an easy birdie? All it takes is one great drive … or one bad one to mess the whole thing up.