Where length isn't everything
by Tom Cleary
In many discussions of great golf holes, the term "great" is most often synonymous with words like "long" or "difficult." And it sometimes seems as though the only holes that get talked about are picture-postcard par-threes or enormous, unforgiving par-fives. Generally overlooked in these ruminations are holes where some sort of heroic belt isn't required. And those holes are generally short par-fours.
Michigan is hardly lacking in underrated two-shot holes, where brawn isn't always (or even often) the key to success. Today many course designers and architects are revisiting the notion of great short holes, and some consider it a necessity to add at least one to their new layouts. Arthur Hills, for instance, says he likes to have at least one drivable par-four on all of his courses. Hills believes in tempting long hitters with shots that'll produce a feast or famine. On the flip side of the coin, the same hole can be an equalizer for a shorter hitter who plays consecutive shots judiciously at a time when a stronger opponent might be done in my delusions of grandeur. In the still-new 5th hole at Bay Harbor in northern Michigan, Hills may have built just such a hole.
Noted designer Tom Fazio is another who knows the value of par-fours that are more tricky than wicked. The 15th at his course at Treetops in Gaylord has become a favorite at that complex because of the possibilities it offers. "From all but the back tees it's very reachable from the tee shot, says Treetops Golf Professional Don White. "But it doesn't always do you a lot of good unless the pin is in the front of the green. The green itself is 11,000 square feet and drops nine feet from front to back. If the pin is on the lower (back) tier, a lot of players find it's easier to get at it with a short-iron shot rather than a chip or a putt." White says he's heard more than one story from forlorn golfers who have won the battle (by driving the green), but lost the war (by failing to make eagle or birdie). "They still seem to have a smile on their face, though, when they come in and talk about their three-putt on 15," he laughs.
Another great strategic par-four is the 16th at Belvedere, which for many years was the permanent site of the Michigan Amateur. John O'Donovan, Jr. is a member of the Golf Association of Michigan Board of Governors who has played in more than 20 Amateurs there. "It seems like the green is only about 25 feet wide and from the fairway during match-play I used to think it looked as big as a banana peel," says O'Donovan. The green is cut into the side of a hill, so errant shots left or right seem to almost always produce bogeys or worse. O'Donovan remembers being on 16 one year when his son, former Notre Dame golf team captain John O'Donovan III, held a one-up lead in his quarterfinal match. Recalls dad, "He had it in there ten feet or so for birdie, when his opponent ran one in from the front of the green all the way to the back. That's the kind of hole it is; you can think you're in control, but all of a sudden you're not."
O'Donovan has also seen some great short holes in his hometown of Grand Rapids, including the uphill eighth at Blythefield Country Club. Though short in length, it almost always plays directly into the prevailing wind to a green perched precariously at the top of a hill. Though tantalizing to view from the tee, it's a hole where a missed green offers very little in the way of recourse.
Other challenging shorties include the severe dogleg right ninth on the Old Course at Indianwood in Lake Orion. Lynn Janson won two of his three Michigan PGA championships at Indianwood, and calls the ninth one of his favorite short holes, even though he's not a big fan of the kind of hole the ninth is. "In my opinion," says Janson, "it is unusual for any kind of dogleg to be considered an outstanding hole. But the ninth at Indianwood has so many different elements to it. You can cut the dogleg and hit a shot very close to the green. You can hit it out of bounds if you stray to the right. Even laying up with a long iron isn't easy, and if you drive through the fairway, you can have a very difficult shot from the rough." Janson has never seen anyone actually drive the ninth green on the Old Course, but says he played it to perfection during the first two rounds of one of his PGA wins there, making birdie twice with drives that ended up just short of the putting surface. He also says the ninth has a hidden danger a player will occasionally sample, as his close friend Gary Robinson once did. "He hit his second shot off the clubhouse which sits right behind the green," laughs Janson, "then it came back down the slope and onto the green!"
The 14th at Franklin Hills outside of Detroit and the 12th at Barton Hills in Ann Arbor are other holes mentioned by players who enjoy the challenge presented by short par-fours. Doug White at Barton Hills credits a retooling of the 351-yard 12th hole by Arthur Hills which has made the hole much more of a brain-teaser for players. "Hills extended a pond on the left side of the fairway, so now it occupies the landing area from about 200 yards out to 260," says White. "Along with the trees down the right side, a hole that used to be very easy is now a lot tougher." With tee boxes ranging from just over 275 yards out to just over 350, the 12th allows members to bite off as much as they can chew. Relates White, "Years ago, this used to be a hole where you thought you could always make birdie. But now it's part of a stretch of four very tough holes. It's changed the way a lot of people score."
A relatively new addition to the list of noteworthy short holes in Michigan in the 26th at The Majestic in Hartland. It's the next to last hole on one of three nines built by Jerry Matthews which opened in 1994. Bill Fountain is The Majestic general manager and says the 26th is a hole of "visual intimidation." There are seven sand bunkers on the hole, including a large one which gobbles up much of the left side of the fairway. The holes stretches out to only 340 yards, and many people play it a lot shorter. "If you play it with a long iron and a wedge it's not that difficult," Fountain opines. "But when most people get on the tee, they want to get that three-wood or driver in their hand. It's a hole you can birdie as easily as bogey." Fountain says wildlife abounds at The Majestic assays hawks are often visible in the area near the 26th hole. It's a place where many harried golfers feel like prey.
Then there's the beguiling 17th at Crystal Downs in Frankfort, a hole so unique in appearance it very nearly defies description. Though it doesn't fall into the category of driveable par-fours, it certainly provides a harrowing tee shot over a ravine to a fairway that hardly seems visible, let alone hittable. The second shot is just a short iron or less to a small putting surface that sits unobtrusively at the top of a rise. But what really makes the hole special is the view the green affords in all directions. Unfortunately, that grand vision is frequently obscured by the desperation one feels after arriving in two or three shots more than the scorecard calls for.
A few years ago when the sport of basketball was considering raising the rim in order to reduce the advantage held by taller players, it was the venerable sage of hoops, Red Auerbach, who begged to differ. "Put the basket in the ground," growled Auerbach. "Then we'll see how good the big guys are." It's a thought that might serve the golf industry well into the next century. Instead of building holes to challenge the strength of Tiger Woods or John Daly, designers should understand the need for holes that'll challenge players to be less beefy and more brainy. Thankfully, there's plenty of blueprints in our state to encourage that kind of thinking.
Contributing editor Tom Cleary prefers driveable par-fives.
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