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  • Mike Clayton

Short fours

The most perplexing short par-4 in golf is unsurprisingly on The Old Course at St Andrews. With a tee by the Eden Estuary at the far end of the course, the 12th is the first of the run of holes all heading in roughly the same direction back to the heart of golf’s most beautiful town.


Like so many holes on the Old Course, the choice of what to do from the tee is dominated by bunkers in the middle of the fairway. Adding to the mystery is you know exactly where they are but you can’t see them.


It’s drivable unless there is a decent wind into your face, in which case even good players occasionally hit middle irons into the green.


The green is a shallow tabletop affair making hitting the right distance important – but like the blind bunkers, anyone building something similar in the modern age would be derided by critics for making something ‘unfair’, ‘ridiculous’ and a hole ‘punishing good shots.’


The 12th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews might be the most perplexing short par-4 in golf. PHOTO: Brendan James.


There is a lot to learn at St Andrews for those who think golf should be ‘fair’. Those who come away unconvinced about its merits think all the hype a product of the course’s fame, mystique and history.


The others, the ones who yearn to learn and understand the course, think it is one of the best handful in the world. Certainly it’s the most perplexing and the most interesting.


Alister MacKenzie loved and understood the Old Course and his influence over Australian golf can never be underestimated.


It’s arguable Australia now has the best collection of sub-300 metre holes in the world and almost none use water (seemingly a default position on PGA Tour courses in the United States) as a hazard.


Three of the MacKenzie-influenced Australian holes – the 10th on Royal Melbourne West and the 3rd holes at Kingston Heath and Royal Adelaide – continue to inspire designers almost a century after their conception.


At the heart of all great ones in Australia is an interesting choice to be made on the tee. As a rule, if you decide to eschew the challenge and play the ‘easy’ tee shot the pitch will be pretty demanding.


It works the other way too. A well-played, bold tee shot challenging both the hazards and the perils leaves a pretty simple pitch or maybe even an eagle putt.

(And no, a drivable par-4 isn’t a par-3 as Pete Dye – out of context probably – once asserted.)


Royal Melbourne West Course: 10th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.


It’s hard to think of a good short four where both shots are uncomplicated and it’s equally difficult to find one where both shots are difficult unless the wind is whipping up. (See 14th at NSW)


The 10th at Royal Melbourne is sure to be a star in this summer’s Presidents Cup and there are lessons to be learned from MacKenzie’s dramatic and masterful hole.


It’s strategic but it’s not black and white. Rather there are multiple shades of grey from the tee and every metre you drive to the right of the massive bunker in the hill the longer and more difficult the pitch. Every metre left of the right edge of the fairway bunker, a metre longer the carry – and a metre shorter the pitch. Whilst strategic, it depends on the most penal bunker on the Sandbelt for its defence.


For Presidents Cup players, the green is drivable but only into the wind. Played downwind to probably the fastest and certainly the hardest greens in the game (a member told me recently he “hadn’t fixed a pitch mark there in eight years.”) it’s all but impossible to keep the ball on the green and going long is no good at all.


When the pin is in the back of the green, the easiest thing in the world is to give up on the birdie and pitch it safely 20 feet short. Only after pitching it safely 20 feet short do you berate yourself for not hitting it harder.


The 3rd at Royal Adelaide is another great MacKenzie hole. Blind, and bordered by a dune on the right full of hack-out lies, the drive is narrow and scary but if you put it right down in the throat of the green it should be an easy three.


Lay it up, especially when it’s into the wind, and it’s a demanding pitch but one Nick Price holed with a 9-iron on the final day on his way to winning the 1989 South Australian Open.

Victoria’s 15th is another flawless, drivable hole despite member Geoff Ogilvy insisting, “The 15th is never a driver.”


The irony of all these great holes is the further the ball has been made to go in the last 20 years, the more dangerous they have become because the greater the temptation to go for the green with what is often a reckless shot – something Ogilvy acknowledges when he says what he does about the 15th at his home club.


Stephen Leaney won the 1995 Victorian Open hitting 6-iron tee shots to the widest part of the fairway short of the sand lining the left side of the final 80 metres of the hole. Past where Leaney was playing, the fairway narrows down to a point where 20 metres short of the green it’s no more than 20 metres wide and defended on either side by the threat of a 30- to 40-metre bunker shot. No one is any good at those shots. Not consistently anyway.


Again, the beauty of the hole is it’s not black and white ‘risk and reward’ but rather one offering a multitude of options and coming late in the round it asks an ideal question at the end of a championship, a monthly medal or a friendly match.


NSW Golf Club: 14th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.


All the best little 4s in Australia capture the essential elements. They are nuanced. They all have an easy and a difficult tee shot and an easy or a difficult pitch and if you play the former you get the latter – and vice-versa.


Bill Coore’s brilliant and scenic 14th at Lost Farm is a world-class example as is the 250-metre 4th at Woodlands with it’s feared, bunkerless green making life difficult for those missing on the sides. Our controversial (‘unfair’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘punishes good shots’) 13th hole at The Lakes tries to capture the elements of the Woodlands hole, which have captivated and frustrated golfers for generations. If it captivates and frustrates in equal measure it’s playing its role – and at last year’s Australian Open, Cameron Smith showed exactly how to answer its questions. Each day he played a middle iron into the precisely correct part of the fairway leaving him the ideal line into the flag and each day he pitched a wedge into six to eight feet.


One of the great features of golf in Britain is the use of a boundary as a hazard. The 1st hole at Prestwick is bordered by a stone wall and a railway line, as is the nearby 11th hole (same train, different wall) at Royal Troon.



Barnbougle Dunes: 4th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.


Most holes at St Andrews have a boundary down the right and the closer you dare play to the line the easier the approach into the green. The 14th at Royal St George’s and the 6th at Carnoustie are both famed long holes where the fairway runs directly alongside a wire fence doing nothing to stop the running ball from trickling onto the wrong side of the line.


It’s rare to find a good Australian hole using out of bounds as a legitimate and strategic hazard. The 3rd hole at Curlewis is the only one I can think of and if it were on the Sandbelt or any of the better-known championship courses around the country it would be universally admired. If forced to put the best ones in order it’d be in my top five.


There is plenty of room down the right for a driver and anyone hitting an iron can’t run it far enough to reach the fence – but take a driver or a 3-wood, try for the green and pull it and you’re re-teeing your ball.


The best par-5s are often great short par-4s with a tee shot (often a quite uncomplicated tee shot) attached. Woodlands 15th is one example as are the 11th at The Lakes and the 7th at Lake Karrinyup.

“It’s arguable Australia now has the best collection of sub-300 metre holes in the world and almost none use water as a hazard.”

The 10th on Royal Melbourne’s East Course is a short, two shot par-5 and in this era barely more than a drive and 7-iron for a scratch man.


The 14th at Metropolitan is an example of a par-5 with it's second shot playing like a good short-four.


Alex Russell masterfully bunkered the second shot, one in the mid-1930s he could have reasonably expected almost all would be playing it with a long wooden club if they hoped to reach in two. The range of options, choices and consequences he built into the hole were genius and, whilst still a great hole for the majority, it’s dispiriting to see Russell’s choices somewhat diminished by modern equipment.


But imagine a tee 300 metres from the green and it might be the best short four of them all. Certainly it’d be in the finals and it encapsulates every element of what it takes to design a hole full of both interest and options for every level of player.

©2019 by Clayton Golf