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  • Mike Clayton

The joy of threes

Golfers love par-3s. On the shortest of them, with one good swing, a 20-handicapper can make a birdie whilst at the same time a Tour player can walk off with a bogey after one poor swing. There is no better example of the principle than the 110 metre 7th at Barnbougle and the same thing is never going to happen on a 450-metre par 4.

Par-3s are more than useful for architects. They are an ideal way of joining holes together and keeping a routing going without having to endure long walks from green to tee. One-shotters, as the old architects called them, use up difficult and or small pieces of land and they can be particularly useful in getting the golfer out of a tight corner. Gil Hanse’s proposed redesign of the 6th at Royal Sydney will be one good example.

Kingston Heath’s tiny, 130 metre, 10th hole takes up almost no space. It would have been very easy for the architect Dan Soutar to move the 3rd and 9th greens and the 4th and 11th tees back 15 meters back and not even notice there was room for a hole.

Soutar was working with a particularly small piece of land but one where the members were expecting him to make them a first-class course. Having one hole use up almost no space helped him immeasurably.

The Melbourne Sandbelt has arguably the finest collection of short holes in the world although the London Heathlands has an impressive bunch as well.

Many (most even) including the 5th at Woodlands, Metropolitan’s 2nd, Victoria’s 7th, the long 16th on the West at Royal Melbourne and Commonwealth’s 15th are made on dull pieces of land offering nothing except a bed of sand and perhaps some indigenous heathland plants to add texture and character.

The unique and perfect greens complexes, asking for interesting and dramatic looking shots, were made by architects and their construction crews of uncommon talent and the enduring greatness of the holes is testament to their skills.

Barnbougle Dunes 7th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The famed 6th at New South Wales is the most spectacular of Australia’s short holes and for many the best. The question is are they rating the experience of playing the hole or just the hole itself? As great as it is and as memorable the experience, there are others of equal merit. The 5th at Royal Melbourne would be one as would MacKenzie’s brilliant 15th at Kingston Heath.

The short holes with the spectacular ocean views always earn much affection. The National Old’s 7th is one as is Port Fairy’s 15th, Narooma has its ‘Hogan’s Hole’, and the sadly lost course at Laguna Quays had a beautiful long par-3 playing straight out towards the Whitsundays. The hole itself would have been unremarkable in any other setting but it was truly spectacular.

Alex Russell was a brilliant maker of par-3s.

Ben Crenshaw first played Royal Melbourne’s Composite Course in the 1979 Australian PGA and on his return to America he enthused to a friend “we walked right past the best par 3 I’ve ever seen.”

The hole was Russell’s 16th on the East Course and until the last Presidents Cup In Melbourne it had never been a part of the composite routing. Instead they played his uphill 4th on the East and no one ever thought that hole was anything other than brilliant.

Given Australia has a wide array of excellent short holes, is there one at the top of the pile –a hole with just a little more than all the others?

To be the best this hole has to be one properly sorting the good shots from the great ones and it should ideally ask for a specific shape of shot. A straight shot should be fine but never the ideal. Fine misjudgements ought to be shown up. Saving a par if you miss the green should be difficult – unless you miss in just the right place and that will vary depending on where the hole is cut.

The construction of the bunkers should be both beautiful and natural. The green should be interestingly contoured, making two putting problematic for those who hit the green but far from the hole. There should be places where if you miss you can’t get a chip or a bunker shot within 15 feet.

Every year I play Robert Allenby’s charity golf day at Yarra Yarra to raise money for families affected by childhood cancer. Over 27 years they have raised millions and for my sins I get to play Russell’s 11th hole over and over for each of the twenty or so morning groups.

The green is one of the most severely contoured in the city as it climbs its way up from the low point at the front left corner (where all the water drains off) all the way up to the back right edge. A ridge cuts through the middle of the green making putting from the back to the front testing and the putts across can have breaks of up to 10 feet. If you hit your tee shot it in the wrong part of the green you will three-putt a lot.

Metropolitan 2nd hole

An enormous bunker, maybe the biggest on the sandbelt and certainly the most imposing, defends the left-to-right diagonal front line of the green. It’s hard to think of a bunker, which sees more action. Perhaps the bunkers in front of the 15th at Commonwealth or the 13th at Metropolitan but those holes are 20 metres shorter.

Hitting dozens of shots into a green over five hours you see a pattern. I know if I push the 165 metre shot a couple of metres and don’t catch it flush it will fly into the right lip of the bunker. It only misses by a step or two but there is no hope of it making the carry.

Two paces left of the flag and the ball carried every time.

But the genius of Russell’s 11th is the marginally pulled shot (one always flying further just as the push flies shorter) carries into the back left bunker and from there saving three is something you usually do only by holing a putt from 15 feet.

Yarra Yarra 11th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The hole screams out for a solid left-to-right shot cutting back into the flag – and properly played, it never misses the green. This diagonal arrangement gives left-handers a big advantage and it’s why they have a much easier time of it at Augusta’s 12th hole.

Ben Crenshaw first played Royal Melbourne’s Composite Course in the 1979 Australian PGA and on his return to America he enthused to a friend “we walked right past the best par 3 I’ve ever seen.”

This isn’t to suggest Yarra’s 11th is one-dimensional. In 1973 Sam Snead and Peter Thomson played a remarkable exhibition match on a weekday afternoon attracting a crowd approaching five figures. It was a different time when our best players came home to play the local Tour and great players like Snead didn’t require close to seven figures before they would deign us with their presence for a week.

The hole was cut tight up in the back right corner of the green and the great American flew a middle iron all the way, stopping it 10- or 12-feet from the flag. Thomson went next and hit a much lower shot, landing it a few feet over the bunker and bouncing it up the tier and inside of Snead’s ball. My friends and I were stupid enough to assume Snead had played the superior shot but of course both were equally meritorious.

Six years later and playing with Gary Player at Kingston Heath, we were held up on the 15th tee and I asked him which of Yarra’s 11th or Kingston Heath’s 15th was the better hole.

He looked at me with some level of astonishment and said, “The 11th is miles better than this hole.”

It was before the original MacKenzie bunkers in the foreground of the Kingston Heath hole were restored and almost all the trees removed from the right side of the hole. Both made for a much more spectacular looking hole but neither changed the essence of the shot you had to play – although in subsequent years the green got noticeably firmer and more demanding.

The 70- or 80-metre space between the end of the tee all the way to the front bunker is perhaps the dullest on the sandbelt. Most other first-class holes employ colonies of heathland to add character whilst others – including Kingston Heath’s 5th and Victoria’s 7th – use bunkers and exposed sand for visual impact.

Royal Adelaide’s 7th does the same.

There are more spectacular, more difficult and prettier holes than the 11th.

Nor is it beyond criticism. Years ago they built a mound in an attempt to protect the 12th tee from the long, left shots and aside from being quite ineffectual it looks awful. Fortunately it’s not beyond repair.

Despite its imperfections there is perhaps no other hole in the country so perfectly distinguishing between shots. On many short holes, marginal shots are up to the task of hitting the green but nothing marginal works here. You either hit the right shot or you don’t and while hitting the green is thrilling, putting on its treacherous slopes is equally exciting and demanding.

Yarra Yarra is a course which lost its way for decades as it hacked away at Russell’s legacy and his genius. Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel as Tom Doak’s company has set about restoring the charm and brilliance of the course. It’s a work in progress but the great 11th is always worthy of both playing and study because its principles are easily replicated.


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