Saturday, 10 August 2013

In search of the great, short par 4

They are not worried about vampires at Golf House. As for ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, officials at the U.S. Golf Association are terribly brave and do not even sleep with the light on, or so I believe. Nevertheless, they are gripped by a neurotic, superstitious fear of the supernatural, in the form of a golf ball that will need only a gentle tap to make it soar off a quarter of a mile down the fairway.

The 16th at Cypress Point: A par 3 that would make the world's greatest short par 4
So what, you may ask? They are harmless. Let them hang up sprigs of garlic for all we care. The natural laws of physics make it impossible to add significantly to the distances a golf ball can be hit.

But the hysteria over the limitation of distance has created an unhealthy climate of opinion in golf, especially among architects who tend to believe these days that anything under 7,000 yards is a pitch-and-putt course. This obsession with length and power has led to a decline in one of the glories of golf, the short par 4, from 251 to about 360 yards. You still find them in new courses, but they are nondescript holes calling for a routine drive and pitch. The vanishing short par 4 that I have in mind is a rare jewel, the embodiment of the dictum that small is beautiful.

Good architects of the strategic school chortle with malicious glee as they draw their plans. "Every shot must challenge the mind and skill and the nerve of the golfer," the architect reasons. "There must be a straightforward way to play the hole, but I will deny the robot golfer his birdie with this little stratagem. I will entice him to drive over here into this broad expanse of fairway and then cut off his line to the green with an obtruding stand of trees.

"Now, for the man who thinks and can play all the shots, I will disguise his options and even if he detects the optimum placement I will make him play a superb shot to get there. If he falters I will grab him and punish him with this pond or this ravine. He must tread dangerously to follow this way but if he has the guts and the finesse and the power to find the promised land then I will offer him the reward of a likely birdie."

That is the philosophy behind the greatest of the short par 4s. On both shots through the green the player should be assailed by a barrage of emotions-from fear, to greed, to puzzlement-and he should be forced to assess his own capabilities with complete honesty. Power and bravado should never be enough to conquer a great, short par 4. Oddly, Augusta National does not have one. Both the third and seventh, which qualify by length, are difficult without being devious. The same goes for the eighth at Baltusrol and the 10th at Merion. I would qualify them as penal holes.

We are getting closer with the 17th at Pine Valley, a little brute of a hole at 344 yards, where you drive over a daunting desert to a deceptively generous oasis of fairway, tempting you to swing all out. What does it matter if the ball fades or hooks slightly? It matters. There is an area about the size of a tennis court that offers the golfer a chance to play a birdie-winning approach shot with confidence. That is the reward, if he is smart enough to recognize it and good enough to find it.

Breathtaking aerial view of 16th at Cypress Point
The finest short par 4 in the United States that I have seen exists only in my warped imagination. Everyone is familiar with the 16th at Cypress Point, the most photographed hole in the world-and rightly so. Clamber up the hillside with me in a journey of conjecture and let us build a tee 70 yards behind the real tee. We now have a hole of 303 yards, well within range of two shots by the most modest of hitters. But what shots they would have to be, absolutely precise and played under the most nerve-jangling stress. Yet, as you observe if you can achieve a moment of lucidity, the fairway is broad and the green generous. Draw the outlines of such a hole on a flat field, and a 24-handicapper would have no problem. Put it on its natural site and you have, for my money, the very essence of golf and a great, short par 4.

The only drawback is that in the process you would destroy the most splendid par 3, possibly, there is.

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