Should a golf course's 18th be hard or easy?
NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - Should an 18th hole be hard or easy? Should it let you down softly into the clubhouse and give you a jolt of confidence (all the more important after a tough round)? Or should it make you work to get home. A hammock hole (just lay back and relax), or a hole that brings things to a dramatic and challenging finish?
I think most of us would agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. No one wants to get a beat down on the home hole, especially if the round has not been going, um, well. Many of us step up to the final tee a little fatigued, calouses scabbed over a bit on our hands. Some of us are down to our final two balls. But I think there’s not many out there who want a cake walk in. We expect something from the closer: It’s the last thing we walk away remembering, and the course architect only has one chance to make a final impression. On the great golf courses, the 18th can tie in the best characteristics of the entire preceeding 17 holes in one solid par 4 or par 5, (sorry, but I think par 3 closing holes are nothing but cop outs).
In the past month I’ve played a lot of golf, and have seen a range of closing holes. Some are simply forgettable: Take No. 18 at Sugarloaf Golf Club in Maine. This is the best public golf course in Maine and one of the 100 best public runs in the U.S. It’s a great course - hard and thoughtful in all the right places. But No. 18 stinks. Sorry, it just does. It’s a nondescript, longish par 4 with a very gentle dogleg left to an open green. The woods aren’t really in play. That’s it. It’s boring, and what’s worse, it is in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the majority of courses that choose to close out a round back at the clubhouse, Sugarloaf’s No. 18 is in the middle of the woods, and the ride back takes nearly 5 minutes.
Then there’s No. `18 at Heritage Village Country Club in Southbury, Connecticut. It’s a par 5 (I’m partial to par 5 closers because I think it gives the broadest range of golfers a chance to make par), but very reachable in regulation for duffers and, for those long-of-club, reachable in two. It’s a nice dogleg left, with an uphill second and third shot to a green framed by pine, deep bunkers and the white barn of the clubhouse as a backdrop. It’s a tough approach (whether you’re hitting your second or third) because the green is a plateau, and you have to consider the pin placement before you hit: This is one of the most undulating greens I know, full of swales and shelfs and you simply cannot be on the wrong side of the pin without kissing any hope of a five or six goodbye. It’s accessible, but not, by a long shot, a gimmie. That’s the way it should be.
Whether we’re looking for a lot or a little in a closing hole, I’m betting most golfers would raise their hands against a hole that plays tricks. Some tricks are fine throughout the round, but I think on No. 18 a hole should play pretty straightforward (though straightforward does not have to equal easy). What you see should be what you get, which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about No. 18 at Glen Dornoch. If you haven’t already, check out Brandon Tucker’s fine review of this beautiful, challenging golf course just north of here. No. 18 gives him pause, too. I know - I was playing with him on this particular day.
No. 18 at Glen Dornoch is certainly not a boring closer, and it throws enough terrain at you to be truly memorable - pressed up as it is against the Intracoastal Waterway, with a gentle dogleg left fairway that runs, quite a long way, to the clubhouse. But its the tee shot on No. 18 that led us to cry trickery (though the cries weren’t that loud). You see, the tee shot sets you up to believe that you can drive a giant waste area directly in front of the tee that, if accomplished, cuts much of the distance out of the hole and leaves you with a very managable approach home. The alternate is almost unbelievable: A tee shot nearly 90 degrees right of the fairway you see running down to the green and clubhouse. It looks as if you’re shooting up another hole, and it obviously leaves you so far from the green (in affect, turning the par-4 into a par-5) that it lends even more weight to the conceit that the course architects must mean for you to take it over the waste area. I mean, who would shoot way over there?
Of course, the waste area is undrivable, or at least for mere mortals. Tucker is a big hitter, and caught every bit of his drive. It looked like it had a chance for sure, but when we inspected the fairway the ball had not carried the hazard. It was gone. Tucker said something along the lines of, “That’s not right.” At the time, I had to agree.
Still, I guess I’ll take a deceiving hole like No. 18 at Glen Dornoch over a truly forgettable closer. It was probably a fitting end to a great course that threw some pretty good challenge at you. In fact, if any of you out there have played this hole, or plan on playing Glen Dornoch some time soon, drop a line and tell me how you did.
I played to the right (though not as far right as the tee tries to make you go), and it was definitely a long way home from there.
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But I bogeyed it cuz of that dang Valley 'o Sin - ate up my pitch shot. What fun though.
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