2019 is the year of exemplary major championship venues you can play. Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach Golf Links and the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush are all among the best courses in the world. Not only do they serve as grand stages for the game's best, but they welcome all golfers with open arms.
With the chance to walk in the same footsteps as major championship history comes the task of executing similarly heroic shots played on some of the most dramatic holes ever built. Few golf experiences are more satisfying than hitting a great shot on the most intimidating hole on a seriously famous course. The memory of slaying the proverbial dragon is worth the (often lofty) green fee alone. These shots will be etched in your memory for life.
The Golf Advisor staff has compiled a list of the most infamously terrifying shots you can experience for yourself. We've drafted 1-through-18, a cursed course full of terrifying shots.
We've also done our best to spread out the courses, pars (our "course" has five par 3s and five par 5s), architects and geographical locations. As you might expect, the 17th and 18th holes were difficult to narrow down. The Old Course's Road Hole and TPC Sawgrass' island green, not to mention infamous closing holes like the Blue Monster or Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, were worthy selections left on the cutting room floor. Most courses, be they big-time tournament venues or local munis, like to close with a tough look.
How much of our "course" have you played? Do you have a favorite terrifying shot that you've conquered (or perhaps botched)? We want to hear all about it. Let us know in the comments below.
No. 1: The Old Course at St. Andrews | Par 4 | Tee shot
It's among the widest fairways in golf. So why is the first tee shot of the Old Course so terrifying? Where to begin...
For starters, chances are you won't hit any balls before your tee time since the practice facility is down by the 16th hole. Then, at check in, the starter asks you for proof of handicap. You could be a single-digit player, but in that brief moment you could lose all confidence. Doubt creeps in - If I top my drive, will he pull me off? The starter calls out your name and a crowd of tourists and golfers stop and watch. As you put your peg in the ground, the R&A clubhouse lords over you (who's upstairs watching you? A former president? Jack Nicklaus?) and the ghost of Old Tom Morris can be felt. Then there's the swing itself. Spend some time watching groups tee off here and you'd think you're watching golf stuck in fast-forward. Practically everyone is jacked up.
How do I know all these pitfalls? Well, I'm not just the writer of this entry, but I'm also a victim: two out of three times I've played the Old I've gone OB right off the first tee. - Brandon Tucker
No. 2: Punta Espada Golf Club | Par 5 | Approach
No Caribbean country's golf is as intimate with the sea as the Dominican Republic, and Punta Espada is a thrilling Jack Nicklaus design full of surreal scenery and heroic shots to match. The routing wastes little time getting out to the sea with the par-5 2nd. Playing from an elevated tee, you can make out a sliver of green guarded on three sides by a lot of sparkling blue. Find the fairway off the tee and you've got to consider the wind coming off the sea and whether you can get home in two for an early scoring opportunity, but the green is small. Mishit the shot and you'll be lucky to find bunkers short right. The curvature of the fairway leading up towards the green also means you can't be sloppy with your line and distance with a layup, either. And even if you do lay up, you've got a wedge shot into the breeze to an infinity green and the best sorts of sensory distractions to manage. - Brandon Tucker
No. 3: Mauna Kea Golf Course | Par 3 | Tee shot
Let's take a time machine back to Dec. 8, 1964. Full of bravado, Jack Nicklaus challenges Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to play from the tips on the third hole during the celebrated grand opening of Mauna Kea, the first destination golf course on the Big Island. Architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and other dignitaries line up in anticipation of watching golf's 'Big Three' take on the 260-yard carry over the ocean with their tiny persimmon woods and drivers. Nicklaus knew the diminutive Player might have a hard time reaching dry land but Player was up to the task. For us non-Hall-of-Famers, it takes a once-in-a-lifetime swing to make it safely across. It's an exhilarating moment, one that will prove how much courage and skill lies within. - Jason Scott Deegan
No. 4: Spyglass Hill Golf Course | Par 4 | Approach
Architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. called the signature hole on the hardest course at Pebble Beach Resorts the best par 4 he ever designed. It's so treacherous that the resort wrote a long blog post trying to help players navigate its pitfalls, namely dreaded ice plant and sand dunes down the left side and the sloping, angular, skinnier-than-a-telephone-pole green. The putting surface is just 10 paces wide and generally only accepts short-iron approaches from the proper angle looking down the green. Other attempts tend to get caught up in the gnarly rough of the greenside mounds or end up in sandy lies, either inside the two bunkers or the native dunes. Trying to three-peat as champion at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2011, Dustin Johnson made an eight here. Walking off with bogey should make anybody feel proud. - Jason Scott Deegan
No. 5: Streamsong Black | Par 3 | Tee shot
Golfers crave frames of reference in order to help guide them toward a target. Which is why several holes at Streamsong Black, despite the size of their greens, make players uncomfortable. Uphill shots to these “skyline” greens, like the 5th, sow doubt, making clean long-iron contact even less likely than it already is. The tee shot measures 211 yards from the tips, and knowing one of the most severe greens on the course awaits adds another layer of terror. - Tim Gavrich
No. 6: Pebble Beach Golf Links | Par 5 | Approach/Layup
The world of golf has a hearty collection of coastal shots played over seas and oceans. But none are so bold as to demand a shot that not only plays over crashing waves but above a steep cliff face. But that is the daunting look from the par-5 6th fairway at Pebble Beach. The hill is so steep that the grass is cut at rough height for a considerable portion between the drive and elevated shelf with a small run-up area and green, so playing around the cliffs is pointless. No wonder the hole is the No. 2 handicap at Pebble Beach despite its modest length of 520 yards. Make a bold swing and the sight of watching your little ball scale the cliff face and find grass is one of the most fulfilling sights in golf. - Brandon Tucker
No. 7: Cape Breton Highlands Links | Par 5 | Tee shot
On a northeastern tip of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, Stanley Thompson's Highlands Links is a Golden-Age trek deep into the island's remote national park. By this time in the round, you've ventured out across a narrow strip of land exposed to the ocean on the right and crossed a road. On to the 7th tee of "Killiecrankie," you stand at the beginning of a dark, snaking tunnel of dense forest. It's remarkable to imagine this 570-yard par 5 was once played with old-school persimmon clubs, because even with our space-age tools, it's still all the golf hole most of us can handle: a double-dogleg that weaves gently uphill through a shadowy corridor full of hulking bumps in the fairway. All three shots must be precise, but you'll have no chance at par with anything short of a powerful, accurate drive. - Brandon Tucker
No. 8: Royal Troon Golf Club | Par 3 | Tee shot
How can a 123-yard shot make even the pros melt? When it's the "Postage Stamp," the iconic hole at Royal Troon. Originally called 'Ailsa' because of the long view of Ailsa Craig in the distance, this wee 3 has broken hearts at the nine Opens held here. The long, narrow green is couched into a sand dune. Although the bunker in front seems to catch your eye first, the pots that flank both the left and the right side are the most dangerous, including the infamous "Coffin" bunker. It's a hole where every player - pro or junior golfer - feels like they should walk away with par, maybe even birdie. After all, Gene Sarazen aced the hole during The Open in 1973 at age 71. More often than not, however, missing the green means bogey or worse. - Jason Scott Deegan
No. 9: Royal County Down | Par 4 | Tee shot
This is one of the most stunning tee shots in golf, and not just because it’s a long, forced carry over broken ground. The hole at Royal County Down plays as long as 483 yards, though most golfers play it closer to 429, at which point it’s a par 5 for women. There’s Dundrum Bay on the left, and just behind it, the Irish Sea, and with it the prevailing wind. Right in front of the tee is a vast, yawning open ground of wild dunes, with no apparent target. Hitting the fairway requires a measure of trust because it offers no discrete aiming point. Behind the distant green flashes the white roof of the clubhouse and adjoining it, the Victorian elegance of the red Slieve Donard Hotel. And behind it, rising over the town of New Castle, are the Mountains of Mourne. It’s one of the moments where you have to calm yourself and focus. - Bradley S. Klein
No. 10: Blackwolf Run (Meadow Valleys) | par 4 | Tee shot
Imagine the narrowest golf hole you’ve played, and then tighten the confines by a third. Especially after the expansive, rolling front nine, this tee shot on the 382-yard 10th hole at Meadows Valley is jarring and frightening. And it’s more than merely narrow - it’s bowling-alley-narrow for more than 150 yards before any sort of extra space opens up. You can’t exactly rely on your get-me-in-play slap-cut here. You need to hit it arrow-straight, or else. - Tim Gavrich
No. 11: Ballybunion | Par 4 | Tee shot
Naming this hole after Tom Watson makes sense in so many ways. He has called it one of his favorites, but you also have to play links golf as well as Watson - a six-time Champion Golfer of the Year - to hit the twisting, narrow fairway, which is surrounded by dunes as majestic as anywhere in the British Isles. Golfers can't just pick their straightest club and hope for the best. They need length (the hole tips out at 473 yards) and must be brave and confident to hit a shot that won't spin out of control in whatever wind is whistling that day. Hitting the proper side of the fairway remains paramount for a look through a gap in the sand dunes to the hidden green. Good luck and godspeed. - Jason Scott Deegan
No. 12: Fossil Trace Golf Club | Par 5 | Approach
Not what you’d expect from a municipal tract – nor from any other, for that matter. But here’s a par 5, 462 to 585 yards long, where the second shot has to thread through a series of massive limestone walls and pillars that create alleyways or chutes for the golfer. To say the least, it’s unnerving. Jim Engh, a Colorado-based architect who has made a name for himself over the years bringing golf to intense, unusual sites, routed the back nine through remnants of dried, oceanic deposits. “I like to find the hot spots of a terrain and make them central to the golf experience,” he says. That's certainly true at Fossil Trace, thanks to a central pillar, 20 feet high, that sits dead center of the 12th fairway, 150 yards from the green. The path to the right has to deal with two secondary pillars that are ten feet high. An ascending solid rock wall, 200 yards long and 25 feet high at its peak, guards the left route. It’s enough to get you mumbling out loud, in which case it’ll echo against the wall sounding like someone (else) is talking to you. - Bradley S. Klein
No. 13: Tobacco Road Golf Club | Par 5 | Approach
Even in the best of circumstances, blind shots are uncomfortable. No. 13 at Tobacco Road heaps a couple further complicating factors on the golfer. First, the length of the shot depends on the golfer’s first two swings. (If you’re way back, pray). Second, the green is tiny, swaddled somewhat by benevolent grass slopes but more by wild sandy mounds. Finally, the extra-long flagstick just peeks out above the unseen target. It's Mike Strantz eternally thumbing his nose at golfers, but it hardly dampens one's feeling of gratitude at being in a special space for golf. - Tim Gavrich
No. 14: Bandon Trails | Par 4 | Approach
Skip the shuttle behind the 13th green as I suggest the short hike to the 14th tee of Bandon Trails, one of the first spots on property in which Bandon owner, Mike Keiser, knew he had something special. That being said, the 14th is a polarizing adventure. Some wish they could skip it, meanwhile, it’s Ben Crenshaw’s favorite on the course. Distance isn’t the issue (292 yards from the golds) and there’s plenty of room to hit almost anything off the elevated tee. But it’s the smal,l elevated kidney-shaped green that slopes from front to back that causes so many double and triple bogeys. Over the years, they’ve softened the miss that goes left of the putting surface, which is a great place to be off the tee, but most approach shots are a half-sand wedge from a severely sloping lie, yielding a lot of decelerated chunks, skulls and a slew of profanity walking to the 15th. - Matt Ginella
No. 15: Bethpage Black | Par 4 | Approach
For everyday players, every shot on “The Black” is intimidating. That’s the enduring result of a perennial championship setup that sees the fairways established at only 24 to 28 yards across and the rough a dense, thick mat of rye, fescue and Poa. But things really come to a head at the long, dogleg-left 15th hole, 417 to 484 yards long. This is designer A.W. Tillinghast at his most severe, thanks to a fairway that’s easy to hit through and a perched green, 35 feet above the fairway, with so much slope from back to front that even after it was completely rebuilt to (barely) provide enough hole locations. Small wonder that during the 2019 PGA Championship the hole played as the toughest out there, with an average score of 4.36.
The two-tiered putting surface looks like it’s barely clinging to its hillside position and is about to slide off completely. Miss the fairway off the tee and you are chipping out sideways. Whether as your second or third shot your approach has to carry a pair of fearsome front bunkers. Hit it a little extra strong to make sure you get over the front sand and you risk going long, facing a slick downhill recovery. - Bradley S. Klein
No. 16: Royal Portrush | Par 3 | Tee shot
What could be more treacherous than a water hazard short and right of a long par 3? Precisely the design of "Calamity Corner." The most intimidating thing about the tee shot (236 yards from the medal tees, 202 from the whites) is if you leak your tee shot right, you're faced with a trek down into the depths of Portrush. Even if you find your ball, the lie is certain to be poor. You could hack at it several times before giving up. Then you're faced with a steep climb up to the green. It's such a humiliating affair, we don't blame you if you double-cross a low burning hook well left. Fortunately, there is a fair bit of room over there. - Brandon Tucker
No. 17 - Whistling Straits | Par 3 | Tee shot
What stands between the golfer and completion of the penultimate test at Whistling Straits? Not much: 200-plus yards (from most tees); a railroad tie-rimmed chasm filled with bunkers, long grass and lost-ball potential; Lake Michigan; howling winds; and a surrealist elevated bunker that catches some bailout shots aimed right of the green. What else would you expect from a hole called “Pinched Nerve”? - Tim Gavrich
No. 18 - TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium) | par 4 | Tee shot
You’ve just finished up at the iconic, mesmerizing little par-3 island green 17th hole and you might think your troubles are behind you. Master psychologist Pete Dye has another surprise awaiting on the 18th tee. Whether you play it from way back at 462 yards or up front at 336, the prevailing thought as you stand over your tee shot is that there’s nowhere to miss. As Dye knows, it’s impossible to play confident golf when your mind is preoccupied with what not to do. At the 18th hole your tee is aligned along the lake and you’re staring at water all the way to the green. You can’t go left and you can’t go right because the outside of the dogleg left quickly gives way to trees, rough, cart path, mounds and – nothing to play from. It’s a tee shot that gets into your head and stays there. - Bradley S. Klein