Standing on the 18th tee, I'm sensing a little deja vu ... all over again.
It doesn't matter where I'm at or which course I'm playing, the look and feel of the final hole has a Groundhog Day sense of sameness.
The story goes like this: I'm playing well, having fun, enjoying the game. Then the architect does his best wet blanket routine, dropping a cold dose of reality in the form of a gut-busting 440-yard par 4 or some ball-gobbling, hazard-strewn par 5. There goes my good round. I walk off the 18th green feeling deflated instead of triumphantly strutting into the 19th hole. Why is finishing with birdie such a sin?
If architecture is art, then how come so many golf course architects refuse to color outside the lines? I've seen too many cookie-cutter closers out there. Make it hard. Make it long. Rinse. Repeat. Nobody wants to end their round like Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie standing ankle deep in water, contemplating how not to make triple.
Isn't it time to spark a movement that makes this game more sustainable, more fun, more interesting? Courses celebrating their daunting finishing hole with names like "Terminator"or "Dyeabolical" should take a back seat.
Tom Doak says he takes a different approach than most architects regarding finishing holes. He doesn't believe in saving "the best for last" or that the hole is any more "important" than the others.
"Too much of American design is based on cliches and 'rules' about what the customer supposedly wants," he shared in an email. "Luckily, a lot of my clients have not put much stock in those cliches, and were more open-minded about what a good finisher can be."
The search for the perfect closer
Recently, I I analyzed the scorecards of nearly 1,000 top courses I've played. A pattern quickly emerged. I'd estimate 90 percent of the finishing holes were either par 4s ranging from 420 to 470 yards or par 5s ranging from 520 to 600 yards. Roughly 60 finished on a hole 370 yards or less. For a reference point, I collected yardages of the 27 finishing holes you can play on the PGA Tour. Nine are par 5s, averaging 577 yards each, and 17 are par 4s, averaging 450 yards a pop. (The Greenbrier's TPC Old White was the only one ending on a par 3). All yardages are from the tips.
I completely understand why par 5s work so well on Tour. They're good for big swings on the leaderboard and offer up risk-reward scenarios. Every year the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am comes down to the guys challenging Stillwater Cove to go for the 543-yard 18th at Pebble Beach in two.
The problem is the risk-reward becomes irrelevant during everyday play when 90 percent of golfers can't reach the green. It just never plays out like the architect envisions for us Average Joes.
It's the bludgeoning par 4s I despise most. For elite-level tournament tracks like Bay Hill (458 yards), Doral's Blue Monster (473) and Corales (501), they make sense. But why such brutal tests to wrap up the resort/daily-fee types of courses: Saratoga National (473), The Brute at Grand Geneva (464) or Kiva Dunes (458)? Classics like Broadmoor East (433) are just as guilty as the modern designs like Bears Best Las Vegas (463) as crazy-hard finishers. Only rare instances break from the norm.
Bethpage Black on New York's Long Island and The Olympic Club in San Francisco provide proof that not all U.S. Opens have to end in bogey (or worse) fests. Despite its torture-chamber reputation, the Black's 411-yard finishing hole ranks as only the 15 handicap. The closer on the Olympic Club's Lake course is merely 347 yards, albeit uphill.
The most obvious and controversial anomaly to end a round is the par 3. I've covered this issue in the past. The majority of comments in the story below show contempt for the concept, even though Pasatiempo by Dr. Alister MacKenzie is considered one of the all-time greats. I'm fine with ending on a par 3 ... as long as it's compelling.
Pastiempo's finisher looks simple enough until you land in an unplayable spot. Little did I know during a recent round that General Manager Scott Hoyt was watching after I missed the green long. He knew I was dead and couldn't look away from the pending train wreck. I attempted a flop shot from the back left rough over a bunker's edge to a back-right hole location with no way to stop the ball near the hole. Exasperated, after my shot rolled 35 feet away, I three-putted for five.
Ultimately, what should make a good closing hole, regardless of yardage, is what makes any hole great: risk-reward, playing options, intrigue, setting. Unfortunately, too often those characteristics take a back seat to distance and difficulty.
"Fun and interesting options for the hole are the most important (thing)," wrote Michigan-based Architect Mike DeVries in an email. "That can be challenging, too, but that shouldn't be the primary focus."
That thinking is why I prefer the drivable/short-to-medium par 4, the rarest of all closers. Anybody can make birdie - no matter their handicap - and bogey is still in play for a dramatic swing in the tournament or a match.
Thankfully, there are enough noteworthy examples overseas that maybe someday the notion could gain more traction. Classic links are known to be lovably quirky. Both the Old Course at St. Andrews and North Berwick in Scotland finish on short 4s in the heart of town. St. Andrews' 361-yarder rolls over the Swilcan Burn and its famous Swilcan Bridge into the Valley of Sin, a depression short of the 18th green.
I remember more fear than excitement on the 277-yard final hole at North Berwick. Right of the fairway were dozens of parked cars. I bailed out left rather than shatter a windshield. A meager effort. Unfortunately, Machrihanish Golf Club's closer, "Lossit", ends on 314 yards of flat ground that feels like a letdown after four hours of dancing with the dunes. Driving the green is also feasible on the 288-yard closer named "Clock" at Prestwick, the original home of The Open. Add Scotland's Gullane No. 1 (355 yards) and Northern Ireland's Ardglass (345) among the overseas courses that end with more friendly finishers (downhill, even!).
One of my favorite golf course finds of all time is the Olympic course at Gold Mountain in Washington state. This muni goes out with a bang, a 325-yard thriller where double is more likely than birdie. Funny thing is, the course wasn't designed this way. It only happened after the United States Golf Association flipped the nines for the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur. The winner? Some kid named Jordan Spieth. The new routing stuck.
Another memorable one is the 18th at the Durban Country Club in South Africa even though it is rated the easiest hole on the course, stretching to merely 253 meters (roughly 273 yards). It's not impossible to dream of landing an ace with a good drive up the left side that bounces back toward the flag. All this in the shadow of the imposing Moses Mabhida Stadium and cityscape.
Other top U.S. tracks ending on shorter par 4s include Wolf Creek in Mesquite, Nev. (307 yards); Pilgrim's Run in Pierson, Mich. (358); the Omni Bedford Springs in Bedford, Pa. (356); and Coyote Moon in Truckee, Calif. (341). More of these would be great for the game.
"I've always thought that the finishing hole should have some of the same principles of that last scene in a film," Arizona-based Architect Forrest Richardson wrote by email. "It needs to summarize, reinforce the concept and leave the players with a sense of wanting a bit more, perhaps wonder what happens next.
"Of course, in golf, what happens next is a matter of returning and playing again. That is truly what makes a golf course great, so I suppose the last hole is that one last attempt to gain a repeat player."
Ways to make memorable finishers
There are tricks architects use besides yardages and doglegs to make the finishing hole a proper finale to the round. Too often, unfortunately, the location of the clubhouse handcuffs their options.
The easiest way is to save the best land for last. Often times that means routing the hole along the shoreline of a lake or an ocean. There's so many strong examples beyond Pebble Beach: Bigwin Island (the article's lead photo) in Ontario, Canada; Leatherstocking in Cooperstown, N.Y.; Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee; TPC Harding Park in San Francisco; Abaco Club in the Bahamas; Stonewall Golf Club on Lake Manassas, Va.; etc. DeVries remains most proud of no. 18 at Cape Wickham Links along Victoria Cove on King Island off the coast of Australia. "It is an epic hole, probably one of the best finishers in the world," he gushed. (VIDEO: See Cape Wickham and its remarkable 18th hole)
Heroic do-or-die shots over water are another choice. They end the day with an adrenaline rush or utter despair. One of my favorite all-time golf quotes came from 2005 Michigan Amateur champ Christian Vozza talking about the 18th hole at The Heather at Boyne Highlands. "It feels like the water is over your head," he said of the daunting 176-yard carry over a pond from the end of the fairway to the green.
The Links at Greystone in Walworth, N.Y., also sports a huge pond at No. 18 with absolutely no bailout. You either carry it or lay up for a 110-yard wedge to freedom. Doral's Golden Palm course and Le Golf National's Albatros course in France, host of the 2018 Ryder Cup, end at island greens.
Elevated tees with views for miles definitely leave a lasting impression. In Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula, TimberStone's final par 5 races down a ski hill to a tiered fairway. The elevated final tee at Greywalls, a DeVries design in nearby Marquette, looks out to Lake Superior, while delivering a friendly path home, a 533-yard par 5 with no bunkers. Glen Ivy's final tee drops 200 feet to the fairway in southern California, quite possibly the largest elevation change in U.S. golf. You can find three other demon drops off of 18th tees in this story, including Kapalua's famed Plantation course on Maui.
Sometimes, unconventional works, too. At the Links at Las Palomas in Mexico, Richardson was designing a par 5 up and over a dune when he discovered a site for a second green. The lower green is down in a cauldron as a semi-blind shot. The upper green to the right hugs the native dunes and brush. When the lower green is not in use, there are extra tees that create a bonus 19th hole. “It happened one day when I was working on the routing and it just stuck,” Richardson recalled.
There is one tactic I'm not a fan of: Bingeing on bunkers. The setting of La Cana Golf & Beach Club's 18th hole (the ninth of the Arrecife nine) is gorgeous right along the Caribbean Sea in the Dominican Republic. So is Trump International Golf Links Scotland's spectacular elevated tee overlooking the North Sea. Why toss in 18 bunkers on Trump Aberdeen and 13 (plus a large waste area) on La Cana? It's overkill and takes away from the enjoyment of the moment. King's North at Myrtle Beach National sets the standard for an obscene amount of bunkers (40!) on its par-4 18th. Compare Trump's bunker infestation, pictured below, to the natural look of the bunkerless 18th at Greywalls.
The handicap rating of No. 18 must also be taken into account. If it's rated among the three hardest holes on the course, it will likely require the better player to give up a stroke at the most inopportune time. That's not an ideal way to settle a hard-fought grudge match that's come to the final hole.
DeVries offers up this philosophy on the matter: “I have always thought that a really difficult par 4 should be somewhere in the hole 14-15 range, giving the golfer a chance to make up a hole, lose one, or have a good halve, but then still have a few holes left to overcome your opponent if you failed."
If you absolutely must bash me over the head with the no. 1 handicap as the finisher, make sure you wow me, too. That's what happens on The Hills in New Zealand. I've shared this photo of its artwork before, the 100 wolves attacking a swordsman. It's overwhelming to walk among the bigger-than-life statues.
Since most course owners don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on such a decorative display, I recommend building a finisher that players love, not loathe. Doak shared a story of building Sebonack, a private club on Long Island.
“Our client Michael Pascucci urged Jack Nicklaus and I to change the 18th hole from a long 4 to a par 5, so that members wouldn’t be griping about double bogey to conclude their round,” he recalled. “I do think that’s an important factor. My very first design (High Pointe) was a par 5 with water in play for the only time in the round, and it left a bad taste in a lot of golfers’ mouths. A simple hole like the finishing hole at North Berwick, where the average guy can try to drive the green, can be memorable or indeed thrilling, completely independent of its setting and view.”
That's all we ask. Just give us a chance. Birdie or bust is better than bogey or worse.
What's your philosophy on closing holes? Is harder and longer okay or should there be change moving forward? Let us know in the comments below.