How to conquer the subtle trickery of a switchback hole

If you want to shoot lower scores, strategic thinking and prudent play are crucial.
Harbour Town's par-4 3rd hole's angled green encourages the ambitious player to use a draw and a fade to play the hole effectively.

I’ve said before that a great golf course can elevate the pleasure of watching a professional golf tournament, either in person or on TV. This week is a perfect example, because Harbour Town Golf Links is one of the most interesting courses the PGA Tour visits each year.

Though he became known for bolder and more flamboyant work over the course of his career, Pete Dye’s ground-hugging, restrained approach makes Harbour Town tricky because it provides few guiding features of the sort that elite players have become used to in competition. This year, the absence of fans and grandstands means pros will have even less to aim at as they meander through the course’s cozy corridors.

As ever, the highest finishers at Harbour Town will have to work the ball effectively on both tee shots and approaches, rather than try and bully the course into submission.

Holes like the par-4 3rd at Harbour Town are great examples of tactics being more important than power. It showcases one of the cornerstones of Dye’s work: the “switchback” concept.

What is a switchback hole?

The par-4 8th at Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club is a classic switchback hole.

In short, a switchback hole is a par 4 or par 5 that encourages one particular shot shape off the tee and encourages the opposite shot shape on the approach shot. The need for a shaped tee ball often comes from the presence of a hazard or trees lining a curved landing area or both. The approach shot shape demand is often dictated by an angled green, with water or bunkers complicating the shot.

On the 3rd at Harbour Town (469 yards from the tips, 411 yards from the Dye tees), the fairway doglegs ever-so-slightly to the left, while the green is set at an angle from front-left to back-right. For players in the RBC Heritage looking to make a birdie, the ideal tee shot is a slight draw and the ideal approach will benefit from some fade spin.

You may be thinking that this sort of hole is beyond your competency because working a golf ball in both directions on command is not exactly a skill that the amateur golfer has. This is not true. For the less skilled player, a switchback hole is a golden opportunity to show off a skill that is universal among golfers, no matter the handicap: the ability to play to your strengths.

Even if you’re a higher-handicap golfer, I’m betting you have a go-to shot shape. This means that when you confront one of these clever golf holes, one of the shots will fit your eye beautifully. The trick is in figuring out how to set yourself up to take advantage of that comfortable shot while minimizing the pressure the uncomfortable one puts on you.

The course that shaped me most as a young golfer, Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club in South Carolina, has a great long par-4 switchback hole at the 8th (the 16th is another good example). Architect Jack Nicklaus’ introduction to design came with Pete Dye at Harbour Town, so it is no surprise that switchback holes can be found all over the Golden Bear’s portfolio, too.

Let’s look at the 8th at Pawleys Plantation to see how golfers of different skill sets might navigate the hole.

3 ways to play a switchback hole

A player in full control of both draws and fades would be able to deploy both in challenging the tough par-4 8th at Pawleys Plantation.
Of course, most of us aren't good enough to work the ball both ways on command. The player with a natural right-to-left shot shape can play aggressively off the tee on this hole. But caution is best on the approach to the angled green. Playing for the front portion means less club to hit and a relatively stress-free experience while foolish players make double bogeys from the deep fronting bunker.
For a left-to-right player, the tee shot is tricky. For less stress, consider clubbing down or at least favoring the wide right part of the fairway. This leaves a longer approach than the aggressive play, but the fact that it fits this player's eye makes up for it. Once again, there's nothing wrong with playing for par by aiming for the open front of the green.

Trying to hit heroic and improbable shots on the golf course is fun when you’re just out there messing around. But if you’re trying to put together a score, or trying to beat your buddies out of a few bucks, playing to your strengths and minimizing the confrontations with your weaknesses is a winning strategy, especially if you’re not an elite-caliber golfer. Switchback holes tempt aggressive players to be foolish in the name of being heroic, and it can bite them in a hurry if they don’t execute flawlessly.

Other notable switchback holes

The par-4 first hole at TPC Sawgrass promotes a left-to-right shot off the tee and the opposite on approach.

Pete Dye's championship masterpiece forces players to think from the first swing. The corridor of the whole is straightaway, but large waste areas offset the fairway firs to the left, then right. It's not a long hole, but it provides a full test of a player's abilities off the bat.

The 12th at Buffalo Ridge Springs is an attractive long par 4.

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris' sprawling outdoorsman's paradise outside Branson, Missouri seems to improve every year, and its first "big" golf course, Tom Fazio's Buffalo Ridge Springs, remains the ideal introduction to the place. The gliding downhill par-4 12th invites a big sweeping draw off the tee for a righty, followed by a confident faded iron to the angled green.

A caddie lugs two bags toward the fifth fairway on the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Black Course at Long Island's Bethpage State Park.

Pete Dye may have perfected the switchback hole, but the concept predates his career. Rees Jones' revision of A.W. Tillinghast's original made Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y. one of the most fearsome golf courses in America, bolstered by terrors like the long switchback par-4 5th. Players need to fit a left-to-right tee shot into the angled fairway before heading uphill to a green that asks for a long right-to-left approach.

What switchback holes stick out in your memory, from your home course or somewhere you've visited? Share your favorites in the comments below.

July 10, 2018
Unconventional genius defined Pete Dye's incredible career, during which he shaped the modern era of golf course design.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
1 Comments
Commented on

Hi Tim-big fan of this article, thanks!

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How to conquer the subtle trickery of a switchback hole