Editor's Note: Updated March 2023
For more than a century, golfers have been obsessed with island greens.
That infatuation reaches a zenith every March at The PLAYERS Championship, where the famous 17th hole on the PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass takes center stage. Sometimes, it's shocking to see players struggle with the most notorious island green in golf. They've hit that 137-yard shot stiff hundreds of times, but toss in a little water and an audience and watch their hands get twitchy and their confidence wane. The hole's backstory is legendary by now. Alice Dye had a big influence on how Pete Dye built it. For better or worse – depending upon your perspective – golf architecture has never been the same … all because of one hole.
I’ve created this ultimate guide to answer all the questions you’ve ever wondered about island greens. When were they invented? By whom? Which architects build them and who despises them? Where can I play one? Which destination offers the most? I’ve dug up some fun facts and even a list of more than 200 from around the world, which is probably less than half the total count. I didn't include a number of holes that are marketed as "island" greens because they're more like peninsula greens than true islands.
The best and most authentic island greens provide golf’s ultimate do-or-die shot. Is your game ready for such a finite examination?
Who invented the island green?
Although Pete Dye is the face of the island green today, there’s no clear evidence as to who invented the concept. It could be Devereux Emmet, who designed the Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Conn., a private club that dates to 1896. Its short par-4 16th ends at an island green. Or it could be George Low, according to both Links Magazine and Golf Digest. Low, a Scottish golfer, started working as the professional, superintendent and clubmaker at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J., when the private club built an island green on the 10th hole somewhere around 1903. The island green was actually in play during the 1915 U.S. Open before A.W. Tillinghast replaced it to build Baltusrol’s Upper and Lower courses in 1920. Why Tillinghast took it out is perplexing, considering he built a pair of island greens a few years prior that are still in play today: the par-4 18th at the private Shackamaxon Golf & Country Club (1916) in New Jersey and the “Moat Hole” on the 193-yard No. 15 at Galen Hall in Pennsylvania.
Forrest Richardson, the immediate past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, believes the concept dates back a few centuries to an ancient course in Scotland. “The East and Southeast Mid Holes at Leith (c. 1744) were among the first attempts,” he noted in an email. “By all accounts, the sandy areas surrounding those ‘greens’ were wet and troublesome, and except for the narrow paths to the hole, that sandy land all but surrounded the targets.”
Philadelphian William S. Flynn took the idea West, building the first island green on a par 5 in 1922 - the 17th on the Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo., a private club outside Denver that has hosted numerous U.S. Opens and major events. A handful were built elsewhere over the next six decades, but it was Dye who opened the floodgates at TPC Sawgrass in 1981. Suddenly, every developer and architect wanted to create their own interpretation. During the course construction boom that lasted for the next two decades, hundreds of renditions were built on every type of course: public, private, resort, munis, executive and even as bonus holes to settle bets.
Although there’s been plenty of debate in recent years about the merit of the island green, they’re still a thing. In 2020, Greg Norman built one at Solmar Golf Links, which is arguably Mexico’s top resort course. In 2021, Palmerstown House Estate, a course in Ireland, built a new island green on No. 10 during a renovation.
Which architects like or dislike island greens?
Name a famous golf course architect, and it’s more than likely they built an island green. Jack Nicklaus, the king of the player-architect, has built at least seven. Ron Garl is another one who has been a prolific creator. There are exceptions, notably Tom Doak. Even though he was working for Dye during the Sawgrass project, Doak has never even considered making one.
“It made sense to build it there, as a terrifying 17th hole for a major tournament,” he said. “I thought that should be a one-off use of the idea. Instead, it's fostered a hundred copies, and they are all pretty much the same. What I particularly don't like about them is that the green takes up the whole island and you're in the water anywhere you miss; I wouldn't hate it if the island was much larger and the green only took up a portion of it, so you just had the carry and not the water all the way around.”
Island greens are a thorny subject within the golf architecture community. There are reasons for them – they’re memorable and marketable – and reasons against – they’re bad for playability and pace of play. Richardson, who is based in Arizona, thinks the recent backlash against island greens isn’t altogether fair. He recently added one to Baylands Golf Links, a muni he redesigned in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2018.
“I think there will always be an attraction to island greens, it’s just too hard to pass up,” he said. “The trick is to do it ‘right’ and not to make it too forced. It also needs to pop up at the right time in a round. I don’t see many opening holes with island greens. … To the purist who says they’re trendy, I say you’re not coming clean with your emotions.”
Steve Forrest, principal at Hills-Forrest-Smith, Golf Course Architects, has only built three in his career out of more than 200 projects, all at the request of the client. He’s not a fan. “They’re a pain. They slow play and are difficult to maintain,” he said. “They are cliches.”
Neil Haworth’s firm of Nelson & Haworth Golf Course Architects, on the other hand, has built five different island greens in Asia, where they remain quite popular. Brian Curley told Golf Magazine in 2020 that “memberships sold out almost immediately” when it was announced a floating island green reached by boat would be built at Amata Spring outside Bangkok.
"Island greens, while not so common or popular in western golf (often considered gimmicky and overly penal with good reason), are considered almost ‘De rigueur' in Asian golf, where betting culture runs deep,” noted Brett Mogg, another partner in Nelson & Haworth who is a member of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects. “The ability of an island green to settle the outcome of a sometimes large bet almost instantly is one reason why these types of holes remain popular with both course owners and golfers."
What do the pros think?
The 17th at TPC Sawgrass is not the only island green the PGA Tour pros face, just the most daunting. Three other premier Tour events feature one – the TOUR Championship at East Lake, the Fed-Ex St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind and the Waste Management Phoenix Open on the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale.
Even the best players in the world aren’t shy about fearing island greens, especially at Sawgrass. “If there's wind at play, 100 percent it's a very difficult shot,” said Bryson DeChambeau prior to the 2021 tournament. “If there's no wind, it's relatively simple. But yes, the windier it gets, the more diabolical that hole gets because there's not really room for error if you're going for a flag, because they tuck the flag. You can miss it one way, but the other way it's gone.”
The LPGA Tour has long finished one of its five majors on the longest hole ever built with an island green – the 646-yard 18th on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Inn Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The hole caused an uproar at the 2020 ANA Inspiration when a giant sponsorship wall, mockingly dubbed the “Great Wall of Dinah”, was erected at the back of the green. Players had no fear of going long, simply bouncing balls off of it. The wall wasn’t resurrected in 2021 and sadly, the tournament, the newly named Chevron Championship, moved to Houston in 2023. “It's just an amazing finishing hole,” Lexi Thompson said.
The grizzled veterans of the PGA Tour Champions now take on the island green on the par-5 13th hole of Woodlands Country Club’s Tournament Course, which hosted the Houston Open for many years. Sometimes, even a major (Cherry Hills) or Ryder Cup (Valhalla) will also incorporate one.
Where should an island green sit in the routing?
This is perhaps the most interesting question because there’s no right answer. However, there are two wrong ones, at least in my opinion. They shouldn’t start the round or finish it.
The first hole, we can probably all agree, is a bad idea. Who wants to start with such a daunting first shot? (With or without a warm up.) Believe it or not, the Tanna Farms Golf Club in Geneva, Ill., begins with a 140-yard shot to an island green. It’s a bold move by Architect Roy Case, one I can’t forgive.
Of the 200-plus holes with island greens I found in my research, only 79 (roughly 40 percent) of them were found on the front nine. Rarely do they show up within the first four holes, although Mike Strantz, well known for being unconventional, built one on the third hole at True Blue in Pawleys Island, S.C.
The back nine makes a lot more sense. The player should be dialed in and ready for the challenge by then. Interestingly, Tiger Woods has said he would move the island green at TPC Sawgrass to the front nine if he were the architect. “I understand the premise behind it. It’s dramatic,” he told Reuters after his first round in 2012. “But I just think that as a par-three, I just don’t think it should be that, as the 17th. Great eighth hole or maybe something early in the back nine but maybe I’m more of a traditionalist in that regard. As a great finishing hole, I’m not in that opinion.”
Most architects build them at holes 17 (I found 29) or 18 (I found 23). I’m not a fan at the finishing hole since it’s likely that most golfers will lose a ball and come off the course with a sour taste in their mouths. I am, however, a BIG supporter of “bonus holes” with island greens. These extra holes are great for settling bets, a risk-reward moment to end the day. If you hit three in the water, it won't affect the score you post for your handicap, although it will likely hit your wallet if there's money on the line. There’s been a few good ones built over the years, but the new 19th hole at Payne’s Valley, a par 3 designed by Woods at Big Cedar Lodge in Hollister, Mo., takes things to the next level. Its setting with water cascading off a 250-foot cliff is incredible.
Should island greens only be on par 3s?
Island greens are mostly found on par 3s for good reason. Golfers get to tee the ball up, which should give them the best chance to find the green in regulation. The length of the shot is critical to making the hole playable. Shots over water longer than 160 to 170 yards are difficult for many average golfers. If the yardage is any longer than that, the island green better be quite large. I found 60 par 3s that play 150 yards or less (roughly 30 percent of the total found in my research). I'd like to see that percentage higher. Thank goodness most of us don't play from the back tees. I could swing away all day and not hit a dry tee shot at the 17th hole at JCB Golf and Country Club in Rocester, United Kingdom. At 255 yards from the tips, it's the longest par 3 to an island green in the world.
As we’ve seen at TPC Scottsdale’s 15th hole, island greens work very well on par 5s. Big hitters can risk it all by going for it with serious consequences. Shorter hitters like me can lay up and still face a dramatic approach shot with (hopefully) a short enough iron in hand to handle the situation. I count 21 par 5s with island greens (11 percent of the total number of holes I researched), such as the 562-yard finishing hole on the Monument Course at Boyne Mountain Resort in northern Michigan.
Where par 4s fit into the equation is a bigger debate. Of the 27 I found in my research (13 percent of the total), I’m not sure I’d like to play any of them on a regular basis, unless the hole is shorter than, say, 350 yards or less. That’s a good yardage for most recreational golfers to set up a fun, and doable, second shot. Playing par 4s longer than 400 yards to an island green seems like the domain of the PGA Tour, not your average public or resort course. The finishing holes on the Ocean Course at Hokuala on Kauai (459 yards) and the Golden Palm Course at Trump National Miami Doral in Florida (469 yards) have gobbled their share of my golf balls. Although I’ve never played it, the 13th at Valhalla Golf Club, a 335-yard par 4 in Louisville, Ky., looks like the perfect example of a dramatic, yet somewhat playable island-green par 4 for the club golfer. The elevated putting surface is guarded by water and fortified by a stacked wall of rocks.
Where are island greens most prevalent?
If it weren’t obvious already, Florida is the king of island greens. I found 19, and no doubt there are probably at least a dozen more. It’s much easier for architects to build an island green in a swamp or natural wet area than to dig a hole and fill it with water. One of the world’s most prominent and earliest island greens is located on the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club less than five miles from TPC Sawgrass. The 157-yard ninth was designed by Herbert Strong in 1928.
If you’re looking for a single destination chock full of island adventures, head up the coast to Myrtle Beach, S.C. There’s no fewer than 11 different courses with at least one island green, ranging from three “Plantation” courses on Pawleys Island (True Blue, Willbrook and Pawleys Plantation) to two courses in North Carolina at the northern tip of the Grand Strand (Oyster Bay Golf Links and Leopard’s Chase). The Man O’War Golf Course in Myrtle Beach is reputed to be the only course in the world with back-to-back island greens, the 382-yard 14th and 173-yard 15. Bring lots of balls!
Where can I play a replica of TPC Sawgrass?
The bad news for island green fans is it’s getting quite expensive to play the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Dynamic pricing used by the TPC Network can put the price tag between $700 and $840 during high season, according to Golf Magazine. That’s the most expensive tee time on a resort course in America except for Shadow Creek. There are bargain versions elsewhere.
Building replicas of famous holes became an architectural trend in the 1990s during that course construction boom I mentioned earlier. Copy cats of Sawgrass popped up all around the world. Check out this amazing story from Golf Digest Australia, where a bed-and-breakfast owner built another replica in his “backyard”.
Of the island-green par 3s built in America from 1992 to 2005 that tried hardest to replicate the complete Sawgrass experience, none of them offer the exact yardage of the original (137 yards). Eagle Eye in mid-Michigan might come closest to the real thing thanks to the support of Pete Dye, who gave Architect Chris Lutzke, a protégé who spearheaded the project, the exact specs for the green size and shape to make an original copy of TPC Sawgrass.
Where are some unique island greens?
Some architects have gotten artistic in their interpretations of the island green. There are island greens in the shape of an apple (17 at Apple Tree in Yakima, Wash.), a boar’s head (11 on Hardenberg Golf Club's Niedersachsen Course in Germany) and the island of Mallcora (18 at Santa Ponsa II on the island off the coast of Spain). Are they gimmicks or good? When I played the ‘Apple’ hole a few years ago, the staff told me it had attracted thousands of traveling golfers – many from Asia - who might not have otherwise made the trip to a remote corner of Washington state.
Some islands are large enough for more than just a single green. A handful of courses feature two greens sharing the same island: Le Golf National in France, Devil’s Head Resort’s Prairie Glen in Wisconsin, Cantigny and Redtail in Illinois and Mission Hills Phuket Golf Resort & Spa in Thailand. Springfield Royal Country Club’s Lake Nine in Thailand, Ocean Acres Country Club in New Jersey and Fyre Island in Illinois are home to islands so large that they house the next tee as well. The extra land increases the target size (a concept Doak approves of), but it’s awfully embarrassing when a golf ball finishes on the wrong green or a tee box. At least it's alive.
The 13th at Finkbine Golf Club in Iowa City, Iowa, remains the world's only hole with two island greens side by side for alternating play. Jack Nicklaus built the only "natural" island hole - Punta Mita's 3b - on a rocky island off the coast of Mexico. When the tide is in, golfers can only get there by an amphibious golf cart.
Island greens can also be created by surrounding them with sand. Without water, though, recovery shots are possible. That allows the player to swing a little more freely. At least golfers can get up and down for par out of the desert on the par-4 second hole at TPC Las Vegas or the beach on the par-3 third at the Kittansett Club in Massachusetts. The 440-yard “Extreme 19th” hole in South Africa plays to a green framed by bunkers that was made to look like the continent of Africa. It's reachable only by helicopter and a 280-yard drive off of Hanglip Mountain.
The most incredible island green, at least from an engineering point of view, will forever be the “floating island green” at Coeur D'Alene Resort Golf Course in Idaho. That green can be moved by underwater pulleys, changing the hole’s distance from 93 yards to more than 200-plus with the push of a button. It’s a true island green, reachable only by a boat. It’s a fabulous experience … as long as your approach shot remains dry. That, my friends, is the sole goal of every island-green hole ever created.
Which island greens have you played? Do you like or loathe them? Let us know in the comments below.