I’ve been suspicious of the whole concept of “signature holes” for a long while. As far as I can tell it’s a marketing gimmick and a cliche whose time has come and gone – if it ever took hold.
My suspicions about the concept were first awoken almost 25 years ago at a course reopening, when the director of golf asked me, immediately after the round, which one of the holes out there merited the term “signature.”
"It’s hard to tell," I said politely. "They are all so good, no one of them jumps out ahead of all the others."
The marketing power of a signature hole is without doubt considerable. We’ll be reminded of that all week during the Players Championship at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, whose par-3 17th hole has become iconic. For all the work done over decades by the design team of Pete Dye and the late Alice Dye, it’s probably their most famous and the one that most golfers recognize, even if they have never played it. Now that’s powerful branding.
The oddity, though, as with all signature holes (or so I contend) is that the island-green par 3 is also the least characteristic of any on the golf course. On a layout rich in strategic options and alternative paths, the 17th is the hole that really presents no choice but to hit the 4,100-square-foot green or face doom. The one available option when the hole is cut back right (as it always is on Sunday of the Players Championship) is to fly the ball directly to the little corner of putting surface that’s squeezed between the pot bunker and water. But for 99% of golfers, the shot here is to hit the green with a prayer and a swing.
Arguably, no hole in all of golf exercises such a decisive hold on the imagination throughout the round. It’s a looming presence from the first tee. But along the way it’s all too easy to lose sight of what a brilliant set of holes precedes that little par 3. And thus my real concern with signature holes: they break up the aesthetic unity of a golf course and make people think of a round in discrete, isolated units.
Recently I visited Patriot Point Links at Charleston Harbor in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. to walk. The daily-fee layout occupies very promising open ground along Charleston Harbor. When I asked the fellow behind the counter about the course, he steered me to the back nine and made a point of the par-3 17th hole.
“That’s our signature hole," he said. It’s also the only hole on the golf course that made great use of the coastal ground and brings the harbor into the background.
Of course you could do what some designers started doing to avoid the owner-driven cliche of having an identifiable signature hole. "We don’t have one signature hole," went the explanation. "We have 18 of them."
Or maybe just a grouping of three under some catchy banner. We’re seeing plenty of that on TV now. The PGA Tour just left the Champion Course at PGA National, where the much-ballyhooed highlight of the Honda Classic is watching players tiptoe through a watery chicane at Nos. 15-17 that has come to be labeled the "Bear Trap." Chalk this one up to the marketing ingenuity of folks eager to exploit the target golf elements of a redesign by Jack Nicklaus.
Next up after the Players Championship is the Valspar Championship at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort, where the concluding three-hole stretch has lately been designated as the "Snake Pit." In fact, the holes don’t differ much in look or character from those that precede them, though these last three are admittedly harder.
When it comes to a famous stretch of holes, no one can beat Amen Corner at Augusta National, where Masters coverage regularly invokes the term first applied to holes 11-12-13 in the late 1950s by famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind. There’s something to the designation in terms of the relief one feels after playing the first three water holes on the golf course. In fact, the entire course is far more complex than that and gives rise to all sorts of emotions along the way.
If you’re going to name it like that it better be special. I’m rather partial to the "lava loop" at Cerbat Cliffs Golf Course in Kingman, Ariz. Most of the course proceeds on low-lying ground. But when you cross a little road to play Nos. 16-18, the land suddenly becomes dramatically elevated - all humpty dumpty and lumpy – thanks to the congealed lava underfoot. If only the rest of the course were as interesting.
That’s the problem with signature holes. They draw attention away from the strengths (or weakness) of the other holes out there. A golf course ought to be a tonal composition, not just a compilation of discordant notes or of one exciting passage in the entire score.