BY MARTIN VOUSDEN
Seventeenth holes on golf courses seem to be designed with just one aim — to ruin your day.
In golf there are rules, by which most of us abide (if we know what they are), and then there are laws, which may be unwritten but are much more powerful. For example, it is a rule of golf that you may spend five minutes searching for a ball that may be lost — but it is a law of golf that if you don’t find it within one minute, you never will.
So it is with golf course design. It is a rule among designers that your closing holes do not move from east to west, to avoid late afternoon finishers always playing towards the setting sun. But it is an unwritten law that a course should have a relatively benign start, and an absolute stinker of a 17th hole — or at least, that’s how it often seems. Final holes can be tough, and there are a few in the world to support that assertion — but the penultimate hole on a course, the dreaded 17th, must be even tougher. We don’t know why this should be so, it’s just the law.
Johnny Miller once said that every golf course should have a hole that puckers your rear end, and perhaps that is true, but it seems to be more than coincidence that this dreaded experience is always immediately after the 16th — if you think about some of the most famous courses in the world, the penultimate hole is the one that players start worrying about long before they arrive on the tee. Sawgrass and its notorious island green, the Road Hole at St Andrews — probably the most famous single hole anywhere — Carnoustie, Valderrama, Kiawah Island, Wentworth West, the list of infamous next-to-last holes goes on.
And if you think about it, it’s good psychology on the part of the course designer or architect. You’ve got a good score going and just need to hold on for a couple more holes, with no worse than a bogey, bogey finish, and the tournament or money or best-ever score are in the bag. And then you stand on the 17th tee and would give anything, including your first-born, to avoid having to hit that tee shot. If somebody were to offer you bogey you’d march straight to the final hole.
But they won’t, and you’ve got to play, and now you discover quite how good you really are. Hitting a straight tee shot to a relatively open fairway earlier in the round is easy. It’s even comparatively straightforward on a tough and dangerous hole on the front nine, because if you make a mistake, you’ve still got time to recover. But now you’re on the Old Course at St Andrews and you have to drive over the old railway sheds that stick out of the side of the hotel. To have any chance of getting on the green you need to favor the right side of the fairway — which you cannot, incidentally, see — but overdo the fade just a tad and you’re OB. Bail out left and you’ve not only missed the fairway but there’s no way you can go for the green without taking on the most feared bunker in world golf. Oh, and hit it over the wide but not deep green and you’re probably up against a wall, with no shot.
Apart from that, it’s a doddle. Ben Crenshaw once said the reason the Road Hole is one of the greatest par fours in the world is because it’s a par six, and for most mortals it should be.
And how about the 17th at Sawgrass, home every year of The Players Championship on the US Tour? Many golfers take one look and think to themselves: “This must have been conceived by a madman,” and they’re almost right — it was built by Pete Dye. And yet the hole actually came about by accident. Dye originally meant it to have water up the right side but during construction he found a rare pocket of sand — which was needed elsewhere for developing fairways — and by the time they had finished excavating the sand, all that was left on 17 was a big hole.
Years later Pete Dye confessed: “We had this big hole in the ground without any green. Alice [Dye’s wife] said, ‘Why not just make an island green?’ and I said. ‘I dunno.’”
So there you have it. The most damaging and possibly most loathed hole on the US Tour came about because the architect was too dumb to think of anything else, or too scared to argue with his wife. That would be bad enough, but the 17th at Sawgrass has subsequently seen so much drama, and swallowed so many golf balls, along with the dreams of the players who hit them only moments before, that it has been copied throughout the world.
A good 17th gets under your skin. It worries you, as it should, both in anticipation and execution. It’s like an examination paper that offers a few manageable, relatively straightforward questions before suddenly asking you to explain, in words of three syllables or less, Einstein’s theory of relativity. Or the girlfriend who, just as you’re unclipping her bra, enquires: “Do you love me?” It’s the unanswerable question, the ultimate challenge, and if you screw it up there’s no time to make amends or undo the damage you have done.
If you think I exaggerate, ask Darren Clarke. At the recent season-ending Volvo Masters Andalucia, the big-money jamboree event at Valderrama for the top-60 in Europe where there is no cut and even last place earns 15,500 Euro, Darren was at the top of his game, which in Darren’s case means there are few players in the world that can match him. After a modest opening 73 he went into the second round with something to prove and played fabulous, exquisite golf on Europe’s toughest layout until, by the time he reached the 17th he was ahead of the field at three-under par. He then put three balls into the water guarding the green, and notched up an 11 on the par five. It meant that he slipped from first to 27th in one hole. He still scored a respectable 72 but his tournament was over — he knew it, and so did we. And all because of one hole.
Or what about the penultimate hole at Carnoustie? This course has a famed tough finish — just ask Jean Van De Velde — but of the devilish trio of closing holes it is 17 that is most satanic. The Barry Burn meanders on its apparently haphazard route in such a way that it creates, in effect, an island on which the tee shot must land. Okay, if the wind is in your favor and you’re a big hitter you might try and carry both parts of the stream and have a relatively straightforward approach, but at Carnoustie, on this hole — as if the gods of golf decreed it — the wind is never in your favor. So you lay up onto the haven of short grass, and whatever you do don’t pull it because that also means your ball will be wet, and then you have a long iron to a well-guarded green, that you can’t see because it sits in a little dell, that is angled away from you. When Paul Lawrie won the Open here in 1999 he was so adamant that this was the key hole that he commissioned artist David Maxwell to paint the hole as the focal point of the artist’s tribute to his win.
You need more? How about Royal Troon, where in July this year Todd Hamilton finally overcame Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff. Well, that’s what the records say but in truth it was all settled at one hole, the 17th. A long par three with an elevated green that is deep but not wide and bunkered on either side. There’s only option, hit a long, straight iron. Piece of cake really — except Hamilton did, Ernie didn’t and the claret jug went west. Again.
You may wish it weren’t so but the laws of golf and the fraternity of golf course architects have decreed that the 17th should be the meanest, toughest, most fearsome hole of the lot, so you’d better just get used to the idea.
Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today’s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book, With Friends Like These; A Selective History of the Ryder Cup, was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the Rare Birdie website.