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Architecture: Perfect Par Fives

Many people assume my golf courses are all long monsters because I was generally regarded as a long hitter, a power player. But actually I believe the emphasis on length is the worst fault in golf-course design today. Both as a competitor and as a designer, I see golf as a thinking person's game. There's little challenge in just whacking a golf ball. The best courses, like the best players, are those that emphasize both power and intelligence. Power will always be important, of course, but what architects can do is create enough variety so that over the course of eighteen holes the player who can position the ball can compete with one who powers it. That way, intelligence and strength determine success.

Nowhere is this combination more apparent—or more fun—than on the par fives. To create the kind of variety that makes the game most enjoyable, I make every effort on the courses I design to include at least one par five that is "unreachable" in two, another par five that is reachable by most strong players most of the time and one or two others that are sort of in-between—reachable by perhaps 30 percent of players, depending on conditions. These three variations give the golf course a nice blend.

When I say "unreachable" for my longest par fives, I mean largely unreachable. Because if it's 100 percent unreachable 100 percent of the time, the hole gets a little boring. A. W. Tillinghast's seventeenth hole on Baltusrol's Lower course, one of the greatest holes in all of golf, is the model for most of my long par fives. To me, a truly great golf hole is one that poses challenging options for the three different types of players—the power player, the thinker and the guy who's got both—and forces each of them to make hard decisions. That's what the seventeenth at Baltusrol does.

With most par fives, if you hit a bad tee shot, the thinking is to chop a six-iron out of the rough, and you still have a chance to get home in three. The seventeenth at Baltusrol (630 yards during the 1993 U.S. Open) rules out that sort of thinking. It features what I call a "multiple-effect penalty." The cross-bunkers are out there about 325 yards off the tee (see photo, above). If you happen to drive the ball into the heavy rough, or drive it into one of the short bunkers off the tee, you won't be able to carry the cross-bunkers on your second shot. You have to lay up. And when you're short of the bunkers in two, there's no way you're going to reach the green in three. So you're forced to lay up again, short of the hazards in front of the green, and then play your chip up.

The complaint I hear about a lot of long par fives is that they require two boring shots. The beauty of the seventeenth at Baltusrol is that both of the first two shots are quite intense. You miss either and you're pretty much assured of bogey or worse. Although it's more penal than most long par fives, it's a great model because if you make a mistake, the next problem is compounded. I use that strategy a lot.

Another good example of an "unreachable" par five is the 571-yard fifteenth hole at Harbour Town. Pete Dye and I collaborated in designing Harbour Town in 1969, and the fifteenth was basically my idea (and one of my first holes as a designer). Though it's been changed some since the original design, the concept of tucking the green around the corner of the water has remained. I felt that if you're going to bail out on your approach shot, you still ought to be faced with a difficult chip. If you lay back on your second shot, you can play up the length of the green; if you hit the green, fine. And if you miss the green to the right and find the bunker, you aren't too badly off. But if you miss the bunker to the right, even though you may still be in the fairway, you have to pitch over the bunker with the green running away from you.

In general on the "unreachable" par fives, I try to be at least a little forgiving, but on the "tweeners" I'm more demanding. The 535-yard sixth hole at Shoal Creek in Alabama is a good example. On the drive you must clear a creek bed that crosses in front of the fairway, biting off as much of it on the right as you want. Then you are faced with an important choice for your second shot. You can either lay up left and play a chip-shot third over the creek again to a bunkered green, or you can aim right and go for the green in two, playing over the creek and through a narrow opening between bunkers at the green. It's a classically simple risk-reward decision. The 527-yard fifth at Muirfield Village, which has a creek that crosses the fairway short of the green, is another good example of a tweener, although here in recent years we've softened some of the challenges to make it more playable for members.

The shorter fives—the ones most players can reach all the time with two good shots—have to be the most demanding and penal of all. A perfect example of the reachable par five is the thirteenth hole at Augusta National. This is one of my favorite par fives in the world. For most of my career it was 465 yards (with the recent revision it now measures more like 495 yards), a short and not very difficult three-shot hole. But if you're going for the green in two, both shots have to be extremely precise, as the problems that await you almost every foot of the way—Rae's Creek on the left, the trees, the slope of the fairway, the creek again in front of the green and the green itself—make it extremely exacting. I don't think the addition of thirty yards affects the strategy very much, but in its original form it was a beauty.

One of my best-known short par fives is the eighteenth on the Cochise course at Desert Mountain in Arizona. At 511 yards, it's not very long. Good players are going to birdie it most of the time, but you've got to be very careful with your second shot: If you hit it short, you end up in the wash. Hit it long and you end up in a bunker, playing back to a green that slopes down to the wash. Every year when the Senior Tour's Tradition tournament was played there, at least one guy ended up playing Ping-Pong between the wash and the bunker. Par fives are always going to be the power man's game, and I don't think architects should try to take that away from him. You can make him play a dangerous shot, but as long as he can deliver, I say don't take that option out of the equation. Guys that have both power and a thinking approach to the game should have advantages—but par fives should never be too easy, even for them.

Adopted from Nicklaus by Design, by Jack Nicklaus with Chris Millard (2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)

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