It’s interesting that one of the few snippets of architectural jargon that virtually every golfer can toss about with assurance—the "signature hole"—is at best a scenic detour from the actual topic of golf course architecture. But there it is, argued about in the grill room, pronounced reverently from the broadcast booth, rapturously embraced everywhere from the lowliest goat track to the major championship venues. The notion’s so ubiquitous that it seems a golf course can’t be a real golf course without one.
But just what is a signature hole?Like the Supreme Court’s take on pornography, the definition’s not specific, but we know it when we see it. As Tom Fazio says, "They wow you even without playing them." We are drawn to their mountains and oceans, their fountains and waterfalls, their elevated tees, their azaleas in bloom, their lighthouses, their windmills . . .
Get the picture?
These are the holes that excite us, the holes on which we pull out our cameras to record our presence for posterity, the holes we’ve decided are the best. And some are. Yet there’s an odd disconnect at the core of any conversation about them, for as impressive as these holes may be in terms of their aesthetic qualities, sometimes the beauty’s only skin deep. Sometimes, as a strategic test of golf, there’s no there there.
Just ask the architects. When they end up with a hole so anointed, it’s rarely because they set out to create one.
"As a design concept," says Tom Doak, dismissively, "it’s irrelevant."
It’s also limiting. "What’s the signature hole at Pine Valley?" asks Steve Smyers. He’ll gladly prosecute the case for each.
Or, wonders Fazio, at Pinehurst No. 2?"You can’t find one. Its greatness rests in its entirety," he says, and in the specific challenges of each hole, not the drama of the course’s setting.
Nor can you find just one at Shinnecock Hills, Augusta National or Pacific Dunes, says Mike Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes. "It’s like saying, ’I have four children and this one’s my signature child,’ " he says. "The idea is sort of sad."
Gil Hanse picks up the thread: "The implication is that the rest aren’t meeting it." And every architect worth his backhoe wants each of the eighteen to be a keeper.
Still, acknowledges Rees Jones, "People are always asking, ’What’s the signature hole?’ Not the most meaningful; the signature. It’s entrenched. It’s part of the golfing lingo."
And its source resides in his own lineage. "My father had nice handwriting," he says. "He really liked his signature." So much so that he turned it first into a tool and then into a concept.