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What’s in a (Hole) Name?

Michael Witte Golfer’s Journal

Photo: Michael Witte

An American golfer is chatting with the barman in Royal Dornoch’s modest clubhouse after having played his first round at the legendary Scottish Highlands course. “Well,” says the Yank, wiping a bit of foam off his upper lip, “we were on this innocent-looking par four on the back nine. Can’t remember what hole it was. Thirteen?Fourteen?You know, the one after the par three by the beach.”

“Aye,” nods the barman. “That would be Foxy.”

“Right,” says the Yank, barely noticing. “So, I hit this awesome drive….”

The practice of naming individual golf holes began in Great Britain, and as with many aspects of the game, they have it down better over there. Exceptional holes have personality; the right name should capture that personality and instantly bring an image of it to mind. The number of any given hole is not that important. Indeed, aside from the first and eighteenth holes, I defy anyone who has played a course only once or twice and perhaps not for many years to remember whether a hole was the fourth or fifth, the eleventh or twelfth. But give that hole a name, an unforgettable name, and an indelible image is conjured immediately.

Of all the holes that are seared into my memory, many have been given a boost by their marvelous names. Like the aforementioned Foxy, the perfect adjective for the perfect hole. Or Calamity, a sublime sobriquet that conveys the sense of foreboding one feels on the tee of this magnificent 210-yard par three perched perilously atop a precipice somewhere on Royal Portrush’s back nine. What number is it?Doesn’t matter. My favorite name of all may be Killiecrankie, which belongs to a 570-yard brute of a par five on the breathtaking Highlands Links in Nova Scotia. Again, I don’t remember what number it is, but I can picture the nerve-rackingly narrow prospect from the tee, the demanding second shot and the severely sloping back-to-front green as if I played it only yesterday. How could Killiecrankie, a hole named after a long, narrow and historically significant pass in the Scottish Highlands, be anything but a killer?

Hole names can invoke a distinctive topographical feature, such as Ridge, Dike and Shore, or a nearby landmark, such as Church, Castle and Tower. They can evoke distant lands—Himalayas, Alps, Sahara—or local heroes—Bobby Jones, Tom Morris. Some, like Cape, Redan and Punchbowl, bespeak an architectural feature; others, like Long, Blind and First, are simply descriptive. And a handful are slyly instructive—like Canny Slap (Highlands Links again), architect Stanley Thompson’s subtle way of telling you what shot will be most effective on this 164-yard par three.

Sometimes the name doesn’t tell you anything about the hole, but you just know there has to be a good yarn behind it. Take, for instance, South America, the tenth at Carnoustie. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the story goes, a young fellow decided to travel to the New World. After hoisting a few in preparation for his long trip, he set off on his trek but made it no farther than the tenth hole. Thus, a grand name was born.

Such names need not be carved in stone. Waterville Golf Links, on the west coast of Ireland, has a number of splendid hole names—Tipperary, Prodigal, Tranquility—but its most memorable moniker has to be the one assigned to the 386-yard sixteenth, once known as Round the Bend. It was there, in 1979, that club pro Liam Higgins took the bravest of lines off the tee of this dogleg par four. The Irishman struck a massive drive that cleared a wilderness of hills and scrub, landed on the green and rolled into the cup. Bingo! The hole was promptly rechristened Liam’s Ace.

For a touch of old-world cachet, some courses give a nod to ancient tongues. Royal Dornoch has A’chlach, Fuaran and Craiglaith, Gaelic words that mean nothing to me, but I automatically associate them with specific holes. Not only that, they’re fun to say. Still, a little bit of the local lingo goes a long way. If all the holes at Pennard or Tenby had Welsh names, you’d have scorecards full of consonant-clogged tongue twisters.

On a recent trip to Scotland, I played Machrihanish, thought by many to have golf’s most thrilling opening shot (across a broad expanse of beach). It is a fine example of a risk-reward hole, but it’s not the one we discussed the most over postround pints. That honor went to the 231-yard sixteenth, usually played dead into the prevailing wind. As we regaled each other with a litany of mishaps on this formidable par three, no one actually referred to the hole by number. We all called it Rorke’s Drift. We didn’t know who Rorke was or what “Drift” referred to; we just liked the way it sounded. Catch my drift?

American courses just don’t get the name game, and most don’t even bother to try. Only three of the country’s top ten courses have hole names. One is Augusta National. Most Masters viewers can recall that each hole there is named after a different plant or tree, but not one in a hundred could tell you which is Camellia and which is Firethorn. Tellingly, a survey in 2007 of pros who play in the Masters year after year produced blank responses across the board.

A second top-ten course with named holes is Winged Foot West. All are named in full view on the scorecards, as are those of the East Course. As a member, I’ve played both eighteens countless times, but as I sit here now, I can call to mind only two hole names: Pulpit, the apt appellation of the West’s signature par-three tenth, and Old Soak (number four on the East), which has the only significant water hazard on either course.

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