Klein: Half the par, twice the drama

Gilbert S. Hanse, the founder and President of Hanse Golf Course Design, talks to the media after his company had been selected to design the golf venue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Olympic games.

Gilbert S. Hanse, the founder and President of Hanse Golf Course Design, talks to the media after his company had been selected to design the golf venue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Olympic games.

The most fragile piece of equipment in a golfer’s arsenal is the 5-inch-wide mass of mush between the ears. If a golf hole sets that organ abuzz with thoughts over a shot, players tend to get shaky. That’s the intent behind “half-par” holes – to unsettle the precarious equilibrium of the sporting mind and see how the athlete handles it.

It’s all based on Psychology 101. On the tee of a 515-yard hole labeled a par 5, your average scratch golfer or pro will feel obliged to make 5 and be happy with 4. But change the signage on the same hole to a par 4 and that same player inevitably will grind harder for 4 and feel momentary pangs of failure if he makes 5.

“Anything that inspires aggressive play is a positive,” architect Gil Hanse said about half-par holes. He thought enough of the concept to incorporate it into his winning presentation to the Rio 2016 Olympic golf course committee earlier this year. His proposed routing included a short, drivable par-4 16th hole and tiny flick of a par-3 17th.

“Shorter holes inspire good players to take chances and to make more mistakes,” Hanse said.

It’s a lesson he learned while preparing TPC Boston for a renovation four years ago. He started looking at ShotLink data, material that he initially thought “was a waste of time.” But as he looked at the dispersion of shots and scores on the par 3s, which tended to be holes measuring more than 200 yards in length, he noticed the tendency of golfers to play safely. When he compared that with other data on shorter approaches to par 4s, he saw proof that players took chances and messed up. So instead of seeking more length, he sought more variety, most notably in shrinking the 400-plus-yard fourth into a reachable, tempting 298-yard hole.

Hanse is planning a similar approach in redesigning the par-4 16th hole at Doral Golf Resort & Spa’s TPC Blue Monster, where he’ll shorten the hole and make the green more alluring and more intensively surrounded by punitive hazards.

Short par 4s, in particular, have a long and glorious history in course design. St. Andrews’ Old Course has five par 4s (Nos. 7, 9, 10, 12 and 18) that strong players can think about driving. The concept works especially well in match play, when what counts is not scoring in relation to par but simply playing the hole one shot better than your opponent. And it’s also a product of older, more rumpled and quirky courses built before the modern era of bulldozers and earthmoving, especially on windswept links land.

Play Cruden Bay Golf Club in Scotland and there’s a good chance that, depending upon the wind, any one of three short par 4s will be reachable off the tee; but if you miss the fairway, there’s also a chance you’ll never see your ball in the thick dunes grass.

When Charles Blair Macdonald brought his version of the best and most intriguing holes from Great Britain and Europe to the U.S. in 1911 in the form of National Golf Links of America, he included three short, reachable par 4s, all loaded with hazards, deep swales and maddening green contours: the 330-yard first hole (“Valley”), the 330-yard second (“Sahara”) and the 341-yard 14th (“Cape”). Each hole is longer today than when it debuted a century ago, but with the same essential playing characteristics.

For all of the length and power in the game today, intimate little holes with strategic options, such as the 315-yard, par-4 10th at Riviera Country Club, still draw the attention of PGA Tour players. And the design team of Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf received much respect in the 1980s and 1990s by reviving the art of the short par 4, most conspicuously at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, where the straightaway, water-lapped 332-yard, par-4 17th has worked its magic on double-digit-handicap players as well as the PGA Tour’s elite.

Part of what makes the Masters such a compelling drama each Sunday afternoon is that anything can happen on its two back-nine par 5s. Back when Augusta National opened in 1933, its founder, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, who co-designed the course with Alistair MacKenzie, made clear the concept of those two holes as “par 4½.” The idea was to encourage bold play but to punish severely a slight mis-hit by players who overreached.

USGA executive director Mike Davis has championed the case for half-pars (without directly using that language), starting with the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Back then, in his role as senior director of championships, Davis tinkered with U.S. Open (and other championship) setups to encourage more options.

“When it came to the sixth hole at Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in 2006,” Davis said, “the more tempting we made this short par 4, the bigger swings in scoring we got, eagles to double bogeys.”

Half-par holes aren’t all short. For the 2012 U.S. Open, Olympic Club’s opening hole, 520 yards and normally a par 5, was played as a par 4 and, not surprisingly, was the second-toughest hole for the week, averaging nearly 4.5 shots.

The point wasn’t to make it hard, but rather to make the players uncertain as they faced their approach shot and force them to think carefully about whether to challenge two cross bunkers short of the putting surface if they were playing out of the rough.

The reverse approach was used in setting up the 522-yard 17th hole as a par 5, whereas in past U.S. Opens it had played as a slightly shorter par 4. The idea was to tempt players to risk a bold, long second into a green that demanded a precise approach, one that would be severely punished if even a few feet offline or just a tad too strong.

Tournament golf today, like golf everywhere, appears to be going through a subtle change in design emphasis. The idea used to be to make golf courses difficult by making them severe and unrelenting.

Increasingly, the idea is to promote diversity, options and strategic thinking. That way the game becomes less of a hurdle and more of a puzzle.

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