Drivable Par 4s
Combine the power surge in modern golf with television's love of the dramatic and what do you get? The new darlings of tournament golf
Locked in a compelling Presidents Cup duel last fall with Canada's Mike Weir, Tiger Woods stepped onto Royal Montreal's 14th tee with the honor. Having whittled an early three-hole deficit in their Sunday singles match to one, Woods faced the water-guarded green just 292 yards away from a tee constructed especially for the event with exactly this scenario in mind: creating uncertainty in the minds of the world's best golfers.
"He's tempted!" NBC's Johnny Miller practically shouted into his microphone, gleeful to witness a rare moment of indecision from one of the game's most strategically resolute players.
Woods laid up and won the hole with a hard-fought par, while Weir made a clumsy bogey after laying up. Although the hole already had secured its place in golfing infamy the day before when Woody Austin attempted to drive the green and splashed his way into 200,000 YouTube replays, the actions of Woods and Weir on the hole were indicative of a more noticeable and dramatic trend in competitive golf: the drivable par 4 and the challenges -- both physical and psychological -- it presents to the world's best players.
In an age of 350-yard drives that reduces the number of "do-I-go-for-it?" decisions on par-5 holes, the drivable par 4 has become the place where serious golf fans -- whether from behind the gallery ropes or from their living-room couches -- delight in the spectacle of watching the game's best weigh the pros and cons of a tantalizing shot as they also recall past performances and consider their place on the leader board.
"It's pretty simple in terms of what makes the best short par 4s so great," says Davis Love III. "You have to make a decision instead of just banging it out there. [Those situations] are just exciting to watch." The appeal of drivable par 4s on the PGA Tour can be credited as much to TV executives (who love the drama of scenarios such as the Woods-Weir dilemma) as it is to course architects and tournament setup officials. The increase in interest of this type of hole has been so meteoric that they are now an expected twist in almost every tournament course, both for entertainment and examination purposes.
"In this day and age of guys bombing it so far, the short par 4 offers the ultimate defense of getting the big hitter in trouble if he happens to not drive it well," says NBC announcer Dan Hicks. "And if you can bring more middle-of-the-pack guys into a short par 4, where they have to make the same decision as a guy like Vijay or Tiger, it makes it that much better to watch."
Thanks to a 20-yard driving distance increase on the PGA Tour since the late 1990s, more short par 4s are within reach of the world's best while decision-inducing par 5s are practically obsolete. Diminutive two-shotters -- any par 4 less than, say, 350 yards -- often are the only holes in tournament golf offering a perfect blend of options, including the most tantalizing choice of all: a chance to drive the green and register a round-altering eagle.
Short par 4s have long been part of the golf architect's palette, from the earliest links courses to the noted finishing holes at long-time major championship sites Olympic Club and Inverness. But few competitors -- if any -- try to hit those greens from the tee. Starting in the early 1990s, golf fans and players discovered a renewed appreciation for par 4s that were legitimately drivable -- with Riviera CC's historic 315-yard 10th (see page 26) and the TPC Scottsdale's wily 332-yard 17th the best-known examples.
But the actual birth of the current drivable par-4 movement probably took place at The Belfry, the much-maligned Sutton, England, layout that hosted four Ryder Cups from 1985 to 2002. The 10th hole at The Belfry is a short par 4 with a tiny, banana-shaped putting surface wrapped around some trees set just beyond a small creek. For the first three Ryder Cups played there (1985, '89 and '93), European captains Tony Jacklin and Bernard Gallacher set the tees so the hole measured 287 yards -- short enough that players on both teams could attempt to drive the green, provided they wanted to risk tangling with tree branches and a water hazard.
The strategy worked brilliantly. The Belfry's 10th emerged as a fan favorite on an otherwise forgettable modern design as tormented Ryder Cuppers agonized over the decision to lay up with as little as a 7-iron or go for the green with their drivers or 3-woods. Matters were made even more dynamic by the crowd's influence.