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One-shot wonders

Which course has the greatest set of par 3s in the world?

June 28, 2022

Par 3s are to golf courses what aces are to games of chance, periodic game stoppers that, if situated properly, inspire apprehension, hope and mild heart palpitations. They can represent the most profound moments of a round—think of the 15th and 16th at Cypress Point, or the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass—or be ordinary low cards that have little impact. Most decent designs have at least one prime par 3, maybe two if they are lucky, but their power compounds when multiplied by three or four.

An extraordinary set of par 3s can change the dynamics of a course. They become the anchor stars in the golf constellation. But what defines a great set versus a merely good set is a more elusive debate. Conventional wisdom states that each par 3 should play to a different length and require a different club from the tee. Many architects have insisted they be arranged toward exclusive compass points to ensure equal wind confrontation. Others believe they should be shaped to balance an array of shot patterns and trajectories.

These are mathematical considerations that hundreds of courses can check off and don’t guarantee any modicum of greatness. The world’s best par 3s have ineffable qualities that cannot be itemized in a survey. You simply know—or feel—them when you see them. They simply make you itch to hit the shot.

No minimum standard exists for how many holes are needed to constitute a great collection of par 3s—the majority of courses have three to six; the Old Course at St. Andrews has just two. It so happens that six of the seven courses that make our list of the best par 3s in the world have four. Using our new World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses list as source material, the following are outposts that possess some of the most alluring and complete sets of par 3s on the planet (outside the United States).

BARNBOUGLE DUNES—THE DUNES

TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 16

Certain courses are so naturally or architecturally remarkable that it would seem impossible to isolate just the par 3s as standouts. Pine Valley, National Golf Links, Sand Hills, Royal County Down and Royal Melbourne all register as having few if any weaknesses, and the case could be made their par 4s or par 5s also count among the world’s best. Barnbougle Dunes, nestled in the windy, tumbling sand hills on the northeast coast of Tasmania, belongs in this club. But let’s begin with the 3s.

Barnbougle’s quartet of short holes scores points on many levels, but the holes are noteworthy for their distinctiveness—the variation among the par 3s is head-spinning. The primary credit belongs to the heaving, mutating dunes that provide natural crowns, bowls and bumps for the holes, but designers Tom Doak and Mike Clayton and their associates also had the wisdom to orient the layouts in directions that maximize the effect of the exaggerated landforms and winds. Using the ground to steer balls onto greens is exciting and essential, particularly at the 220-yard fifth and 205-yard 13th, the latter with one of the wildest multilevel greens in the Southern Hemisphere. On the other hand, no amount of advice or good behavior will help golfers in hitting and holding the putting surface at the minuscule, tabletop seventh.

CAPE WICKHAM

KING ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

Jacob Sjöman

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 12

Oceanfront golf typically comes in two forms. The first is in the dunes where the game was born, with holes scampering over but mostly down and between low ridges of sand, whins, flowers and fescue: Think of the Old Course (ranked ninth in the world), Rye (54), Tara Iti (2) and Lahinch (41). The second is blufftop, set higher above the surf with clear views and golf played across more exposed terrain: This is Pebble Beach, Cape Kidnappers (21), Old Head (85) and Quivira (87).

Cape Wickham, set on an island between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, belongs to the second category. American Mike DeVries and Australian Darius Oliver routed its holes across the cresting uplands of the island’s northwestern point, with nine holes touching the rocky outer rim. This includes three of the four par 3s, beginning with the long third falling into the Indian Ocean on the right. After the seventh, which turns inland and plays into a benched slope, the dainty 11th returns to the coastal crags with the sea now on the left, and the stunning 17th jumps from one benchland to another toward a deep, left-to-right green with any shot hit short and right bouncing down into Victoria Cove.

CASA DE CAMPO, TEETH OF THE DOG

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Photograph courtesy of Casa De Campo

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 20

Pete Dye always had a way with par 3s. The short holes at his 1960s Crooked Stick and The Golf Club designs were unlike anything else being built at the time, and at Harbour Town in 1969 he fashioned one of the country’s most groundbreaking set of par 3s with nothing more to work with than lagoons, railroad ties and live oaks. His models were the Seth Raynor and William Langford courses he played in his amateur days throughout the Midwest seasoned with some auld quirk imported from Scotland, and he riffed on these inspirations for more than 50 years.

Cynics might be tempted to dismiss the par 3s at Teeth of the Dog as Pete Dye clichés propped up by the Caribbean Sea, but that would only prove they had never played the holes. The sea laps at three of the four greens, with the ocean to the left of two and right on the others (the nearest drop, as they say, is Caracas), but they each feature different putting surface shapes and sizes, and distances range up to 227 yards with sand being as prominent a hazard as the water. The short lily pad-to-lily pad fifth remains one of a kind, and doppelgangers of others went on to make later cameos throughout the Dye oeuvre—the 16th is a blueprint for the 12th at Whistling Straits, and the 13th reappears as the eighth at The Ocean Course at Kiawah, for instance. They might seem familiar now, but Dye thought of them here first.

HIRONO GOLF CLUB

HYOGO, JAPAN

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 6

Par 3s are not inherently strategic holes; they’re tactical. You decide how to play the shot rather than how to play the hole. There are some exceptions, like when landforms allow you to bank the ball toward a hole location or if green sizes and orientations provide the option of playing away from the flag. But almost by definition, to various degrees, one-shot holes are penal—you either execute the required shot or face a long putt or challenging recovery, if not a worse fate.

Hirono’s par 3s are decidedly penal, Japan’s analogue to Pine Valley. In fact, Hirono’s might be tougher, but they are also just as rapturous aesthetically, with putting surfaces that seem to levitate against artful formations of sand, turf and pines, the contrasts rendered more exquisite after a 2019 restoration of the original 1932 Charles Alison design by British architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert. The 176-yard fifth is one of the most recognizable in Asia with its green set on the far side of an inlet behind a sheer fortress of raggedy bunkers. The original tees at the 13th hole, removed decades ago, have been reinstated so that the hole plays on the diagonal across a section of water cutting in from the left. The seventh requires an all-carry 217-yard shot over a ravine with bunkers that step up to a plateau green. Though nothing blocks the front of the 17th, it’s the longest of the quartet at more than 225 yards with the putting surface blind and elevated.

JASPER PARK LODGE GOLF CLUB

ALBERTA, CANADA

9th Hole

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 75

Jasper Park’s five par 3s would rank among the best in the world on their names alone, but they are also dazzling and beautiful golf holes that range from the very short to the very long. Canadian Stanley Thompson, the country’s greatest architect, set them against backdrops of several ranges of the Canadian Rockies in 1925, and it’s difficult to determine what’s more impressive, their elegance or the various shots required to play them.

The mountain elevation makes everything at Jasper Park play a club shorter. In fact, the first nine has two par 3s that stretch more than 230 yards, and the landing spots for these holes must be mapped out. The fourth, “Cavell,” storms south along a valley floor with a tee ball that must carry a cross bunker 40 yards short of the green. The steeply downhill ninth, with a kickslope that bounces short shots toward the putting surface, is called “Cleopatra,” a name that riffs on Pyramid Mountain seen in the distance and the necklace of golden bunkers that circle the green. “Colin’s Clout” and “Tête Jaune” are lovely, stout mid-iron holes, and the best of the bunch is the shortest, “The Bad Baby” 15th, playing just 138 yards to a small pushpin green that repels balls in all directions.

NORTH BERWICK GOLF CLUB

SCOTLAND

Mark Alexander

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 23

North Berwick is home to the world’s most famous par 3, at least by name: the Redan. The hole, No. 15, was christened for its resemblance to the military fortifications British soldiers encountered during the Crimean War, with the high and blind front end of the green built up over guarding bunkers. It was unique to North Berwick until American architect C.B. Macdonald clipped the idea for his fourth hole at National Golf Links of America in 1909, and his facsimile of the angled green that falls away from the tee was so inspired that he and his protégé Seth Raynor included a version of it on basically every course they built.

Ironically, the Redan might be the least enjoyable of the four par 3s at North Berwick. Though fascinating, getting the ball to rest on the green can be nearly impossible in certain winds, and even that result isn’t discovered until the player crests the ridge of bunkers short of the green. North Berwick’s other one-shotters possess more flirtatious intrigue. The fourth plays like a gateway between the town section of the course and the quieter country section farther out, with a deep and narrow green flanked by penal pot bunkers. Six is called “Quarry” and plays over an old pit with its green above a steep fronting bunker, and the gorgeous 10th, “Eastward Ho!,” plays slightly downhill along the Firth of Forth to an angled putting surface defended by bunkers that circle its nape like pearls.

WATERVILLE GOLF LINKS

IRELAND

Gary Lisbon

WORLD’S 100 GREATEST RANK: 60

Waterville’s par 3s would not qualify for contention as one of the great sets in golf if gauged off the scorecard. The four short holes vary a mere six yards in distance, from 194 to 200, violating one of the commandments that each par 3 should play to a different length. But let us not obsess over rules: Waterville’s par 3s achieve an even higher calling, that of diversity, achieving an uncommon variation of looks and shot demands despite their similar lengths.

Eddie Hackett, Ireland’s jolly elf of golf design, created the links in 1973, with American Tom Fazio adding revisions in the 2000s. Looping across a peninsula in Ballinskelligs Bay, the par 3s run up over and between shaggy dunes, and three of the greens are at the mercy of the wind. The 12th is called the Mass Hole because, as legend has it, Catholic Masses were once conducted in the deep, hidden hollow between the green and tee, protected and out of sight from unsympathetic or un-God-fearing eyes. Fittingly the shot is a prayer, all carry. The 17th begins atop Waterville’s most elevated point with soaring 360-degree views of Kerry that tumble over a fescue no man’s land toward a green propped on the Atlantic Ocean headlands and accessible to shots turned over right to left. The least heralded but most interesting par 3 is the fourth, resembling a bowling alley tucked between bumpers of high dunes, appropriate because bumping the ball along the firm turf is often the best way to approach the green nestled in a saddle between grassy hillocks.