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The murder of the par 5

October 13, 2020

Bubba Watson turned Augusta National's par-5 13th hole into just a driver and a wedge.

Augusta National

There’s something about the symphony of a par 5 that makes it greater than the sum of its shots. It requires more forward thinking, more self-restraint and sufferance, risk and reward at once. It can be cataclysmic like Sam Snead’s triple-bogey 8 when all he needed was a par on the last hole in the 1939 U.S. Open, or heroic like a 5 on the 18th at Pebble Beach any day of the week.

I was standing on the green of Pine Valley’s behemoth uphill 15th hole, measuring over 600 yards, about 15 years ago, when the second shot of the club’s pro, David Clark, bounded onto the putting surface, stopped and glacially rolled back off the fringe. David is a good player, but not Bryson DeChambeau. I remember thinking, Have I just witnessed the death of par 5s?

When Tiger Woods won his first Masters, in 1997, he hit the 485-yard 13th in two with a 6-iron on Sunday. Since the dawn of television, that hole had been known as the consummate par 5. It’s very hard to think of it today as more than a tricky par 4. Last year, Woods reached the green with an 8-iron—the hole 25 yards longer and Tiger 22 years older. No matter where the Masters builds the proposed new tee, it’ll forever be a two-shot hole.

Justin Thomas, who looks like he fell off a charm bracelet, reached the 667-yard 18th hole at Erin Hills in the 2017 U.S. Open with a 299-yard 3-wood and made the eagle putt for a 63. In the 2020 U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes, the champion, Tyler Strafaci, hit a 4-iron to 14 feet on the 566-yard 36th hole in the final. Are par 5s now over, finito, deceased?

There used to be a list of what Tom Doak called in 1982 “the untouchables”—par 5s that had never been reached in two. In researching Golf Digest’s ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses today, we’ve found only one untouchable left—the 675-yard 16th at Olympic’s Lake Course.

On all of the PGA Tour last year, ShotLink data shows one par 5 wasn’t reached in two (the 623-yard fourth at Sea Island Resort’s Plantation course)—that’s 0.6 percent of all the par 5s played—and on two-thirds of the par 5s, at least half the field “went for the green.” The longest hole in tournament golf today is TPC Colorado’s 773-yard 13th hole on the Korn Ferry Tour, which even at Denver-area elevation has not been reached. Yet.

In the late 1970s, I remember playing the longest golf course in the United States, The International in Bolton, Mass., which measured over 8,000 yards. I was on Sam Snead’s team in a scramble. He liked to hit last from the fairway, so he could place his ball at the end of his partners’ divot hole and slam a driver off the deck. Pure distance leads to contrivances, not good golf.

So where are we headed? “Three-shot holes are all about patience and a reward for keeping the ball in the fairway twice to make the third shot doable,” Doak says. Patience is not a 21st-century virtue; neither is restraint, or sufferance.

“You’re not going to print it, but the elite players really need to be playing a different ball, and then the architecture would all snap right into place,” Doak says. “You just make a Competition Ball mandatory for the Open and the Amateur, and you let the elite amateur players be the ones who insist on using it back down the food chain, from state and county events to the club championship, over the course of five to 10 years.”

That’s not likely today, no matter what the USGA rules next year when its new distance study is released. Distance is controlled by the PGA Tour, not the amateurs, and there’s no incentive for the commissioner to roll back equipment.

A practical solution is to roll back par at the highest levels of competition. A par 72 with four par 5s today becomes a par 68. “Par is irrelevant in the pro game, except for informing viewers the relative position of competitors mid-round,” says Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten. “Back in the early 1950s, newspapers recorded strokes, not over or under par, and early editions would have Demaret leading at 49 strokes through 13 holes, with Snead at 52 through the same number of holes. Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills [a par 72 that was co-designed by Whitten] with a score of 272, the same score that Nicklaus won an Open at Baltusrol [par 70] in 1980. But it sounds so much worse when you say that Koepka won the U.S. Open with a score of 16 under par.”

My advice would be to change the par, not lengthen the holes and incur all sorts of land, design and maintenance expense. I certainly don’t want to see a universal distance rollback that would shorten my already short drives—every hole over 400 yards seems to be a par 5 for my non-elite game. To paraphrase the British writer A.C.M. Croome a century ago: “Four of those and one of them count 5,” which seems to be the way I make par 5s these days. It’s the score, not the par, that counts.