I stumbled into golf as an adolescent. My best friend had an old set of clubs in his basement and we eventually decided to do something with them. They were ancient MacGregors with rusty heads and shiny grips and a plaid vinyl bag whose size belied its weight.
My friend’s uncle was a golfer who got us started, and we ended up in and adult education class at Lindbergh High School that featured plastic balls and movies of the Buick Open. Since neither of us were old enough to drive playing opportunities were scarce and limited. The uncle played at Southmoor out Highway 21 but Forest Park was within reach with the Hampton Ave. bus.
The original eighteen at the Park was a unique layout that started with only one par 4 in the first six holes. But the character of the course was embodied in the 9th and 17th holes. Nine was a monstrous par 5, dubbed the “ecumenical hole” by the Post Dispatch’s Ed Wilks because balls sliced across Skinker could ended up on the lawn of one of the churches of various denominations.
The 17th was the ‘lagoon’ hole, a par 3 that straddled the Grand Basin. It might have been called the Bar Mitvah hole because you reached golf manhood when you teed up without first reaching in the bag for a ball that you were willing to dunk in the water. It was a simple hole – tee-water-green.
I bring this up because this past week has been the Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass and the infamous 17th hole with its island green. Whatever Pete Dye managed to create at Sawgrass on the seventeen other holes is overshadowed by the legend that has grown up around his penultimate hole.
Dye has become beyond criticism in his emeritus years, but for this golfer his signature hole at the Players is one of the worst designs anywhere in the game. Seventeen may be entertaining to the galleries who gather there daily to await NASCAR wrecks. TV directors may feel compelled to cut to players not even a factor in the championship as they play the 17th. Announcers may foreshadow the disaster that awaits the leaders as they navigate the par 5 sixteenth.
The drama escapes me because the hole is a contradiction to what I consider the necessary ingredients to good golf design. Well-designed holes offer challenges and choices. They demand not only physical skill but also good course management. The island green may be challenging, particularly if the wind is up, but there are no choices. It is all or nothing – exciting in Vegas but simplistic in golf. In the water or on the green with nothing else to consider.
At Forest Park you could choose to use more club to try to take the water out of the equation. If you missed left or right, you still had a chance to save par with a good chip or putt. At Sawgrass if you make a mistake your only choice is re-tee or visit the ball drop. There is no saving par.
This country’s great one shot holes all test you mentally and physically. Consider the 12th at Augusta. Google the tiny 7th at Pebble Beach. In a couple of weeks examine the 12th at Muirfield Village. Each is scary in its own way and yet offers options to deal with a mistake. Even the most intimidating par 3 perhaps anywhere in golf, the 16th at Cypress Point, affords a conservative play to the fairway left of the green and a pitch to save par. In competition these holes are rated on same basis as all golf holes, in relationship to par, not by the body count of players who deposited their golf balls in the water.