They are nearly obsolete for today’s longest hitters, who only like them when they play like par-4 holes. Average golfers often dislike fairway wood shots. Owners want to reduce construction cost, and the simplest way to reduce acres and budgets is to swap a few par-5 holes for shorter ones, accepting par of 70 or even 69. Land use planners, water managers and environmentalists rail against the par 5, bemoaning the required extra irrigated golf acreage. And the USGA prefers reducing par on short par-5 holes at the U.S. Open.
The par 4 is the best expression of strategic golf, creating a relationship to success in the minimum two shots, with a successful tee shot raising the odds of the success on the approach shot, if placed in the fairway, and even on the “better” side of the fairway. The accurate approach shot raises chances for birdie or par.
The origin of the three-shot hole is mysterious. If early golf courses were built on featureless ground, or with better earthmoving, golf might have all par-4 holes. I suspect the three-shot (and one-shot) holes came about because:
- Somewhere they fit the land better
- Someone made a conscious decision to create variety, which might also be true of doglegs and par-3 holes
- A semi-conscious decision was made by a tipsy Scottish designer
- An early architect couldn’t get the routing back to the clubhouse (also the root cause of the par 6 and 19th betting hole)
For whatever reason, par-5 holes were built and became accepted as part of the mix, even if par-4 holes rightfully remained the predominant hole type. Also suggesting par-5 holes are less ideal than par 4s, when Cornish and Graves wrote “Classic Golf Holes” only three of 20 were par 5s. Chris Millard’s 100 toughest holes had only 16 par-5 holes, with another dozen being long par-4 holes that were formally par 5s.
Architects will tell you that designing strong par-5 holes is one of their harder – and unappreciated tasks. Conceptually, the middle shot on a par 5 is the most boring shot in golf, other than the second (or third) extra shots we typically ask women and seniors to hit take those honors, but I digress. I try to make the best of the situation, emphasizing their original function of variety, starting with length.
I recall a 1960s article on golf architecture quoting Gary Player as recommending a mix of par-5 lengths, with one reachable by all, two “tweeners” and a true, three-shot hole. On par-5 holes, I space tees 50 yards or more to allow average players a chance to play them as designed.
Length variety was reinforced when working with shorter (by PGA Tour standard) hitters like Notah Begay III and Larry Nelson. Their tee shots of 290 and second shots of 260 (not far off PGA Tour distance averages, even today) meant that only par-5 holes under 550 to 560 yards were “reachable.” They wanted those holes designed with at least a narrow roll an option, where their accuracy could compete with longer hitters.
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