So much impressed me during my first visit to Australia and in particular, the Sandbelt courses. And while there is much to be admired about the region’s finest golf architectural works, nothing left a greater impression than the sheer number of remarkable par-3s. They came in all shapes, sizes and distances… but most striking of all was how many play uphill.
Because of the many dreadful trends in design foisted upon us by the move to hostile terrains with a desire to create photo-worthy signature holes offering sweeping property views, Australia’s wealth of uphill one-shotters made me realise how rarely we see such holes in the rest of the world even though such holes play so beautifully.
How did we get to the point where the par-3 playing down, instead of up, became a priority in the minds of committees, developers, golfers and even some architects? After all, there is little difference between Golden Age and modern architects in routing philosophy: the par-3 helps you get from one awkward spot to another. Yet in modern times we so often see the hole prior to the one-shotter playing up a hill to get us to a tee all so the par-3 can play downhill. And all too often, this creates two holes of little lasting interest.
Admittedly, as a young golfer I was entranced by the one-shot hole that played from high above and down to a target. Something about watching the ball fall from the sky proved captivating, as was the thrill of launching such a shot from a perch above the putting surface. But then I played the 13th at Muirfield in Scotland and something about the angle of the green, along with the way it was nestled into a dune, just felt like such a beautiful shot to play. Despite playing uphill.
It was not until visiting Australia, however, that I realised just how few great uphill par-3s there are in the United States. The standout can be found at Shinnecock Hills’ 11th, which because of the ‘skyline’ nature of its green featuring an exposed flagstick set against the sky, is accepted because of its difficulty, beauty and location on one of the premier courses in the world. However, put it on lesser courses and golfers would call it ‘blind’ or ‘unfair’.
No doubt the same has been said about many of the world’s finest one-shotters found Down Under. And of that group, consider just some of the most beautiful Australian one-shotters that play to greens either slightly above the tee, or more dramatically uphill: the 11th at Yarra Yarra, 15th at Kingston Heath, all of the splendid par-3s at Victoria, the 6th at New South Wales, the 5th and 7th holes at Royal Melbourne West, the 4th at Royal Melbourne East, the 17th at Lost Farm, the 13th at Barnbougle Dunes, Commonwealth’s 9th, the 7th at The Lakes, the 2nd on Peninsula’s North Course and many others that I’m surely overlooking. Each of these green complexes would stand on their merits on flat ground, yet the feeling of playing a shot slightly up to their beautiful greens is magnified because the holes sit at eye level. This meeting of eyes with target accentuates the features in our minds because we envision our ball hitting the ground with more velocity than we do when our ball is falling from the sky. The difference is slight, but it’s enough to add to our anxieties.
Each of these green complexes would stand on their merits on flat ground, yet the feeling of playing a shot slightly up to their beautiful greens is magnified because the holes sit at eye level.
Which brings us to the real reason these holes are discouraged in design and never as appreciated by everyday golfers: they require more precision. While the target is easier to see and in the cases of many of the great uphill one-shotters, the green surrounds supported by surrounding dunes, ultimately they require a better shot than many of us can handle.
There is also the unfortunate influence of the immediate gratification world: many times on a par-3 playing to a green above the teeing ground, we can’t see where the ball has finished until we reach the green. Some of us enjoy this thrill of discovery, but most golfers need to know the outcome immediately. Thus, the uphill par-3 becomes the ‘blind’ par-3, and from such negative branding, dreadful trends are formed.
Thankfully, if I know if I want to play the best one-shotters that fit the land and captivate my senses, there is always Australia.
Geoff Shackelford is a contributing writer to Golf World (US) and Golf Digest(US). He most recently collaborated on the restoration of The Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course with Gil Hanse. –