Originally published on 2/26/2011 at 10:05 pm.

One of the most interesting and engaging experiences during a round of golf is the opportunity and anticipation to play a short par 4.  For the average player, this type of hole represents a solid opportunity to make par, or even set them up for rare birdie.  For the better player, it poses a great chance to make birdie (or better).  If well designed, it should offer the greatest opportunity and a huge risk all in the same package. 

In a time where the USGA has no qualms about pushing par-4 holes to 500 yards, it is refreshing to find short par-4’s that offers many options, subtle, but key decisions and timeless strategies that all golfers can still enjoy.  Nowhere is this connection more apparent than on the many classic layouts from the ‘Golden Age’ of golf course architecture.  Take for example Merion’s miniscule 310-yard 10th.  Some have argued that it can yield a lot of birdies, but only a well-crafted short par-4 should.  The moment you take it for granted, however, look out!  Overestimate your capabilities, and you’re likely to experience a psychological crash that irreversibly alters the rest of your round. 

Ironically, it’s par-4s like this that have required the least amount of ‘Tiger-proofing’ over the years.  That is because their challenge, and fun, lies in the exacting strategic characteristics and numerous choices more so than the typical one-dimensional boring tee shot–grip it and rip it!  At the 10th at Merion, a reasonable strategy is to hit a mid-iron to the fat part of the fairway.  This option secures a safe tee shot, however, and thanks to the genius of the design, the safest play off the tee also leaves the most difficult approach shot to the green, due to an obstructed view, a very shallow green to hold and a treacherous front bunker.  A second option combining distance and accuracy could come from a long iron, or in the case of modern technology, a hybrid club, with which one should easily be able to find the fairway.  This approach gains the advantage of more distance and opens up an unencumbered short pitch or chip shot into the deepest portion of the green.  Care must be taken again, however, because the tee shot could go long or too wide and find one of the bunkers that guard the right side, leaving an awkward long bunker shot.  With an accurate tee shot and good distance control, the player will find the green set on a diagonal from the line-of-play, so this tee shot offers them a variety of wedge play choices to get close for birdie. 

Decisions, decisions…the 10th at Merion offers a slightly elevated tee giving the player a feeling of power and dominance over this ‘little’ hole.  The urge to take a chance at driving the green is hard to overcome.  If the ball comes in too hot, it will find one of the deep hairy bunkers along the back of the green, or worse, bound over or between them and out of bounds.  If you have ever wondered about the difference between a tee shot and a drive, this hole will make you understand it.  The temptation and risk-reward equation of this simple, yet complex little hole should be coming clearer now.  However, if you still need convincing that the 10th at Merion is a world-class design despite its lack of brawn, consider that Jack Nicklaus, in his prime at the U.S Open in 1971 would have won the tournament outright but for two bogies at this little demon! 

Because of their inherent design attributes and short length, the short par-4 stirs considerable debate and emotions regarding how to play them.  The joy begins at the tee where all players are given options that best suit their own abilities and sets up what they believe to be the preferred position for the best approach to the green.  No golfer likes to be forced into how they must play their shot.  Rather, when choices are offered and strategic options available, the player experiences more freedom that captures their attention and emotions.  This engagement in the moment, without being restricted in a particular manner is what creative, fun and strategic golf is all about. 

The key to making a great short par-4 is to have enough elements of risk, carefully placed, or found in a natural state, to punish the overly aggressive and reckless play and make recovery a formidable challenge.  While such a hole must reward a player who accepts all the risk and plays an exceptional shot with a clear advantage over any other line, the miss should be fraught with potential disaster.  What is also important parameter to the success of such a design is that the player must face a much more difficult approach from any other spot but the aggressive line to make the risk taken a worthwhile option.

Another fine example of the ideal short par-4 is the 10th hole at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.  At 312 yards, few holes provide as much temptation, joy and frustration.  Players can reach the green site with as little as a 3-wood; but with even the smallest mistake, most will do well to make par.  Oddly enough the hole appears as though it plays as a dogleg right.  This characteristic alone causes the careless player to think the best line is to cut the corner, however, the most consistent chance at birdie is to play away from the shortest route and out to the left where the depth of the putting surface offers many more realistic chances.  From the tee, the player sees much more fairway to the right and the big cross bunker leads your eye to this side of the hole, but this play leaves an almost impossible second shot to nothing more than a sliver of a green from this angle.  80% of play from this side results in bogey or worse.  Hitting your tee shot to the left doesn’t look like the best option either, because a fairway bunker partially hides the ideal landing area and golfers don’t have the confidence to play directly at a bunker, which is what the shot requires.  The short center bunker and the far bunker appear as though they connect–precisely where you want to lay up with your tee shot. 

The dynamics of the short par-4 are fabulous…conspiring to draw the ego of the player into making a horrific mistake.  As an architect, I want the player to think they have an opportunity to take a breather.  A short hole–no problem.  We know that the most dangerous attitude a golfer can adopt is complacency, or a false sense of security.  By tempting the better player with the possibility of an easy birdie, the architect tightens the screws and adds some pressure to the mix.  The design entices the player to hit shots that pressure can make very difficult.  This scenario is why the short par-4 makes an ideal match-play hole.  You’ve got to expect that your opponent is going to make birdie, or even an outside chance at two.  So you press a little and if you make a bad decision, rush the shot, get sloppy with your timing, or too cute with your hands, you’ve got trouble and the hole can be lost in one shot.

 Scott A. Witter, Golf Course Architect