CHARLOTTE, N.C. - "Is every 17th hole a par-3 or is it just me," said the leather-skinned man, a nice enough fellow and my playing partner on yet another oppressively humid day in the Queen City.
My knee-jerk reaction was to tell him he'd been in the sun too long. After all, anything with a tan like that should be holding up a pair of pants. But after thinking back over my last dozen rounds of golf or so, I began to wonder if my new, weathered friend was on to something.
How many times had I holed out on 16, walked up to the 17th tee and pawed around in my bag for the right iron to use on a par-3?
Plenty, or so it seemed.
A harmless soliloquy, as it turned out, spawned an insatiable desire to uncover the truth about penultimate one-shotters.
"I think the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass ushered in a lot of that," says Kris Spence, a Greensboro, N.C. based course designer who specializes in restoring Donald Ross and Ellis Maples designed courses. "I wouldn't say it is an historical thing at all, though. If you read the writings of Ross, (A.W.) Tillinghast and (Allister) MacKenzie, they don't say you should have a par-3 17th. They went with what the land dictated."
Ask many of today's golf course architects and they will tell you that par-3 17th holes just, er, happen.
"A lot of times you have to change directions to go back to the clubhouse on the 18th," says Gary Panks, a Scottsdale, Ariz. based golf course architect "You get backed into a corner and par-3s you can turn in a number of directions."
Panks designed a par-3 17th into one of his latest projects - and the Trilogy at La Quinta in La Quinta, Calif. The testy one-shotter plays over a shimmering turquoise lake and is one of the best holes on the course. His critically acclaimed layout at the Sedona Golf Resort also features a photogenic, par-3 17th. Panks is quick to point out that he isn't married to the notion, however. His Cattail and Devil's Claw courses at Whirlwind Golf Club south of Phoenix both have par-5 17th holes.
"We have a wish list for the things we want in a routing," Panks says. "Like, we never want three par-4s in a row. We like to space par-3s so we have at least three holes between and oftentimes you find it is time for a par-3 when the 17th hole comes around."
Designing courses on Native American reservations, as if often the case for Panks, or restoring classic layouts routed before the advent of golf course homes - a la Spence - is a different animal than routing fairways through real estate rich regions like central Florida.
"Real estate is the single biggest factor in determining what the 17th hole is," says Ron Garl a Lakeland, Fla. based architect. "The way American course design works, you design one, nine, 10 and 18th first because they play out of or into the clubhouse. So the 17th has to be close to the clubhouse and a lot of times you don't have much to work with."
Garl does believe Spence's TPC Stadium Course theory has some merit. To wit, the par-3 17th hole at his critically acclaimed Wood Sticks outside of Toronto is an exact mirror image of Pete Dye's famous island green hole. Garl says he figured if he was going to build an island green par-3, he might as well mimic the most recognizable of the lot.
"It is one of the best golf holes ever created, so I just flip-flopped it around," Garl says. "I think the 17th at Sawgrass had more influence on the number of island greens you see these days than it did the number of 17th holes that are par-3s," Garl says.
Jay Morrish, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, sides with Garl.
"I think architects are more concerned with having a par-3 in the finishing stretch than they are having it as the 17th," Morrish says. "We all like to think we are designing a course for a competitive event. So we like to have swing holes where scores can range from birdie to bogey. A good, dramatic par-3 can produce a birdie and it can produce a bogey."
Morrish says he's used a par-3 as the 17th hole in many of his designs. Because finishing with a one-shotter is taboo for most architects and 16 typically covers a lot of ground to get golfers back in proximity to the clubhouse, Morrish says the 17th is often perfect for the role.
"There's no design text book that tells you these things," Morrish says. "In fact, I don't know why we don't finish courses with par-3s. No one has ever been able to tell me why, but for some reason you just don't do it. Clyde Johnston (ASGCA's new president elect) would be a good one to ask."
And we did. In a recent interview with TravelGolf.com, Johnston said he preferred to finish a course with a combination of par 4, 3, 5 or 5, 3, 4 - both sequences that provide par-3 17th holes. Johnston also admitted it doesn't always work out that way; the 17th holes at Shaftesbury Glen in Conway, S.C., Angels Trace North and South in Sunset Beach, N.C., and Old Carolina in Hilton Head are all par-4s.
"A group of us (architects) got to talking about what the best way to finish a golf course is the other night," Garl says. "After some really cold beer and some wine we concluded there is no certain way to go about it."
So there you have it. Par-3 17th holes are the product of space limitation, real estate, the potential for tournament play, and from time to time, a healthy dose of spirits.
August 18, 2003
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