What makes a great hole?
The 100 Best Holes. The 100 Best Links. The 100 Best Hidden Gems. I love such lists; in a long lifetime of seeking out new courses, they bring back precious memories and also point to new opportunities for further exploration.
But what makes a great hole? First and foremost, I would have to put “setting”.
Whatever you might think of Donald Trump as president, you have to credit the act of genius that inspired him to create a path from the new 5th green at Turnberry to a new 6th tee at the very top of the great dune which stretches from the 4th to the 8th.
From this vantage point, east lies the ocean and the dramatic volcanic stump of Ailsa Craig and the magical isle of Arran, to the north run the stunning 7th and 8th holes and the iconic lighthouse, and to the east, the equally iconic façade of the hotel.
It is a setting which, if the Open returns to Turnberry in 2022, (as it should), will be beamed across the world. The new par 3 hole is also pretty spectacular, with a postage stamp green far below, but this is not Turnberry’s greatest hole.
That accolade must go to the par-5 10th. From an elevated tee, this magnificent hole, re-designed by Martin Ebert and sweeping round the bay with its new green perched above the rocks and protected by the famous doughnut bunker greatly extended to provide the greater threat, is laid out before you, heightening the sense of anticipation.
After “setting”, I would rate “anticipation” as a prerequisite for a great hole. In this respect, it helps to have a raised tee but it is not a necessity.
I have in mind the tee at the 1st at Machrihanish, where from fairway level, you are faced with a carry across the ocean.
This great hole incorporates a favourite feature of mine, (and another criterion for “great hole” status) “risk and reward” – for the choice on the tee is just how much ocean you are prepared to take on in order to shorten the second shot to the green.
I tend to subscribe to the view that “golf is not a water sport”, but the occasional challenge of a shot over water can add to greatness.
Take the 10th at the Belfry where the over-water option has created high drama in the Ryder Cup. “Challenge” is, of course, a given for a great hole, whether it is the low stone wall at the 13th at North Berwick or the railway sheds of the St. Andrews Road hole.
What these two have in common, apart from the fact that they are both great links courses, is that the hazard is clearly defined and that to play the hole well, you have to hit the right spot on the fairway.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room; apart from personal preference and prejudice, one’s view of what makes a great hole will, to some extent be conditioned by one’s own ability.
Long gone are the days when I could fire a driver over the sheds and risk taking on the road bunker with a long iron. Now it’s as much as I can do to play a second shot safely short up the right leaving a pitch in which avoids the trap.
It’s still a great hole requiring management now that I no longer have the length, but it’s no longer great for my level of golf.
So saying, I want to move on and conclude, (fittingly), at the 18th. “Great hole”? I hear you query.
“If you can’t drive the green, you have a landing area the size of a football pitch, the only hazard, the Valley of Sin, you can putt through, what’s great about it”?
Well we are back to “setting”, and this is surely the most iconic and historic setting in golf, a dramatic collision between links and town, all overlaid with the history of famous finishes; Jack removing his sweater and driving through the green and almost out of bounds, Doug Sanders missing his short putt, and many more.
It reminds us that, uniquely, ours is a game where we can walk in the footsteps of giants; we might never play at Wembley or Wimbledon, but there isn’t one of the great holes collected here that you cannot access and keep in your memory for ever.