Island Greens: Time to Drain the Moat?

The debate over island greens has raged for three decades. The argument started in 1982, when Alice Dye unveiled her bulkheads-in-the-swamp design for the par-3 17th at the Tournament Players Club of Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. It grew in intensity when Alice’s husband Pete surrounded his own version of sod a l’leau with boulders at the PGA West Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif. It reached a fever pitch when developer Duane Hagadone and architect Scott Miller planted the 14th green at Club Coeur d’Alene on a 7,500-ton barge and set it adrift on a glassy lake in Idaho.

But now that an oil slick the size of Donald Trump’s ego has hit the Louisiana shore, the debate should end. Island greens are a bad idea.

This will not be news to current or former PGA Tour players, who have suffered the most extreme humiliations trying to land their tee shots on the original island green at Sawgrass. “When I play that hole, I don’t know whether to genuflect or spit,” says Brandel Chamblee, analyzing this week’s Players Championship for the Golf Channel. Chamblee echoes the sentiments of 8-time major champion Tom Watson, who after his first exposure to the TPC of Sawgrass asked, “Is it against the rules to carry a bulldozer in your bag?”

Granted, island greens appeal to the eye. My all-time favorite is — or rather, was — the notorious “Jaws” par-3 7th at Stone Harbor Golf Club in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.* Jaws featured a boat-shaped green flanked by toothy island bunkers, separated from the putting surface by narrow moats. The designer, Desmond Muirhead, said he was inspired by the story of Jason and the Argonauts, with the boat-shaped green representing Jason’s boat and the jagged bunkers representing the blue rocks thrown down by the gods to crush the boat.

*I use the past tense because Stone Harbor’s members — stung, perhaps, by my droll critique of the hole in America’s Worst Golf Courses — destroyed Muirhead’s inspired design and replaced it with a conventional island green.

But aesthetics and playability issues aside, island greens suffer from erosion, mould, wharf rats and bad drainage, require Army-Corps-of-Engineers-scale infrastructure to ferry players and caddies to and from the putting surface, and raise the risk of involuntary baptism by forcing players to chip or putt while balanced on slippery timbers. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the current Top 50 recognizes only one course with an island green.

Downpatrick Head

The island-green 17th at Downpatrick Head, Ireland. (John Garrity)

I must add, however, that I have a soft spot for the island-green 17th on yet another Pete Dye track, the Pete Dye Challenge at Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage Calif. I registered my only hole-in-three there some years ago, holing out a re-teed range ball after drowning my 8-iron tee shot near the pilings. Fred Couples duplicated my feat during the 1999 Players Championship, gaining greater-than-deserved attention because he covered the same distance with a 9-iron.

I can also appreciate the need for water around the green on the par-5 18th at the adjoining Dinah Shore Tournament Course, No. 44. Without the moat, LPGA players celebrating victory by leaping headfirst off the final green would break their lovely necks.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but last Saturday was Demo Day at the New Richmond Golf Club, No. 29. A half-dozen equipment reps hawked their wares on New Richmond’s Top 10-quality driving range while I sat at a table and autographed copies of my latest book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, in a three-club wind. Space does not permit a full report on “The Augusta National of Small-Town Courses,” but on the basis of my most recent round I will be very surprised if New Richmond doesn’t move up in the next Top 50 ranking. Watch your back, Pacific Dunes!

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Island Greens: Time to Drain the Moat?

  1. Valid points made about the increased maintenance required with island greens and SOME tour players’ disdain for them. However, it has been my personal and professional experience that the courses that have them value having them – maintenance costs and budget unfriendliness be damned – because they help draw back players time and again. (Disclaimer: I work as a PR professional in the industry and part of my position responsibility includes bringing media to courses and resorts to experience and review them.) Case in point is The Coeur d’Alene Resort’s floating green, which golfers must take a vintage mahogany boat called “Putter” to reach. If they hit the green – no small feat for the average Joe given it’s a 170-yard shot into the wind from one up from the tips (where most golfers I encounter play), 200 from the tips, and the “Pucker Factor” – a certificate awaits them from Putter Captain who etches in the beaming golfer’s name upon return to the boat. Another example is at Sweetgrass Golf Club in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The island green there is the highlight of many golfers’ rounds due to its beauty – it has a “rescued” bridge from the state transportation department which adds a lovely, sentimental, eco-sensitive touch – and its challenge. The tee shot length and angle can vary greatly thanks to a huge, elongated teeing area, which can alter the distance and wind factor significantly depending on where the tee markers are placed. The hole seems to never play the same twice. Long story short, it’s been my personal and professional experience that these holes are memorable, tittilating and valued by golfers and courses/resorts. These dramatic one-shotters are often the source of post-round focus and chatter among the groups I’ve played with, and they can’t wait to have at it again.

  2. What’s wrong with this phrase by Mr. Garrity: replaced by “a conventional island green.”
    When an island green has become a convention, I’m not attending. Not even even they have party hats and balloons. Balloon animals, maybe.

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