Summer’s Best Hole Used to be a Dud

“What’s your favorite golf hole?” asks a reader from my immediate neighborhood. A child, actually. My grandson, if you’re going to get all fact-checky on me.

Well, Jack, I have many favorites. Readers of my golf memoir, Ancestral Links, know about my obsession with the par-4 seventeenth at second-ranked Carne. But they may not know that my favorite hole at Carne is either the par-4 third, with its rumpled fairway and two-tiered green, or the par-4 ninth, where you drive into a box canyon before playing blind up to a pinnacle green. Wait no, my favorite is probably the quirky twelfth, which requires an approach shot from a switchback fairway to a dunetop green best reached with ropes and crampons. Or if not the twelfth, how about the imposing fifteenth, a par-4 so rugged and natural that I tend to credit meteor impacts, and not Eddie Hackett, for its strong features.

Get my drift? It’s hard to pick my favorite hole on any one course, never mind the thousands of courses that we visit every year to compile the Top 50 ranking. Like most sentient golfers, I love the Road Hole at the Old Course, the lighthouse hole at Turnberry, the eighth and eighteenth holes at Pebble Beach, the par-3 sixteenth at Cypress Point, the majestic tenth at Augusta National, the drive-over-the-beach first at Machrihanish, and the baffling ninth at Ft. Meade’s City Mobile Home Park Golf Course. I’ve currently got a crush on the closing hole at 51st-ranked Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, which calls for two precise shots over scenic marshland to the accompaniment of turtles splashing in an adjoining canal.

Hillcrest No. 5

Hillcrest’s fifth hole, like good chili, has improved with age. (John Garrity)

That said, my favorite hole of the Summer of ’12 is the par-4 fifth at 45th-ranked Hillcrest in Kansas City, Mo. It’s a surprising favorite, because the No. 5 was maybe my least favorite hole when I caddied and played at Hillcrest as a boy in the late fifties.    Tree-lined and level from tee to green, it rides a ridge that drops off on either side, most sharply on the left, with the slope starting in the center of the fairway.

This was a serious defect, a half century ago, because Hillcrest had not yet installed fairway sprinklers. The summer fairways were bone-hard and brown. That made the tee shot on No. 5 impossibly difficult. Drives hit straight down the middle kicked left off the ridge and bounded through the trees and down the hill toward the tenth green, forcing a blind recovery shot from a steep lie. A slicing drive, on the other hand, would either wind up in the tree line or fly over the trees into the sixth fairway.

Hillcrest’s fifth hole was so bad, in fact, that I remember members cursing the nincompoop who had designed it: a Carolina pasture-plower by the name of Donald Ross.

Well, that was then. Hillcrest has been irrigated for decades now, and the fairways no longer bake in the summer sun. The fifth hole is now what Ross hoped it would be — a challenging par 4 of classic simplicity. The drive still causes your heart to flutter, but the fairway is much more receptive. If you miss left, bluegrass rough keeps most balls from plunging down the hill. “Tough, but fair” is the consensus of local golfers. That and, “Maybe that Ross guy wasn’t such a slug, after all.”

Having played Hillcrest often this summer, I’ve come to love the fifth. There’s nothing fancy about the hole — no gaudy bunker complexes or faux mounding — but the view from the tee (or from the green back to the tee) is classic. It’s an archetypal hole, a Ross variation that echoes holes from Pine Needles (T51), Mid-Pines (T51), Oak Hill (T51) and Aronimink (T51).

So yeah, Jack, I’d say my current favorite is the fifth at Hillcrest. Now if you limit it to the approach shot, I’d maybe choose the eighth hole at Askernish or the par-5 seventeenth at Royal Birkdale, where Paddy Harrington made his eagle ….

But that’s enough for now. Thanks for asking. And yes, we can play catch after dinner.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the pros have taken their season-ending cash grab to 145th-ranked Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., site of the BMW Championship. That brings back memories of John Daly at the 1991 PGA Championship, which I covered for Sports Illustrated. I recommend Cameron Morfit’s oral history here on Golf.com, or you can check out my contemporaneous coverage from the SI Vault. Either way, you can ignore Henry Ford’s dictum that “history is bunk.”

1 Comment

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One response to “Summer’s Best Hole Used to be a Dud

  1. Howard Newstadt

    I love the second at Carne, Tochair Easpag – Bishops Path . One of most perfectly framed par 3’s in the world.

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