They are nearly obsolete for today’s longest hitters, who only like them when they play like par-4 holes. Average golfers often dislike fairway wood shots. Owners want to reduce construction cost, and the simplest way to reduce acres and budgets is to swap a few par-5 holes for shorter ones, accepting par of 70 or even 69. Land use planners, water managers and environmentalists rail against the par 5, bemoaning the required extra irrigated golf acreage. And the USGA prefers reducing par on short par-5 holes at the U.S. Open.
The par 4 is the best expression of strategic golf, creating a relationship to success in the minimum two shots, with a successful tee shot raising the odds of the success on the approach shot, if placed in the fairway, and even on the “better” side of the fairway. The accurate approach shot raises chances for birdie or par.
The origin of the three-shot hole is mysterious. If early golf courses were built on featureless ground, or with better earthmoving, golf might have all par-4 holes. I suspect the three-shot (and one-shot) holes came about because:
- Somewhere they fit the land better
- Someone made a conscious decision to create variety, which might also be true of doglegs and par-3 holes
- A semi-conscious decision was made by a tipsy Scottish designer
- An early architect couldn’t get the routing back to the clubhouse (also the root cause of the par 6 and 19th betting hole)
For whatever reason, par-5 holes were built and became accepted as part of the mix, even if par-4 holes rightfully remained the predominant hole type. Also suggesting par-5 holes are less ideal than par 4s, when Cornish and Graves wrote “Classic Golf Holes” only three of 20 were par 5s. Chris Millard’s 100 toughest holes had only 16 par-5 holes, with another dozen being long par-4 holes that were formally par 5s.
Architects will tell you that designing strong par-5 holes is one of their harder – and unappreciated tasks. Conceptually, the middle shot on a par 5 is the most boring shot in golf, other than the second (or third) extra shots we typically ask women and seniors to hit take those honors, but I digress. I try to make the best of the situation, emphasizing their original function of variety, starting with length.
I recall a 1960s article on golf architecture quoting Gary Player as recommending a mix of par-5 lengths, with one reachable by all, two “tweeners” and a true, three-shot hole. On par-5 holes, I space tees 50 yards or more to allow average players a chance to play them as designed.
Length variety was reinforced when working with shorter (by PGA Tour standard) hitters like Notah Begay III and Larry Nelson. Their tee shots of 290 and second shots of 260 (not far off PGA Tour distance averages, even today) meant that only par-5 holes under 550 to 560 yards were “reachable.” They wanted those holes designed with at least a narrow roll an option, where their accuracy could compete with longer hitters.
Par-5 holes also offer potential variety in double doglegs, including the “fish hook” bending twice the same direction, or a zig zag with each bending opposite directions. Others may bend only at the first or second landing zones, or the hole can be straight.
The theory of “smaller greens for short approach shots” suggests all par-5 holes have small greens (requiring extreme accuracy to reach in two shots). However, my preference is to create a variety of green sizes, shapes and contours among the par-5 holes. Large greens can be split into several sections, requiring accuracy while spreading ball marks, and often working well on the shorter two par-5 holes. On longer par 5s, average players will still have a long approach, and we favor larger greens, keeping medium greens on the two “tweener” par-5 holes.
On my first design, Brookstone near Atlanta, with Larry Nelson, the 18th was a reachable par 5 with a four-tier green. We joked that you had to hit the green in two to assure a three-putt par.
Play “spreads out” more on par-5 holes, making them terrific opportunities for attractive “staggered” bunkering, especially on gently uphill holes where the pattern of sand bunkers will be visible, and bunkers can offer strategy to those who can hit it point to point.
Shorter par-5 holes are also preferred locations for deeper (including Royal St. George fourth hole deep) fairway bunkers, because the greater reward of hitting a green in two should be balanced with more fearsome risk. And, even when found – two short iron shots will still get home in regulation – there is no real penalty.
I also like a variety of fairway widths on par-5 holes. But, where do we place the widest fairway? Should it be on:
- The longest par 5 to compensate for length with easier challenge?
- The shortest par 5 to encourage full tee shots, making it the most reachable by all?
- One of the tweener par 5s, where tee shot length is needed, perhaps combined with a hard (i.e., water carry) approach shot to reach the green in two shots?
Conversely, should the narrowest fairway be on:
- A true three-shot hole, making it a series of precision shots?
- The shortest par 5, requiring extreme off the tee accuracy for any chance of reaching the green in two?
- Or, a tweener par 5, perhaps combined with an easier approach shot to reach the green in two shots?
To combat potential boredom for the second landing zone on a true (for most) three-shot hole, I consider “concept” shots for either that are inherently more interesting just by themselves, and by varying the challenges/hazards in the second landing zone from:
- A no hazard landing zone
- An RTJ styled pinched landing zone
- Distance cut off/limiting hazards
- A cape style second shot, sometimes combined with an opposite cape carry on the tee shot
- A centerline hazard combined with a wide green, which provide left, right, carry or layup options, all affecting the third shot
- Using slopes as hazards, whether:
- Cross slopes requiring aim to high side of the fairway
- Speed slots, where hitting a small portion of the fairway yields extra roll
- Rumpled areas to avoid for the third shot.