The drivable par-4 14th hole at Oak Hill didn’t generate much intrigue at this week’s PGA Championship. There are, as far as I can see, three reasons for this:
1. A lack of terror
The most exciting short par 4s dole out cruel punishments for aggressive, inaccurate shots. On these holes, you can reach the green from the tee, but if you miss, you will face the possibility of bogey or worse.
The 14th at Oak Hill doesn’t have that sense of danger. The hazards around the green—bunkers and rough—corral errant tee shots rather than propelling them deeper into trouble. As a result, the majority of go-for-it attempts end up in predictable, safe spots around the green. From there, players typically make birdie or par. This is partly because the 14th green is large and not severely tilted or contoured, and therefore receptive to recoveries from most positions.
The most compelling short par 4s scare players, whether with penalty hazards or severe greens. On No. 14 at Oak Hill, however, we know nothing too terrible will happen when a tee shot goes astray.
2. Comfy pin positions
A back pin position on the 14th hole makes your decision on the tee easy. Just hit driver at the front of the green, and if you come up short, you’ll have plenty of green to work with.
In three of four rounds at the PGA Championship, the pin on No. 14 was in the back. So it’s no surprise that very few players laid up* on the hole: on Thursday, only 10 out of 156 did so; on Friday, 15; on Sunday, zero.
Things were different on Saturday, when the hole was cut three paces from the front edge of the green. Thirty-three players, nearly half of the post-cut field, laid up off the tee. Perhaps the cold, rainy conditions helped cause this change in strategy, but I bet pin position had an effect as well.
I find drivable par 4s more interesting when different players approach them in different ways. If a substantial portion of the field lays up, you know that going for it means something. It’s a tense, high-stakes decision, not a foregone conclusion.
*I’m defining “laying up” on the 14th hole as hitting a tee shot to the widest section of the fairway short of the first bunker, leaving a wedge of 85 to 100 yards. Since the fairway leading up to the green is just 20 to 25 yards wide and tightly guarded by bunkers, most players wouldn’t lay up there intentionally.
3. No threat of a long miss
Andrew Green, the architect behind the recent historical renovation of Oak Hill, hoped that No. 14 would be punishing around the green. “If you fail at the challenge of going for the green, there’s a lot of trouble,” he told us during an interview last year. “If you hit it long, there’s a chance you could get out of bounds.”
That threat didn’t materialize in this PGA Championship, however. The only shot to go out of bounds long was a thin strike from a greenside bunker by Jordan Spieth.
So maybe—bear with me here—No. 14 actually played too long this week. On all four days, it was 300 yards to the front of the green and 320 to the back. Since the hole climbs sharply uphill, almost no one had the power to carry the green on the fly.
If there were a 280-yard tee box that the PGA could have used in one or two rounds, perhaps some players would have been more nervous about hitting driver.
Short par 4s have to strike a precise balance of risk and reward in order to function properly. That’s why they’re tough to design and set up, not to mention fun to discuss. No. 14 at Oak Hill is a good example of what happens when the rewards for aggressive tactics strongly outweigh the risks. The players knew they weren’t in danger, and the fans sensed it, too.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.