3/14/19

Slope and Firmness: The Drivable Par 4 Recipe

An analysis of the 12th at TPC Sawgrass

by

This week at TPC Sawgrass, the pros will get another crack at the 12th hole, the most scrutinized architectural experiment on the PGA Tour. In Pete Dye’s original design, the 12th was a breather—a driver-wedge exercise with a small, partially blind green. It yielded a lot of ho-hum birdies. Looking to energize the hole for the 2017 Players Championship, the tour transformed it into a 302-yard par 4 that most competitors could reach with their tee shots.

It was the culmination of the tour’s decades-long love affair with drivable par 4s. Most Tournament Players Clubs (TPCs), which are owned and operated by the tour, now have at least one hole of this type. There are also well-publicized specimens at Kapalua, Austin, Trinity Forest, and Riviera.

But the debut of the 12th at TPC Sawgrass didn’t go quite as planned. In fact, the reception of the hole—and the subsequent tweaking of its design—can teach us a lot about how the PGA Tour views the relationship between architecture and competition.

Before digging into that, though, let’s ask a few broader questions about this design concept.

What Is a Drivable Par 4?

Setting aside the often arbitrary par values that appear on tournament scorecards, I use the term “long par 3” for holes on which almost all competitors attempt to reach the green with their tee shots. (This category would include purported “par 4s” like the 17th at TPC Scottsdale, the 15th at TPC River Highlands, and the 5th at TPC Boston.) I save the label “drivable par 4” for holes on which laying up and going for it are both frequently used strategies.

Long par 3s offer their own brand of excitement, but drivable par 4s are of particular interest because they set the stage for a dramatic choice on the tee. From reporters on the ground to fans at home, everyone knows what’s at stake when a golfer addresses the ball with a driver just after his opponent has teed off with an iron. There are a few holes on the PGA Tour that summon this kind of drama regularly, and what they have in common is a balance of incentives and disincentives.

  • Risk. Attempting to reach the green from the tee needs to be fraught with danger.
  • Achievability and reward. At the same time, driving the green should 1) be doable for most of the field and 2) when done successfully, produce a lower expected score.
  • Delayed penalty. Playing safe on the tee shot cannot lead to an easy birdie.
  • Assurance. At the same time, laying up must be sufficiently appealing to the conservative player who wants only to avoid a big number.

These factors are not static. Since driving distances on the PGA Tour will continue to increase, the current set of drivable par 4s will play differently year to year. Some holes will lose their strategic integrity; others may actually get better.

Why Do Drivable Par 4s Matter?

For one thing, it’s one of the few ideas that excites both golf nerds and PGA Tour officials.

Architecture enthusiasts appreciate holes that offer options and force decisions. As Geoff Shackelford wrote back in 2008, reachable par 5s used to offer this kind of strategic theater in tour events, but after the key advances in driver and ball technology in the late 1990s, few par 5s were long enough to make the top pros even consider laying up. Drivable par 4s promised to fill that void. As Shackelford put it, they offered “the spectacle of watching the game’s best weigh the pros and cons of a tantalizing shot as they also recall past performances and consider their place on the leaderboard.”

For hardcore golf fans, the drivable par 4 is also a potential antidote to the increasing homogeneity of playing style on the PGA Tour. With each passing year, pros who are shorter off the tee have more trouble hanging on, even if they have remarkable skills in other facets of the game. The continual lengthening of tour courses has exacerbated this trend. On par 4s of 290 to 350 yards, however, power is an advantage but not a prerequisite. When designed well, these holes are not just about who can bash the ball the farthest and get the shortest approach. Sometimes you don’t want to be within 20 yards of the pin. Sometimes you’d rather be 75 yards back, trying to beat the field with your wedge game.

For PGA Tour officials, as well as for broadcasters, the drivable par 4 may have a different appeal. While they too must enjoy the drama of risk-reward decisions, they mainly seem to want the pros pull off spectacular shots. These moments are catnip both for announcers—That’s why they work out!”—and for social media managers: “Video game stuff from Dustin Johnson. 376 yards to 4 FEET.”

But here’s the problem: the campaign for shareable content is not always compatible with the desire for architectural interest and competitive variety. That became evident over the past two years as the story of the new 12th hole at TPC Sawgrass unfolded.

Frankenstein’s Drivable Par 4

Any assessment of this hole should begin with a reminder that the late, great Alice Dye loathed it. After the 2017 tournament, she told Matt Ginella of Golf Advisor that she found the hole “awkward.” “It doesn’t fit the course,” she said. “He OK’d it, but it’s not a Pete Dye design.” She went on to explain that her husband had philosophical objections to the very idea of a drivable par 4: “If a player is supposed to reach the green from the tee and you’re always allowed two putts, well, that’s a par 3.”

Technically, though, the redesigned 12th hole functioned as a legitimate drivable par 4 during the 2017 Players Championship. The pros had to choose between laying up and going for it, and they couldn’t split the difference: the stretch of fairway 240 to 280 yards from the tee was narrow and guarded by mounding on the right and a pond on the left.

The key to the choice was the contouring of the green complex. Both the apron leading up to the green and the green itself banked left, toward the water. A left miss with the driver, even a slight one, was likely to end up wet. Also, the cant of the green made wedge approaches uncomfortable, especially those from the safest part of the layup zone on the right. Consider how Webb Simpson made the only double bogey on the 12th in the final round of the 2017 Players: he hedged right with his layup and proceeded to send his 65-yard pitch down the slope of the green and into the pond.

At the same time, the approach wasn’t excessively difficult. Those who laid up on the 12th were more or less assured of par and had a decent chance at birdie. Those who went for it, on the other hand, faced a large range of expected scores. When they held the putting surface, they almost always made birdie; when they ended up in the water, they averaged around 4.5 strokes on the hole. Overall, the field favored caution, laying up about two thirds of the time.

The shot dispersion at the 12th hole in the 2017 Players

I saw nothing wrong with that. Sure, going for the green was a risk, but plenty of players did anyway. For a chance at birdie, they had to hit a precise shot from either the tee or the fairway. That aspect of the hole struck me as faithfully Sawgrassian. Pete Dye’s 18th green, too, tilts toward a water hazard, forcing players to dance with the devil either on an angle-seeking drive or on a wrong-sided approach. If anything, the 12th green complex should have been crueler. This is the course, after all, that Ben Crenshaw once described as “Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.”

But among those whose opinions matter, the 12th was unpopular. Some said the slope of the green was too severe. Others said the layup was too easy. While the PGA Tour’s resident architect Steve Wenzloff maintained that “almost all the shots that went into the water were bad shots,” he was outnumbered. The bottom line was that the tour and their broadcasting partners wanted more players to go for the green, and the players wanted to see fewer of their shots trickle into the pond.

So last year, the tour unveiled a gentler 12th. The slope toward the water, particularly in the runup to the green, had been built up and made more level. Along the pond’s edge, the bunker had been elongated and a strip of rough had been grown to catch balls that previously would have plunged into the drink. The mounding short right of the green had been pushed back. The hole had been made, in a word, easier.

The tour achieved its goal: more pros attempted to drive the green in the 2018 Players. To my eye, though, the primary development was that far more players were able to place 260- to 300-yard shots safely either short or right of the green. Much of the danger had been extracted from those areas in the tweaks made after the 2017 Players. As a result, the scoring average of the 12th hole was a measly 3.620, down from 3.830 the year before.

The hole had lost its teeth, and a toothless drivable par 4 makes for bland viewing. This year it will be even less threatening. As has been much publicized, TPC Sawgrass overseeded its entire property with ryegrass in pursuit of velvety, telegenic turf. The slope toward the water left of the 12th green will be softer than ever.

If you’re hoping for a redesign of the redesign of the redesign, don’t hold your breath. Witness Billy Horschel happily previewing the “new and improved” 12th before the 2018 Players. “It’s new and improved,” Horschel says, “because the tour was great in working with the players and asking their feedback.” He explains that he “had the tour architect” enlarge the bailout zone right of the green: “It gives me a bigger room to put my ball into a great spot.” He then demonstrates the exact tee shot he knows he will use in competition.

To be fair, Horschel’s opinions on golf course design make sense from a tour pro’s perspective. When he’s vying for millions in a major championship big-time tournament like the Players, why would he want to feel uncertainty on any tee? But that’s why architects, not competitors, should build the courses. If the tour keeps letting players use the media to agitate for design changes, the world’s most influential tournament venues will have fewer unique, provocative holes.

Slope and Firmness: An Elixir the Tour May Never Drink

It’s no coincidence that the most dynamic trait of the 2017 version of the 12th at TPC Sawgrass is (or was) the cant of the green complex, not a bunker or a water hazard. If you want to make a pro think on the tee of a drivable par 4, build a green that slopes away from the safe layup spot, and make it firm.

This kind of subtle challenge forces players to think in a way that an obvious hazard doesn’t. When a hole bluntly demands a 290-yard carry over a lake, it fails to test strategic acumen. Instead, it simply differentiates shorter from longer drivers without confronting either group with a genuine dilemma. On the other hand, a drivable par 4 that uses sloping ground and firm turf as its primary defense allows all players to use their minds—or lose them, as the case may be.

One intriguing hole of this type can be found at Valero Texas Open host TPC San Antonio, a Greg Norman design that has taken fire from architecture enthusiasts and tour players alike. In a 2012 Golf Digest survey, the pros voted San Antonio the third worst annual venue. One called it a “complete disaster.” Another asserted that “the greens need to be blown up.”

If the tour does overhaul the course, I hope they keep the 5th hole, which travels 343 yards downhill and downwind to a green the falls with the terrain, away from the player. Many of the pros can reach the putting surface with a well-struck drive, but the entrance to the green demands precision. The left half kicks down to a hollow and, farther up, a deep bunker. On the right, there is another bunker that catches slightly pushed drives. From both of those positions, you are likely to be aiming a flop shot at the front of the green and hoping it doesn’t run through to the punishing collection area beyond. If you lay up off the tee, you can at least put some spin on your approach.

It’s not a complicated hole, but the qualities of the ground—firm, running away—not only create strategic quandaries but also take elite players out of their comfort zones. In this somewhat random video, which contains PGA Tour Live footage of Zach Johnson, Andrew Landry, and Ryan Moore grinding through third round of the 2018 Valero, the 5th hole elicits an entertaining variety of ticklish shots. The pros become visibly tense as they play into a green that wants to propel the ball away from them.

Bunkers alone wouldn’t have this effect on them. Nor would trees, nor rough, nor even water. Those hazards produce relatively predictable outcomes. Splashing out of a bunker, punching out of the woods, hacking out of the rough, or taking a penalty and a drop—none of these scenarios are desirable, but they are routine. Slope and firmness, on the other hand, introduce a dimension of the unknown. When elite players can no longer rely on the ball stopping where it lands, they lose some control. To compensate, they start thinking more about direction, trajectory, and distance off the tee, and about angles into the greens. The best will welcome this challenge, as Open champions have done for 147 years. Others will get frustrated.

And these days, the frustration of tour pros has real power. It can fill in center-line bunkers. It can change rules. It can redesign holes. It’s currently whittling away at the authority of the USGA. One day, perhaps, this frustration will create a PGA Tour where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.

As televised tournaments grow more sanitized, everyday golfers should remember that part of the enduring appeal of golf is its emotional intensity. We should accept the pain caused by bad bounces, by the cruelties of slope and firmness, because that pain deepens our satisfaction when we do better the next time.

In other words, going for the green on a drivable par 4 should be as dangerous as possible—because if we succeed, we want to feel something.

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