Picking the perfect 18 holes
PICKING A DREAM 18 holes is a fool's mission. Let's just get that on the table from the start.
It doesn't matter how good a golfer you are, or how many golf courses you've played, or how many books on golf-course design you've read; we're talking about a process as subjective as picking a spouse. No matter what you ultimately pick, the list will be seen in certain quarters as convincing evidence that you are a dunderhead.
Understood. Comes with the territory.
This Dream 18 is made up strictly from daily-fee and municipal courses open to the public.
In my head, I replayed about 1,000 holes on 100 courses. I went back and reread about half the golf-course reviews I had written over 12-plus years.
To refresh my memory, I spent entirely too many hours surfing golf-course Web sites, trying to recall the details of holes that had once upon a time caught my fancy. (Note to golf-course operators: In the Internet age, your most effective marketing tool is a virtual tour of your course on your Web site, or at the very least decent photos.)
Since I compiled my original Dream 18 for the Inquirer nine years ago, the golfing landscape around here has changed. A couple of daily-fee courses have closed, but, more important, two quality semiprivate courses that contributed holes to the 2001 list - Hartefeld National and Pine Hill - are now fully private and therefore ineligible for the new Dream 18.
Worried that I might overlook holes worthy of inclusion, I reached out to Jeff Silverman, a golf writer from Chadds Ford who has informed opinions, and Mike Cirba, a course rater for Golfweek magazine and denizen of the golf-course architecture Web site www.GolfClubAtlas.com. Both tossed holes into the mix that further complicated my winnowing process.
To make the 2010 version of the Dream 18 as representative as the broad golf audience it serves, there are several restrictions: The list had to be drawn from a mix of high-end, midprice, and lunch-pail kinds of courses. Also, it has no more than one hole from any course.
Finally, the new Dream 18 had to add up to a course that would be fun and challenging. Holes had to have personality and vitality - no boring, short, straight, flat par 4s with tiny, round bunkerless greens. I wanted short and long par 3s and par 4s, water holes, doglegs, and reachable and unreachable par 5s.
As a course, this Dream 18 measures 6,754 yards, with par 72, and it's difficult. That said, I'm confident I could come up with another Dream 18 that's probably as good but completely different.
Now, on with the list:
This is the banked, lazy dogleg you see through the fence when you drive past Walnut Lane on Henry Avenue in Roxborough.
Even though Walnut Lane is little more than an executive course (4,509 yards, par 62), it boasts several short but terrific holes. My favorite has always been No. 15. It's not long or especially tough; it's only a driver and short-iron into a flat, ho-hum green. Somehow, it just fits my eye.
Bulle Rock is in Havre de Grace, Md., but it's a must-play course for the well-traveled Philadelphia-area golfer. One big reason is this menacing beast of a dogleg.
A strong tee shot is required to have any chance of reaching the green in regulation, but it's the second shot that makes this hole what it is: a major poke over an ominous chasm, into an elevated green protected by bunkers.
I used to feel bad that this hole ate my lunch every time I played at Bulle Rock, until I spent a couple of afternoons at the McDonald's LPGA Championship from 2005 to '09 watching the best women players in the world also get humbled by No. 13.
This dogleg left is something of an optical illusion.
From the tee, you see an elevated fairway that slashes left, framed by a series of angled bunkers lining the left side, and another series of angled bunkers in the distance, running up the right side.
Should you attack, and try to clear the bunkers on the left, for a midiron or short-iron in? Are those bunkers in the distance on the right reachable? Or should you take the safe route, out to the far right, leaving yourself a very long approach shot in?
The final complication is a green that never met an approach shot it didn't want to reject.
County. No. 14, 152 yards, par 3.
Unless you run in a fast golf crowd, chances are you never will play TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship and the infamous island-green 17th hole.
But you can get the same thrill (or misery) of an island green much closer to home - the 14th at Bella Vista in Gilbertsville.
At 152 yards, Bella Vista's island-green hole is 20 yards longer than the 17th at Sawgrass. But the green at Bella Vista is a little more forgiving, plus you don't have to worry about the winds whipping off the Atlantic.
Most golf courses tend to start you off gently with a straightforward, user-friendly hole. Not Deerfield. Here you start with a blind tee shot, a dogleg left that plays down and around to the green below.
The good news is that this hole doesn't play as long as the yardage suggests, making it a reachable par 5 for longer hitters, especially with the wide-open front to the green. The bad news is that an aggressive play for birdie often results in a double bogey.
Once a sad-sack muni with a prestigious pedigree (Donald Ross design, circa 1931), Jeffersonville has been the darling of the architecture set and a favorite with suburban golfers since being restored in 2002.
It's got a couple of holes on the front I find suspect, but there's a strong stretch on the back nine, beginning with No. 13, a midlength par 4.
The tee shot is wide open; the second is a midiron approach over a creek, into a saddleback green flanked by bunkers and framed by trees.
Something about getting older and shorter off the tee makes a golfer come to appreciate a well-done short par 4. From an elevated tee, No. 3 is a little downhiller that bottoms out, then climbs uphill. It appears almost drivable, and it probably is for a few long hitters. For the rest of us, No. 3 is all about hitting a 3-wood or long iron to just the right spot to set up the best angle into the green.
Easier said than done. The green is neither larger nor particularly forgiving, and if you come up short, there are three semi-pot bunkers.
Every golf course needs at least one good, long formidable par 3, and at Cobbs Creek, it's No. 17. Downhill, 193 yards, into a wide green encircled by a necklace of four bunkers, this hole is made picturesque by the wall of trees behind the green.
Regulars at Cobbs Creek might have a better handle on No. 17 than I do. Because it's downhill, I find it a bit deceiving. I usually waffle between clubs before inevitably going with the wrong choice.
If you haven't played Wyncote in years, you probably remember this hole as the old 18th. Then, as now, it is a long, uphill slog, a wraparound par 5 that is unreachable by anybody not named Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson. There is nothing subtle about this man-size hole.
A couple of holes at Lederach leave me scratching my head, but No. 9 (formerly No. 18) is not one of them; it gets a big nod of approval.
From an elevated tee, the tee shot is over the corner of a lake that runs along the right side of the hole, into a slightly banked fairway that has mounds and ripples like waves lapping against a beach.
It's such a visually captivating hole, I'd never paid any attention to the actual yardage. I was surprised to see it's only 379 yards from the tips. It looks and feels bigger, especially when you are standing over that tee shot, trying to decide how much corner to cut.
Unless you chicken out and play away from the lake, the approach is a short-iron shot into a green that sits hard by the water.
I have played more than a dozen rounds at Raven's Claw with course designer Ed Shearon, and every time we come to the 14th hole, he mentions that he loosely modeled it after the famous 12th at Augusta National.
Called "Cathedral" on the scorecard, like the famous Masters par 3, the 14th green at the course outside Pottstown is tucked behind a watery grave and shaded by a canopy of trees. Even with an angled two-club green, this short downhill treat never requires more than a pitching wedge or 9-iron, even when the tees are back. So how come birdies are so rare?
Another quality short par 4, this hole makes the list for one good reason: It's so devilish, my strategy varies every time I step onto the tee.
I say devilish because an enormous waste area is plopped down in the middle of the fairway, stretching almost from tee to green, creating fairway corridors on either side.
A few big hitters have the firepower to blow it 260-plus yards over the trouble, to the tiered green. The rest of us have to pick left or right.
The better angle into the green is from the left, but that requires a longer tee shot into a smaller landing area. The safer play is up the right side to a more generous right corridor, but from there, the second shot into the elevated green is dicier.
For only 498 yards, this is a heck of a lot of par 5, mainly because of the second shot, which plays uphill to a green that feels as if it's in the clouds. Frankly, this hole could use a tow rope.
Big hitters might be able to go for the well-bunkered green in 2, but all others must lay back, short of the very narrow throat of fairway leading to the green.
This midlength 2-shotter has three ingredients that infuse personality into a hole: a forced carry off the tee, a banked dogleg fairway, and a white-knuckle midiron approach shot over water.
The thing is, the fairway is more generous than it appears from the tee, and the sizable green is bunker-free. There's even a bailout area to the right of the green for short-knockers.
As the No. 2-handicap hole at Makefield Highlands, it's a prime example of a hole that better players handle with ease, while high handicappers hyperventilate.
A classic "cape hole" in golf-design parlance, this is the only hole to repeat from the original Dream 18. No need to alter what I wrote then. To wit:
Scotland Run is built on and around an old rock quarry, and the 16th is one spot where you have to figure they almost dug to China.
If you have any kind of backbone at all, you will march to one of the back tees, hitch up your pants like Arnold Palmer in his prime, and try to bomb it over a gaping hole of sand and water that's half as big as Delaware.
It's a dogleg right, so the more you bite off, the shorter the second shot. You want to bite 180 yards? How about 200, or even 230?
If you make it, the second shot is a cinch.
Even from the back tees, Paxon Hollow measures only 5,709 yards. But that's OK; it's as sweet as it is short. The whole course pitches and rolls across the hilly terrain, making for holes that put a premium on accuracy and shot-making over power. No. 13 is a prime example.
From the tee, the fairway is a little uphill and a slight dogleg left. The trouble is to the left, down an embankment full of knee-high grass. For most golfers, a 3-wood is plenty off the tee. The approach shot is a short iron, but has to be up in the air to play into a smallish round green protected by two sizable high-walled bunkers flanking the front.
This he-man par 3 is very deceiving from the tee. The elevated, tabletop green hits you at about eye level. You can see that the green slopes away from you, and that it's flattish and wide, but you cannot see that it's angled and three clubs deep.
As you stand over the tee shot, with a long iron or fairway wood in your hands, mostly what you can see is sand: an ominous-looking face bunker stretches endlessly across the entire front of the green, which, let me tell you, will get inside your head; just off the back of the green, three more bunkers seem to cry like baby birds with their mouths open, waiting for a morsel of ball food.
Formerly No. 4 before they flipped the nines, this par 5 makes for a monster of a finishing for our Dream 18.
Built on a labyrinth of now-closed mine shafts, No. 13 starts with a semi-blind, downhill tee shot. The real fun begins with the second shot, as you stand at the crest of the fairway, overlooking a fairway that tumbles down, down, down, and around a foreboding lake on the left that juts midway into the fairway; that lake was created when they caved in one of those mine shafts.
No doubt the mysteries of this hole reveal themselves after two or three rounds. But for the first-timer, uncertain of the distances and fretting over that creepy-looking lake, this hole requires two big belts and a pack of Tums.