A great golf hole is a delicate conspiracy of man and nature. It is difficult but fair, ruggedly scenic but well-conditioned, risky but rewarding—and sometimes even privileged and historic. At right and on the following pages are nine such holes, the first nine of America's Best 18. Each hole is in the same position that it occupies on its own course and each, through some combination of the standards cited above, is better than any of its counterparts in the country. The holes, which add up to a dream course, were chosen by Sports Illustrated after consultation with three men who have seen hundreds of U.S. courses: USGA Executive Director Joseph Dey, Professional Byron Nelson and Amateur Charlie Coe. While in the final process of selecting the Best 18, Dan Jenkins, an 8-handicap golfer, played them all. He describes the holes, and tells how—alas—he fared.
PAR 4 360 YARDS
Every golfer knows what a good starting hole should be. From the tee markers down to a gimmie putt, it is a hole that best suits his own game. The tournament professional wants a birdie hole, the low-scoring amateur seeks a cinch par, the high handicapper looks for a lot of room for his intriguing variety of trick shots and the public course player simply hopes for some grass. The perfect first hole should lure the golfer, should excite him, should test him just a little and should give him a good chance of walking away satisfied—he has, after all, 17 more to go. To fit this exceptional purpose, there is no better No. 1 in America than that on the East Course of famous old Merion.
Merion. Here, as so many celebrated golfing figures have said and written for half a century, is a classic course. Thoughtfully and skillfully and painstakingly set into the natural terrain of a Philadelphia Main Line suburb, Merion weaves almost romantically among evergreen, birch, gum, oak and elm trees, around shaded creeks and then, at the end, makes a heroic leap over an ancient quarry.
February 15, 1965
Each hole is memorable in character and perfectly kept. Every blade of Merion bluegrass—a hardy strain discovered accidentally one day behind the 17th tee and since put into every Merion fairway and a million lawns—is a matter of intense pride to an austere membership characterized by established wealth and a dedication to sports.
Originally organized as a cricket club in 1865 (annual dues $2), it added a golf course for a small group of members in 1896 and eventually thwarted bankruptcy by grudgingly expanding to its present membership of 666. But it never lost its character. It is today the kind of club where a member will rise in wrath at an annual meeting, as one did, and demand to know by whose authority a vine of honeysuckle was removed from an all-but-out-of-play fence on the back nine. The chairman of the greens committee answered that it was done by his authority, that's whose, and in the fuss that followed he resigned. It is a club where change comes slowly, and what others call progress is viewed as more blight than delight. It was not until relatively recently that Merion's men were allowed to play golf in shorts, an attire change pioneered by the women, who had not had it easy either. In the 1949 Women's Amateur at Merion, Marlene Bauer started for the first tee in shorts. She was one of the tournament's biggest names, but no matter. The chairman of the house committee took her discreetly aside, expressed his deepest regrets and asked her to change into a skirt forthwith. She did. And though this may be the era of sport shirts and alpaca sweaters, Fred Austin, pro at Merion for 19 years, would as soon give a lesson in his underwear as be seen on his course without a proper shirt and bow tie.
It is fitting that Merion has been the site of 11 USGA championships, more than have been held at any other club, and that it is the only course on which a U.S. Open could be played without what the pros call "Open treatment." The fast, rolling greens show no trace of scars, and they putt incredibly true. The Scottish-styled bunkers—"The White Faces of Merion"—are already in championship position, locations achieved 50 years ago by having the club's greenkeeper spread bed sheets on the ground to simulate bunkers, while the designers stood back and ordered, "Move them left," or, "Move them right." And the fairways, of course, are like cashmere.
The East Course was laid out in 1912 by a group of members from the cricket club led by Hugh Wilson, a Philadelphia insurance man who had taken up golf. Wilson was sent by the club to Scotland and England to study the contours and subtleties of the best courses there, and many of his observations were incorporated into a remarkably sound design. The most famous of golf courses have undergone extensive changes, but since the East Course was opened only one hole has been drastically changed—the first. It once played as a dogleg left, with Ardmore Avenue, a mere wagon trail, as out-of-bounds. By 1915, however, Ardmore Avenue had become a busy artery. So the tee was moved adjacent to the veranda of the huge white-frame clubhouse, and a dogleg right was forced around a clump of tall Japanese pines.
From the first tee the golfer sees an array of strategically placed bunkers flanking the fairway that will catch either a hook or slice. If the tee shot is pushed, the Japanese pines become an insuperable problem, completely screening the green. A pulled drive makes the hole play long, and the shot to the beautifully trapped green becomes formidable. A sound tee shot leaves nothing but a short iron over a large bunker to a green that will hold almost any approach perfectly.
One of the nice things about Merion's first hole is that a mediocre shot need not kill you. I teed off from the rear half of the regular men's tee, the same general area I chose on all of the Best 18. My drive hooked lazily into a bunker, but the ball sat well on the "white face," and I had a chance to recover with a five-iron. With the satisfaction of knowing that even if the shot went straight up it would still be the beginning of a course record on the finest 18 ever played, I reached the green from the bunker and two-putted for an imperfect par on a perfect starting hole.
PAR 4 436 YARDS
It is perfectly possible to hit a high, howling slice off the 2nd tee at Scioto Country Club and watch the ball bounce across Club Road and settle on a front yard in the fashionable Upper Arlington residential section of Columbus, Ohio. It is just as possible to hit a low, looping hook and see the ball disappear into a creek to the left which hides behind a wall of sycamore and fir trees. What is almost impossible for anyone except Jack Nicklaus, who learned to play golf at Scioto, is to drive about 260 yards up and beyond a set of bunkers intruding on the right side of the fairway so that the green can be reached without the caddie kicking the ball once or twice.
Scioto's 2nd epitomizes what the touring pros call a "big hole." Though it does not measure exceedingly long as par-4 holes go, it plays long because a deep ravine below the elevated tee gives a gradual rise to the fairway over the entire distance to the green. Thus any tee shot that does not carry near the crown of the fairway, at least 230 yards out, will leave only a glimpse of the green.
Most of the game's accomplished players have left cleat marks in the seaside-bent fairways and orchard-bent greens of the 49-year-old Scioto club, and Bobby Jones won a U.S. Open there in 1926. (For Jones the 9th, rather than the 2nd, was the most forbidding hole. Jones never parred it. When he returned to Scioto a few years later for an exhibition he again failed to par the 9th. This may be a relatively insignificant footnote in the history of golf, but it is a well-remembered fact within the rambling, pink-brick, modern clubhouse of Scioto because there were few holes that Bob Jones did not conquer.)
The membership of Scioto, which is not quite as aristocratic or wealthy as that of Columbus Country Club, has had sporadic thirsts for big tournaments. It staged the 1950 PGA Championship, one of the more memorable ones under the old match-play format, and no doubt a milestone in the slow, sad departure from that format. After heavily favored Sam Snead lost a second-round match to an unknown club pro named Eddie Burke when Burke chipped in from 30 feet for an eagle on the 18th, the crowds stayed away and everybody lost. Three matches went extra holes and, in each, Scioto's No. 2 was the decider. Henry Picard missed an 18-inch putt on the 2nd, or the 38th, to let another unknown, Henry Williams, slip into the final against the eventual winner, Chandler Harper.
Scioto began making plans in 1959 to refine the course and enlarge the greens, believing that the club would be awarded still another major championship, perhaps the 1961 U.S. Open. But that Open was given to Oakland Hills instead. "The USGA felt our greens were too small and antiquated," says a Scioto official. "Then they awarded the 1963 Open to Brookline, where the greens are almost exactly like ours." Scioto's improvements were completed anyhow, but the USGA is about as well-liked at Scioto today as the Ku Klux Klan in Harlem, and Scioto members savor the thought that the '62 Open was won by none other than Scioto's Jack Nicklaus. Jack did it by booming his drives over Oakmont's famed bunkers—just as he does at Scioto's No. 2.
My own drive boomed over the ravine just below the tee and stayed clear of the front lawns across Club Road. But it did not carry quite long enough to reach the desired plateau of the fairway. The green looked large enough as it sprawled in front of some sycamores on the right and a cluster of maples on the left. It also looked reachable with a firm three-iron from a slight uphill lie. But, pressing the shot, I pulled it into the left rough about 20 yards shy of the green and realized that a four-wood might have been a wiser selection. A wedge from the rough ran past the flag and left a putt of 12 feet for a par. It is my belief that all golfers have moments when they know a putt is going to fall, that nothing could keep it out of the cup. One reason for my extreme confidence this day may have been that I had just spotted Evangelist Billy Graham, who was in town for a revival, teeing off on the 3rd hole. My putt hung for an instant and then dropped for a par 4. When I looked back at Billy Graham, he was walking toward the rough.
PAR 3 220 YARDS
Some warm, clear day all of the unpublished poets and un-galleried artists from the North Beach area of San Francisco should take a trip out by Lake Merced and sit down on the 3rd tee at Olympic Country Club. The esthetic experience is every bit as rewarding as an intellectual debate in the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, for from this highly elevated tee you can see the distant towers of lots of people's favorite city and the glistening strands of the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, the golfer must eventually shift his view down, down and down some more to the sunken green 220 yards away. And ultimately he must play some kind of shot.
Virtually every foot of the landscape adds to the theatrical qualities of this hole. The tee is recessed in a dark chute of pines and is so high that any decently lofted shot will hang in the cool air for a long time. A steep hillside of Monterey cypress to the left of the green forms a natural amphitheater of trouble. The bent-grass fairway is tiered down to the speedy putting surface, and to the right there is a heavy growth of more Monterey cypress, plus some pines and fir trees—evergreens so dense that balls hit into them often disappear forever. (Three limbs were once cut off a cypress tree on the 8th hole at Olympic and 105 golf balls fell out.) Five bunkers further protect the 3rd green from anything less than a well-hit drive, if the wind is up and the markers are back, or perhaps a two-iron, if the markers are up, the wind is down and the player is consumed with the confidence of—say—Jack Fleck.
Olympic is where the unheralded Fleck won the 1955 U.S. Open Championship after the trophy had been all but packed and mailed to the Fort Worth address of Ben Hogan. Hogan had finished early with a 287, was announced as the winner on television and to the press in the locker room, only to be tied by Fleck's birdie-par-par-birdie finish. Fleck then scored one of golf's most memorable upsets of all time by defeating Hogan in an 18-hole playoff the next day—and he did it after gaining vast amounts of confidence at the 3rd hole.
On the 3rd that day Hogan hit first, and put a two-iron within four feet of the flag. Fleck scraped his shot to a ridge of a bunker, but it bounced on the green instead of back into the sand and ended up about 20 feet from the hole. Fleck got down in two for his par, and Hogan then missed his birdie. "That showed me," said Jack later, "that Hogan was only human."
Fleck's Open victory focused attention on Olympic that the club had long deserved and established its reputation as one of the country's finest courses. The U.S. Open will be played at its Lake Course—there is a less demanding 18 known as the Ocean Course—again in 1966, and no doubt the USGA will continue to schedule major tournaments there every 10 years or so.
Olympic was organized in a San Francisco firehouse in 1860 as an institution devoted to building muscles, and it remained a sweat-and-steam athletic club until it began broadening its sporting horizons early in this century. In 1921 the members purchased the old Lakeside Country Club, remodeled the course, added another 18 and built an enormous, Spanish-style clubhouse that looks to this day like the home of a silent film star. With 1,050 golfing members—mostly upper-middle-class businessmen—and golf privileges available to 6,000 more members of the downtown club, eight miles away, Olympic is usually a noisy, crowded place, and far from snobbish. The Lake Course is one of the most heavily played anywhere, and were it not for the moist, cool Pacific climate that makes the terrain easy to maintain, the course probably would have as much grass on it as the Mojave Desert.
But no matter how frequently a golfer plays Olympic, he will always be struck by the beauty of the 3rd hole. He may even be so struck that he will pull a four-wood into the gaping bunker to the left of the green, as I did. From the bunker, I noticed, it was awfully difficult to see San Francisco or the Golden Gate Bridge or, for that matter, how to make a par. And I place very little esthetic value on the mediocre explosion shot and two putts which followed for a bogey 4.
PAR 3 183 YARDS
Springfield, N.J. is only 45 minutes from Broadway, a fact that neither impresses nor consoles commuters for, as every working New Yorker knows, there are lots of times when even Fifth Avenue is 45 minutes from Broadway. But for 70 years Springfield's proximity to America's largest city has been of special interest to golfers, because Baltusrol Golf Club is there, and Baltusrol has contributed so much lore to the game that its slopes and woodlands are almost a shrine. One has only to turn into the curving driveway and be met by the massive stone castle that Baltusrol has called a clubhouse since 1909 to sense the strange nostalgia that a man feels for things he has heard much of but never really known. For a fleeting instant the visitor must struggle with the impulse to stop, back up and go fetch a set of clubs with hickory shafts and a stuffy attitude to match.
Baltusrol was founded in 1895 by a gentleman named Louis Keller, a deaf little fellow with sandy hair, a drooping mustache and a squeaky, affected voice. If the description seems apt for the sort of man who might also originate the Social Register, then good, because Louis Keller did that, too. The land was originally owned by a farmer named—it's true—Baltus Roll. He lived on top of a small mountain behind the point where the clubhouse now sprawls. Mr. Roll was found dead in a snowbank in 1831, the victim of a murderer who believed a legend that great sums of money lay hidden in the Roll farmhouse. The mountain and, later, the club were named after the unfortunate farmer.
At first the club had only a nine-hole course, but The New York World called it "as fine and springy a turf as was ever lacerated by a duffer," and play was heavy because the course was near a railroad. The members, who were nearly all from New York, would sometimes bicycle out from the city and then put their cycles a board a train for the return trip. In 1903 the USGA selected Baltusrol as the site of the U.S. Open, the first of 10 major championships it has staged there. In 1920 the old course was torn up and Architect Archie W. Tillinghast designed the present upper and lower courses, which are justly famous.
It was on the Upper Course in 1936 that an obscure pro, Tony Manero, shot a finishing 67 to break the existing Open record by four strokes and win at 282. And it was on the Lower Course in 1954—the first U.S. Open to be televised—that Ed Furgol, by playing a shot out of the woods and onto the Upper Course on the last hole, managed to salvage a par 5 and win. In 1967, when the U.S. Open will likely again return to Baltusrol, it will probably be played on the Lower Course—the stronger of the two. One reason for its superior strength is length, and another is a wider variety of holes, the most striking of which is the 4th.
Admittedly, this is the second par-3 in a row on the 18 Best, but the reason for selecting each of them must outweigh this academic flaw. Few par-3s encompass as much playing value as Baltusrol's No. 4. "It has great flexibility," says Joseph Dey, of the USGA. "There are some marvelous pin positions, and the large, undulating green can present some very difficult putts." Much of the character of the 4th was built into it by Golf Architect Robert Trent Jones when he reshaped the green and lengthened the tee. Members complained he made the hole too hard, so Jones went out to play it with club officials. "I don't agree," Jones told them, and he then teed off and made a hole in one, proving his point forever.
The tee shot requires whatever club the golfer uses best at 183 yards, over a devastating lake to a two-level green. With the flag forward and to the left, I hit a four-iron back and to the right. Safe. Prudent. Gutless. The first putt was indeed dangerous, but it slid only four feet down from the cup. I calmly sank the next one for a par and stalked stuffily away to await the impact of my feat on the Social Register.
PAR 4 459 YARDS
When the owner of a household-appliance store or a small lumberyard or a car dealership in Fort Worth gets his business on solid ground, his first goal is to join Colonial and hope that one day the club's most distinguished member, Ben Hogan, will say hello to him in the clubhouse. His next goal is to try to par the 5th hole.
The odds on either event happening right away are as long as the hole itself. Nobody—not even Hogan—can par the 5th consistently. It is the most notorious golf hole in Texas, a golfing state. As for that other matter, Hogan rarely appears at Colonial anymore. He is usually across town at Shady Oaks, a posh and less crowded country club, even though Colonial is where he shaped the game that won him so many championships. Colonial, in fact, has a special room for Hogan trophies and bric-a-brac that looks like breakfast at Tiffany's. When Hogan does turn up at Colonial's large brick clubhouse—it looks like a public school—it is usually in May for the National Invitation tournament, which he has won five times.
Colonial was built specifically as a championship course in the '30s by a wealthy department-store owner and oilman, Marvin Leonard, who is, coincidentally, a friend and onetime benefactor of Hogan—Leonard bankrolled Hogan to success in tournament golf. In a lush river-bottom area near downtown Fort Worth, Leonard set out to construct the best course in Texas, one which would have the first bent-grass greens in the Southwest and would be capable of playing host to the U.S. Open. He succeeded.
Colonial has been termed "the toughest par-70 in the world" by Cary Middlecoff, "one of the five best courses in the country" by Byron Nelson, and "unfair" by Arnold Palmer, who has rarely played it well. It is long and narrow and infested with pecan trees, flower beds, ponds and a river. It is a severe driving course that requires both length and placement off the tees. The artful fader has a definite edge—Hogan once adored the fade—in that seven of nine difficult driving holes bend to the right.
Marvin Leonard managed to persuade the USGA to award the Open to Colonial in 1941, a tournament that will long be remembered for its second day of action. It is doubtful if any Open round ever was played under less suitable circumstances. A brutal storm blackened the Texas sky and lightning flashed throughout the day. Play was delayed twice and withdrawals were numerous.
At the height of the storm Craig Wood, who had won the Masters, sought shelter in a ditch beneath a long row of dripping branches at Colonial's 5th and deplored his situation: three over for the tournament, ball in the rough, drenched through to the corset he wore on his ailing back. He said he was quitting. "No you're not," said Tommy Armour, with whom Wood was playing. "This course is eating people alive. Keep swinging." Wood did. He bogied the 5th, but he played the next 49 holes in even par and won.
Unhappily, there were no such incentives as I stood in the same place as Craig Wood at the 5th hole—completely dry, uncorseted and in sunlight. I looked down the fairway and thought how they had built it especially for the 1941 Open, and how it had taken 25 men, mules, TNT and two weeks to clear out the huge pecan trees and level the land. They could have spent a couple more days and leveled a little more, for the sight from the tee was appalling. The markers were shoved back against a fence, the brown-tinted Trinity River lurked close by on the right and some 230 yards down the fairway there was a small target area of Bermuda grass where the hole doglegged right. The prevailing southerly wind suggested that any sort of uncontrolled fade or slice would sweep the ball into the river. So I duck-hooked into the ditch.
When perfectly hit, the drive on this hole is a controlled fade that carries to the fairway bend so that a medium to long iron will reach the fast, curling green, framed by trees, a bunker on the left and a dropoff to the river on the right. But out of the ditch the shot was a low hook from a downhill lie that would sail under some branches. It happened to be a shot I knew well. Club face closed, hands over and forward, ball off the right toe. The only thing that went wrong was the ball. It went straight—straight into the Trinity River. Taking a drop and shooting 4, I guided a nine-iron onto the green—the wrong side—and thereupon three-putted down and across an aging crease of slick bent grass for an absolutely forgettable triple-bogey 7. I should have gone over to Shady Oaks instead and said hello to Ben.
PAR 4 388 YARDS
The men's locker room at The Seminole Golf Club in Palm Beach, Fla. is long and airy, with windows overlooking the course. It is decorated with thick gold rugs, cypress clothes closets that have intricate designs carved on the doors, overstuffed sofas and chairs, a fireplace, a small bar and the heads of 15 wild animals that stare down from the walls. It is one of the better places in Florida in which to change your shoes.
A visitor to Seminole who does not own a private island or an obscure nation can be excused for feeling slightly out of his social strata, for the club is surely among the most exclusive in the world. Many of the 350 golfers—the waiting list is longer than U.S. 1—live in Palm Beach and Hobe Sound, which are not exactly factory districts, and if any of them still work it is by phone. There are other members who come from across large bodies of water or vast stretches of this continent. ("Our members are the finest people in the world," is the description of Seminole offered by Greens Chairman Chris Dunphy, who has been there since 1937.) They belong to Seminole because it has a quiet atmosphere of formal informality—and a golf course that few can equal. Ben Hogan, an honorary member who has for years spent from four to six weeks in Palm Beach tuning up his game for the Masters, once said, "Seminole is the only course I could be perfectly happy playing every single day." And he added, "If you can play well at Seminole you can play well anywhere."
The course sits close by the Atlantic Ocean, and there are times when the salt spray looks like smoke blowing across the fairways. Yet it is in excellent condition during the months when it is open, from mid-November to mid-May. The fairways are a velvety grass called Ormand Bermuda, and the Bermuda greens are fast but true. Seminole has more elevation than the usual Florida course, and from some tees or a knoll of high ground the golfer can see a cluster of maintenance workers manicuring the premises until the entire 6,890 yards looks as inviting as a millionaire's lawn.
Seminole is down where the sea winds blow, and this is one of the course's hazards. It is not ordinarily a cruel wind, the kind that makes play unpleasant. It is more of a spanking breeze that comes and goes, and the man who does not know how to punch an iron shot and keep it low had better beware when he plays against Seminole's experienced members.
With or without the wind, the 6th hole (see cover) is Seminole's best. Tommy Armour has called it "the finest single golf hole in the United States," and Hogan calls it "the best par-4 in the world."
Yet the hole will not immediately impress the average player, for many of its virtues are subtle. To begin with, the view from the tee encompasses a string of deep sand bunkers. Although the hole is relatively short, the green cannot be seen. The fairway is there, but it curves lazily to the left, around one set of the huge traps. In a dense mass along the right side of the fairway, shielding out-of-bounds markers and breaking the noise from adjoining U.S. 1, is a long row of tall Australian pines. Numerous palm trees are strategically placed down the left side. The perfect tee shot must be aimed out over the longest expanse of sand and then faded back into the fairway, where it will roll downhill to the right. "Just take off as much of the sand as you think you're big enough to take off," Hogan says.
If the tee shot makes the fairway, the next view is equally challenging. Chewing into the fairway from the right and closing it down to a gate of only 20 yards are more bunkers. The hole is now swerving back to the right. The approach is toward a flag that appears to be sitting in the midst of sand. This shot, depending on the bravery and accuracy of the tee shot—and the wind—is anything from a four-iron to a nine-iron, and the one thing the golfer knows is that he dare not be wrong, especially if he is hitting from the right side of the fairway.
Being a sporting fellow, I attempted to cut off as much of the sand as possible from the tee. It was like trying to drive the Sahara, and while the shot looked good it caught a bunker. I found the ball sitting unprettily between a couple of tiny but nonetheless distracting seashells left over from Florida's last hurricane. A five-iron approach sailed 30 yards—the seashells went 50—but at least it got into the fairway. A nine-iron, which was played rather timidly to the open left side of the green, stopped inches off the putting surface. I chipped up to within about three feet of the cup and made the putt for a bogey 5. As I walked away it occurred to me that I ought to empty the sand out of my shoes before I went indoors to change them on those gold rugs.
7 PINE VALLEY
PAR 5 570 YARDS
Any man who has ever waggled a wedge with serious intent knows about Pine Valley. He knows from books, articles, pictures and locker room conversations that this is the course with the largest sand traps and funniest footprints in the world. He knows also that Pine Valley has more trees, bushes, Scotch broom, poverty grass, hawthorn and mountain laurel lying around those traps—and in them—than any course in the world. And finally he believes that if he ever is fortunate enough to be invited to play there he probably will not be able to break 100, because Pine Valley is the science-fiction monster of all golf courses, a nightmare without parallel.
All of this is true, to some extent. Located in the New Jersey shore area east of Philadelphia near a little town called Clementon, Pine Valley is the most difficult course anywhere for the man who makes a lot of mistakes. Its expansive hazards of unkept rough and sand and its dungeons of pine forgive nothing. Almost every fairway and green is an island surrounded by sand through which footprints lead in and then out again, mute and memorable testimony to the trials and determination of those who have come before. It is a course where a well-regarded member once made a 42 on the waterbound 14th and where a British Walker Cup player stood on the 2nd tee and said, "Do you chaps play this hole, or do you simply photograph it?" It is a 43-year-old course where the lowest score ever posted is still only a three-under-par 68, and a course that is known as "Crump's Folly," because the builder, George Crump, a retired Philadelphia hotel man, set out to construct the toughest course ever—and exceeded his worst hopes. Finally, it is so hallowed a course that Jack Nicklaus took part of a day out of his honeymoon to play it for the first time, while his wife, Barbara, sat in the car. Pine Valley was pleased to welcome Nicklaus, but never has welcomed a woman and presumably never will.
Despite the terrors of Pine Valley and the legends that surround it, the course is surprisingly fair. There is plenty of fairway, even for the chronic hooker or slicer if he will allow himself some room for his miscues. The greens are immense and they hold any sort of decently struck approach. It is also one of the two or three best-conditioned courses in the U.S.—at least where the grass is.
There are many famous holes at Pine Valley, but the 7th is classically distinctive on two counts: it is that fairly rare thing, a truly demanding par-5, and it has a bunker known from here to Heaven as Hell's Half Acre. Actually, Hell's Half Acre is an acre and a half, and though much of it is sand there is also a goodly amount of the kind of scrubby South Jersey flora that a rabbit might relish but a golfer detests. It is golf's largest sand trap, and it stretches across the 7th fairway at a critical point, guaranteeing that nobody will ever reach the green in two.
From back in a tunnel of pines near the residence of Club President John Arthur Brown, I hit a 235-yard tee shot that faded just off the edge of the fairway. The shot to the second landing area of the hole, across Hell's Half Acre, was a 200-yard four-wood from a tight but not discouraging lie. It also needed to fade a little, which it did not. Out of sight it went, deep into the upper left reaches of the infamous hazard.
The caddies at Pine Valley have a way, sometimes for the worse, of finding the ball. In my case, this was good, for it was in a patch of open sand beside some small cedars, and I managed to slap it out onto the fairway with a seven-iron. I then hit a mediocre nine-iron, but it cleared the moat of sand in front of the green and left me a 30-foot putt for a 5. I sank the putt. Ho hum. A typical par at Pine Valley.
8 PRAIRIE DUNES
PAR 4 424 YARDS
Straight away in the distance, crawling across the horizon, are the sweeping sandhills. To the right and left, twitching in the normal 25 mph wind, are broad, swollen patches of knee-high native grass, festering clumps of yucca plants, plum thickets and sunflowers. This is the outlook from every tee at one of America's most unusual golf courses, Prairie Dunes Country Club, a course whose scenery and shot-making requirements are those of a Scottish links, but whose location—Hutchinson, Kans.—could hardly be farther from the Irish Sea.
As country clubs go, Prairie Dunes is certainly not opulent. The small clubhouse is white frame, the landscaping is, for the most part, Kansas natural and the lawn is spotted and unshaded. As for cuisine, it does exist, but a Hutchinson gourmet would prefer the Town Club for an evening out. Thus the country club is strictly a golf course, but a distinctive one.
This incongruous touch of Scotland on the Kansas plains was founded in 1937 as another golfing lark of the Emerson Carey family, a ruling dynasty in Hutchinson. It was built by Emerson Carey Jr. and his brother, Bill, who succeeded their father as benefactors of the town. Emerson Carey Sr., before his death in the '30s, had provided Hutchinson with four golf courses and a public park. The young Carey brothers hired Golf Architect Perry Maxwell to lay out a different kind of course on the unusual duneland in the area. Maxwell set forth each day with a bag of apples and a thermos to walk the ground, and he kept coming home confused. "There are 118 golf holes out there," he once said. "All I have to do is eliminate 100." Finally, he ran out of time—or apples—and he laid out Prairie Dunes.
By modern championship standards, Maxwell's 6,522-yard course is not long, but its rough more than makes up for any lack of distance. Even the best player has been known to take 15 swings or so trying to disgorge the ball from a yucca plant. The course first came to public attention in 1958, only a year after the second nine holes was completed, when a burly 18-year-old named Jack Nicklaus won the Trans-Mississippi Amateur there. Although he won, Nicklaus did not manage a round below 72, and to this day he still talks about the severity of the course. In 1962, Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus played an exhibition round at Prairie Dunes. They shot 72 and 77, and in the process Nicklaus demonstrated how to take an eight out of the matted rough.
There is also the wind. It can be so severe a factor that a hole which plays with a driver and a wedge on one day may require a driver, a spoon and a wedge the next.
The Prairie Dunes golfer constantly finds himself brooding on a windy hilltop—called a tee box by club members—from which he peers down into a swale of thorny growth. He can see little fairway on which his shot can safely land. Thus every hole becomes a challenge, but none is more challenging than the 8th. It is a long, forced dogleg to the right with no reward whatever for trying to cut across. The fairway rises gradually, bumping its way over four ancient dunes—formations that were apparently caused by the wind that whips into Hutchinson from the Arkansas River Valley. The first dune is 165 yards out from the tee and about six feet high. They get successively higher, the last one rising about 50 feet. A perfect tee shot will carry the first dune and have enough length and fade to clear the second, too. After that, the green, protected by four bunkers on the right and one more on the left, each of which is dotted with yucca plants, can be reached with a solid three-iron. The green itself, well uphill from the fairway, is large and severely contoured, inviting three excellent pin positions and making a long, curling putt a decided possibility.
My drive cleared the first grass-covered dune—called Hockaday's Hill in honor of a club member named Ray Hockaday whose drives always landed there—and the second dune as well. As promised, I had a three-iron to the green, but did not quite make it, glancing off into a right-hand bunker. Fortunately, I was in sand instead of a yucca plant. My trap shot was uneventful and my 20-foot putt woefully offline. I made the next putt from five feet for a hard bogey and leaned, more than satisfied, into the wind blowing over the Kansas sunflowers from an invisible sea.
PAR 5 538 YARDS
Houston is an oil-nourished city of glass-and-steel towers, wide, tree-lined boulevards, astronauts, a thriving ship channel, the grandest tangle of new freeways east of Los Angeles, an abundant collection of elegant homes set among drooping, moss-choked willows and a growth so rapid that its big-money civic leaders may one day be forced to buy the Gulf of Mexico and develop it as a floating suburb.
The city has never been known to think small, and when two of Houston's best-known and best-liked sportsmen, Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke, announced in 1957 that they would build Champions Golf Club northwest of the city, everyone in Houston knew what to expect—the best course to appear in the South in recent years.
Champions has proved to be that, twice aver, for a second 18 was completed at the club in 1964 and both are excellent. Combined, Champions' two courses—Cypress Creek (old) and Jackrabbit (new)—may be the finest 36-hole layout anywhere. The first course, designed by Ralph Plummer (with careful overseeing from Demaret and Burke), winds around and across a deep canyon and stream, Cypress Creek. Its greens are huge, the fairways are heavily bordered with pine and post oak trees, and man-made ponds guard many of the greens. It has no hills or valleys, for the terrain is as flat as most of Texas, but in concept the course still suggests Augusta National, where Demaret won three Masters and Burke one. It is a modern course, long and tough, and is being considered as a site for a future Ryder Cup or U.S. Open (the winner would not break 280).
Champions is strictly a golfer's club. The money in the clubhouse has been spent on a lavish locker room that is lushly carpeted, Gothic-ceilinged, paneled and comfortably cushioned, and on a massive, glassed-in dining room and bar. Houston's golfers reacted with unexpected enthusiasm when the course first opened—450 joined before it was completed—and Jimmy and Jack decided they would build a second 18 as quickly as possible. It was finished last July, and while it is sown with the same grass—Tiff 328—from tee to green, it has little else in common with its older brother. Designed by Jay Riviere and George Fazio, the Jackrabbit Course has an old-fashioned flavor; tight doglegs, narrow driving areas and rolling greens that are severely raised and bunkered. It plays a manly 7,122 yards.
There are some excellent holes throughout the 36 at Champions—on the older course the 4th, 12th, 13th and 14th are splendid—but there is not a 9th hole anywhere in the U.S. that rivals the one on Jackrabbit. It is a testing par 5 that offers a wonderfully sporting gamble when the wind is helping, because a fair golfer, after laying into a big drive, is positioned for a tempting try at a triple-level green that has a large lake on the right and woods on the left. But a giant post oak at the left center of the fairway constitutes a serious hazard to any such bold second shot and it forces a hook on the player who has driven anywhere except snug along the right side of the fairway.
By using Jimmy Demaret's clubs and scooter, and having Demaret himself as a guide, I found playing the hole was easy. "Drive down the right side," said Jimmy. I drove into the sandy left rough. "Take this four-wood and hook it off the sand around the post oak," Jimmy said. I hit it straight into the right rough across a ditch and two feet shy of the lake. "Firm eight-iron to the second level," Demaret advised. I chopped the approach to the left front, 30 feet from the hole. "The putt breaks right," Jimmy said. "Hit it hard." I pulled it to the left, but got down in two. "Nice par," said Demaret. "What'd you shoot on the front nine of this course of yours?" I told him a smooth 42, six over par.
"Where is your 10th tee?" he asked. "New York," I said.
Demaret grinned. "Keep your head down," he said.
On the back nine, Dan Jenkins plays his way from Westchester County, N.Y. to the Pacific Ocean, contending with seven more water holes and stumbling into a birdie.