The Par-5 Untouchables, Revisited

Watching the pros and top amateurs play with today’s high-tech drivers and balls, it may seem as if there isn’t a par-five hole anywhere that can’t be reached in two shots, even if only by the very longest of hitters.

“With the equipment today it’s hard to make a hole that’s not reachable when conditions are favorable,” says Tom Doak, the golf course architect whose designs include Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, and Cape Kidnappers, all listed among the LINKS100. Doak echoes a sentiment Pete Dye and others have expressed.

However, there does exist that rare breed of hole where no ball has ever come to rest on the putting surface in two strokes. More than 30 years ago, when he was a student at Cornell
University, Doak researched which par fives in the United States could lay claim to never having been reached in two. He found 21 of them and wrote an article about it that earned him an A+ in his “Writing for Magazines” class. The article was published in a national magazine, and Doak’s editor—George Peper, now LINKS’s very own—titled it “The Untouchables.”

“The article was George’s idea, and at that time the magazine happened to have on its staff Oscar Fraley, who wrote the real The Untouchables (about Prohibition agent Eliot Ness and his men),” Doak recalls.

Now LINKS has done its own research and brings you an updated Untouchables list. Interestingly, even though par fives on more recent courses have been getting longer and longer and older courses have been pushing tees back, there are fewer certifiably unreachable  par fives than three decades ago.

“I thought years ago, and still think, this was a good premise for an article about architecture, because it allows us to discuss the question of whether all par fives should be reachable in two,” says Doak. “There were some players and some architects back then who thought that a truly unreachable par five was necessarily a bad hole.

“After some thought on the topic, I decided I didn’t like the idea of a totally unreachable hole, either. If players cannot reach in two then they aren’t tempted to over-hit on the first or second shot; they will just play 3-wood, 4-iron, 8-iron to the green. So, I think nearly all par fives should be theoretically reachable so that the strong player is consumed by temptation.”

The most well-known untouchable is the 16th hole on the Lake Course at Olympic Club in San Francisco. The hole, which arcs to the left around a stand of trees, was stretched to 670 yards for last year’s U.S. Open, and it hasn’t been hit in two at that distance.

Back in the 1920s, however, it was reached by none other than Bobby Jones, who may be counted safely among those opposed to lengthy par fives. “It was one of our principles in building the Augusta National,” he wrote, “that even our par fives should be reachable by two excellent shots.”

For the 2007 U.S. Amateur, the hole was lengthened to 609 yards, but was nonetheless reached by Jamie Lovemark, who hit a 4-iron over the trees and onto the green. During last year’s Open, the new back tee was used in only two of the four rounds. The hole played 609 yards in the second round and just 569 in the final round.

Ironically, it was at its shortest distance that Olympic’s 16th played its biggest role in the championship. Jim Furyk came to the hole on Sunday tied for the lead with eventual champion Webb Simpson. Caught by surprise at the tee being moved so far up, Furyk was uncertain what club to play off the tee. He chose his 3-wood and duck-hooked deep into the trees en route to a bogey.

Length obviously is the key factor when it comes to a par five being untouchable, but it isn’t everything. Oak Tree National’s 592-yard 3rd, designed by Dye, is the only hole under 600 yards on our list, but with water down the left side of the right-to-left dogleg, caution is continued from gatefoldnecessary on the second shot. The green is one of the smallest on the course and is fronted by a cavernous pot bunker.

A hole may never have been hit in two, but if such a hole still can tempt some golfers to try, then there is still strategy involved. But a hole where it is not humanly possible for anyone to get home in two can be dull.

“The untouchable holes really play to the guy who is patient,” says Doak. “Because the holes are so long people think they have to kill it, but the important thing actually is to hit the fairway twice.”

The opposite of patience would seem to be John Daly, the grip-it-and-rip-it former PGA and British Open champion. The 17th hole on the Lower Course at Baltusrol was long an untouchable par five, but Daly reached the green in two during the second round of the 1993 U.S. Open when the hole was playing 630 yards. The tee was moved back another 20 yards when Baltusrol hosted the 2005 PGA Championship, but Daly got home in two again, this time in the third round after a 370-yard drive.

Daly also factors in a hole on our untouchables list, the 725-yard 9th on the Gallery Golf Club’s North Course in Marana, Arizona. When the course was one of two used during the first two rounds of the 2001 Tucson Open, Daly reached the fringe with two mighty blows. That remains the closest anyone has come.

“The amazing thing is how many 650-plus-yard par fives have been reached in two,” says Doak. “Back when I wrote that article there really weren’t a lot of 650-yard par fives. Back then par fives were about going for it in two. In the 1970s and ’80s, I think most architects felt all par fives should be reachable in two. I think that’s changed partly because the game’s gotten so easy for the long hitters. So the trend is to have one of the par fives be very long—maybe not unreachable but very rarely reachable.

“The hard part for the average golfer is that just getting on these holes—even when not playing from the very back tees—is difficult. You don’t want to build holes that are four-shot holes for the average guy,” adds Doak.

A true four-shot hole on the scorecard would be a par six, and some of those do exist. Doak has yet to build one.

“I would consider building one someday if that were the best plan for routing the course,” he says. “Where I’ve seen them, they’re just gimmicks. But is the idea of a par six completely out of bounds? I don’t think so.”

Tom Ierubino is an award-winning freelance writer based in New Jersey.