Geoff Shackelford: A Plea for the Wee Par Three

No hole in golf offers a richer combination of fun and fright for pros and amateurs alike than the short one-shotter

The wee par three is having a moment. Surprising as it is to believe, the little knee-knocking, heart-stopping thrillers had fallen out of favor, one-shotters under 155-or-so yards becoming victims as developers and architects chased mythical, marketable, 7,000 yard back tees thinking anything less was substandard. Having something “short” on the card or, heaven forbid, more than one short par three, would torpedo the pointless pursuit of length that no one needs.

Why 155? Because 150 would rule out Augusta National’s 12th, and it certainly belongs on the list of cute little holes adorable to all unless you’re trying to protect a Masters lead.

wee par three
Royal Troon 8th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

“There’s something about the topography, the trees, the wind, the beauty,” said Masters Chairman Fred Ridley this year when asked about lengthening the hole. “It is such an iconic hole that’s had so many important moments in the Masters that I’m not sure that another 10 yards would really make a difference. Players are hitting short irons, but it doesn’t seem to matter, the hole is very difficult.”

Short is relative in today’s golf, where modern iron lofts mean elites are hitting “gap” wedges from 150 and the rest of us hit an 8-iron when a 7 used to be needed. But for argument’s sake, 155 seems about the limit since anything longer starts to feel a little out of reach. Ideally, a standout short par three falls in the 110-to-135 range and the golfer can count at least four grooves standing over the ball. Anything longer starts to seem less like a cute kid and more like an annoying teenager.

Short par fours started this return to sanity. They continue to be demanded by golfers and tournament watchers as the last relatable holes where anything can happen. Everyone can play them. Everyone can fall victim to their temptations. Sometimes they even allow a chop to take down a stick.

Diminutive par threes share similar dynamics. Even heavily bunkered or watery ones seem more lovable to more people. The size is right. We can see the ball land, wrap our head around their small scale, and we don’t mind if the architect goes a little crazy with them.

The emergence of wee threes owes a lot to pros who are pushing hardest for them. Go figure. The same logoclads who used to loathe the island green at TPC Sawgrass have not only come to grips with that yearly spectacle, they ask why golf deprives us of more. Usually, the whining about long par threes comes during weeks when they have to play super-long par threes. Ben Hogan once labeled Riviera’s 238-yard 4th as the greatest par-three hole in America and for reasons both understandable and irrational, the same hole is now loathed by the people best armed with length, skill, and clubs to handle it.

Royal Troon's 8th hole, "The Postage Stamp"
Royal Troon’s 8th hole, “The Postage Stamp” (photo by Kevin Murray)

In July, the 123-yarder that most legitimized the wee three will again highlight for the golf world how we can never have enough do-or-die shorties.

Royal Troon’s 8th hole, “The Postage Stamp,” was a 1909 creation of the club’s head pro, Willie Fernie. He took a long and blind three over a dune and set today’s green into the sandhill. Apparently, a small opening had to be closed, so the five-time Open Champion James Braid added two now infamous bunkers before Troon hosted its first Open in 1923. The hole hasn’t changed since.

While the Postage Stamp did not spawn as many shorties as golfers would like, its center-stage status this summer should keep the passion for them alive. Plenty of other forces have made it practically mandatory for new courses to have a par three under 150 and remodeled layouts to scrap back tees forced on unsuspecting shorties. There is no law saying existing courses are prohibited from shortening a par three in the name of fun.

The newfound joy of par-3 courses is also helping. It all started at Augusta and is now fueled by seemingly every great golf resort realizing they’d better have one—or two in Bandon’s case. So have the architects.

“We always try to do a short three,” says Ben Crenshaw of his designs with Bill Coore. “They’re fun for everybody.”

Architect Martin Ebert and the R&A added the “Little Eye” in a dramatic change to Royal Liverpool’s finish for last year’s Open. While the hole received mixed reviews and has since been toned down a touch despite never producing the predicted spills and cruelty-induced thrills, its addition to a storied links would have been an unthinkable nod to trends even a decade ago. Now everyone wants to see the big hitters brought to their knees by a wee three.

There is also a comic relief element to the shorties. In April, the PGA Tour visited Tom Doak’s remodeled Memorial Park in Houston and the centerpiece was the short 15th suggested by player consultant Brooks Koepka. Certain hole locations were not meant to be played, in much the same way only a sucker goes at the far-right flagstick on Augusta’s 12th. Yet the data-driven, launch-monitor-honed giants of the game succumbed to temptation, took on the pin, and racked up big scores. Unless you were a close friend, family member, or the caddie watching your percentages decline, it was must-see TV.

Maybe their cartoonish ability to cause trouble with so little acreage will keep the wild, weird, and wacky wee threes coming. At the very least, their emergence should put an end to the mysterious desire to keep making one-shotters longer. In a sport that still doles out more than its share of cruelty, we can all use the laughs elicited by a good old fashioned short par three.

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