Template Holes: Golf’s Most Mimicked Designs

Template holes
9th hole, Royal Liverpool (Photo by Kevin Murray)

“But don’t let famed holes…such as the ‘Alps’ of Prestwick and ‘Redan’ of North Berwick, lead you into attempting to reproduce them. In trying to make your course fit certain famous hole treatments, you are certain to be doomed to disappointment.”

DONALD ROSS, Golf Has Never Failed Me

Sorry, Don. They didn’t listen.

The idea of importing enduring hole designs from one course to another is usually credited to Charles Blair Macdonald, who wanted to build “a classical golf course in America, one which would eventually compare favorably with the championship links abroad and serve as an incentive to the elevation of the game in America.”

In the “agreement” Macdonald prepared for the investors in the club he envisioned on New York’s Long Island—The National Golf Links of America, which opened in 1909—he wrote, “…it is well known that certain holes on certain links abroad are famous as being the best, considering their various lengths. It is the object of this association to model each of the eighteen holes after the most famous holes abroad, so that each hole would be representative and classic in itself.”

Ever since, courses throughout the world have “borrowed” classic design concepts, mostly from the famous early courses in the UK. But which are the most iconic? Poring over golf books and online led us to dozens of candidates for what we now refer to as “template holes,” as well as arguments about their legitimacy. We settled on what we consider the eight most classic, each of which is explained here. We also asked some current architects to help us identify the best of the reproductions: No surprise, many of these are on courses designed by Macdonald and his acolytes Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, with a few more modern examples included, as well.

Template holes
15th hole, North Berwick (Photo by Kevin Murray)

REDAN (Original: 15, North Berwick (West), Scotland)

Probably the most famous template of them all. A Redan is a military fortification formed by ramparts shaped like a V, angled toward the enemy and open in back. This concept was adapted to form a par-three hole with the green on the plateau created by the embankments: The green tilts right to left and slopes away from the incoming shot, with a deep bunker protecting its front and a smaller one at the back. David Strath, who designed North Berwick in the late 1870s, brilliantly placed the tee so the green is approached at a near 45-degree angle, bringing every element of the naturally occurring mound into play. Depending on the wind and where the hole is cut, the shot required could be almost anything. Macdonald’s Redan, the 4th hole at National, is usually called an improvement on the original because the features are visible from the tee, while at Berwick much is hidden. Among the countless variations, the green slopes different ways, while bunkers are added or subtracted—and even replaced by water as at the Redanish 16th at Augusta National.

NOTABLES: 4, National; 6, Yeamans Hall; 17, Mid Ocean; 3, Piping Rock; 7, Westhampton

Template holes
11th hole, Old Course at St. Andrews (Photo by Kevin Murray)

EDEN (Original: 11, Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland)

This par three covers flatter ground than the Redan, meaning bunkers must do most of the work protecting a green that slopes from back to front. The bunkers are usually quite deep, in the manner of the original at St. Andrews, which famously features the “Hill” bunker front-left, the smaller, yet treacherous, “Strath” bunker front-right, and one much shorter (called “Cockleshell” or “Shelly”) that shouldn’t come into play. The hole takes its name from the River Eden that flows behind the original; on many reproductions, sand fills in for water behind the green. Wind also plays a role: On the Old Course, where the hole is around 175 yards, the club of choice can be anything from driver to wedge, depending. Alister MacKenzie was a huge fan of Eden for the “marked tilt of the green,” and also wrote, “The narrow entrance and subtle slopes have all the advantages of a cross bunker without making it impossible for the long handicap man.”

NOTABLES: 13, National; 2, Old Macdonald; 11, Fishers Island; 5, Camargo Club; 7, Midland Hills

Template holes
9th hole, Yale (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

BIARRITZ (Original: 3, Golf de Biarritz, France)

The most recognizable feature of this long par-three design is the deep (three- to five-foot) swale in the middle of the green. The Biarritz course—which still exists, although the template hole was destroyed during World War II—was laid out by brothers Willie and Tom Dunn around 1890 for British expatriates in southern France. Intended as a test of one’s long game, the hole is usually more than 200 yards; crucially, the shot must finish on the correct side of the swale or else leave a long, tricky putt. Furthermore, the large, geometrically precise green is usually guarded by long, narrow bunkers. Recent variations on the Biarritz green incorporate it into a par four or five or turn some of what was the front part of the green into fairway.

NOTABLES: 9, Yale; 3, Chicago; 8, Camargo Club; 13, Mid Ocean; 17, Fox Chapel; 16, Yeamans Hall

Template holes
17th hole, Prestwick (Photo by Kevin Murray)

ALPS (Original: 17, Prestwick, Scotland)

Today, almost any par-four or -five hole with a big hill or mound between tee and green is likely to be called an Alps, but the key element is that the approach shot is blind and, therefore, that much scarier. Another feature is a hidden hazard behind the mound and in front of the green: At Prestwick, it’s the aptly named “Sahara” bunker. This sort of doubly troublesome blind shot has fallen out of vogue, but others say one of the most exciting moments in golf is scaling the hill and seeing that you’ve successfully found the green. Macdonald is credited with improving on the mostly straightaway original when he designed the 3rd at National, angling the fairway to the right and adding bunkers, tempting the player to shorten the hole by playing left but then putting the highest part of “High Hill” in the way.

NOTABLES: 3, National; 4, Fishers Island; 9, Gibson Island; 5, Old Marsh (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)

Template holes
14th hole, National Golf Links (Photo by Evan Schiller)

CAPE (Original: 14, National Golf Links, New York)

While many holes in the UK and elsewhere exhibit Cape-like qualities (e.g., No. 1 at Machrihanish), it’s not unreasonable to give credit for this template to Macdonald himself, as exemplified by his water-lined designs at National and Mid Ocean. The question for the golfer standing on the tee is “How much do I dare ‘bite off’” over a hazard to a diagonal fairway that ends with a green very close to the same hazard. It’s the ultimate risk/reward calculation, required on every shot. Some Cape holes use sand, grass, even trees to create the hazard, but the idea is always the same: Hit it straight (and a knowable distance) off the tee, then avoid the trouble at the green.

NOTABLES: 5, Mid Ocean Club; 18, Pebble Beach; 18, TPC Sawgrass (“Half the water holes Pete Dye ever built are Cape holes,” according to Tom Doak.)

17th hole, Old Course at St. Andrews (Photo by Kevin Murray)

ROAD (Original: 17, Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland)

What most golfers remember about 17 at St. Andrews— arguably the most famous hole in golf—are its extremes: the drive over a wing of the Old Course Hotel (originally railway sheds), followed by the road and stone wall beyond the green. Those elements matter, and are often replicated by bunkers or other hazards that direct the tee shot away from the trouble and then punish a too-long approach. But what really makes this a classic is the green—long and angled right to left, with a deep pot bunker in front. Playing a Road hole well requires driving as close to the hazard/hotel as possible to leave an approach into the full length of the green; drive away from the hazard and the approach has to go over the bunker and into the green at its narrowest. The hole’s fame is well earned.

NOTABLES: 2, Chicago; 10, Shoreacres; 7, Yeamans Hall

9th hole, Streamsong Black (Photo by Streamsong Resort)

PUNCHBOWL (Originals: 9, Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) and 3, Royal Cinque Ports, both England)

The name refers to the green, which is shaped like a bowl because it is surrounded by mounding, usually with the effect of funneling the ball to the hole. Such was common on old links courses where architects looked for green sites that were protected from the wind. Usually the green surface is below the fairway, exaggerating the bowl effect; more modern Punchbowls have been built at or even above fairway level. You’ll find Punchbowls on any kind of hole, long or short. And while some architects dislike the uncertainty of its blindness, it can produce the same sort of thrill offered by the Alps, the great expectation of finding where one’s ball has come to rest.

NOTABLES: 16, National; 6, Creek Club; 12, Chicago; 15, Sleepy Hollow; 9, Streamsong Black

3rd hole, Prestwick (Photo by Kevin Murray)

CARDINAL (Original: 3, Prestwick, Scotland)

Although named after the massive bunker about halfway along the par-five 3rd hole at Prestwick, the true definition of a Cardinal hole is double-dogleg. The original and many adaptations bend twice in the same direction—left to right at Prestwick—but some Cardinals bend in two different directions. In either case, two features are paramount: length and significant trouble guarding at least one of the bends (e.g., “Sahara” at Baltusrol’s 17th, “Hell’s Half Acre” at Baltimore’s 14th, both A.W. Tillinghast courses).

NOTABLES: 17, Baltusrol (Lower); 14, Baltimore (Five Farms East); 6, Piping Rock