Frequently, the 18th hole is a course’s grand statement, the big finish that settles all bets and creates lasting memories. On occasion, however, it’s the 17th hole that steals the show. Rarer still is when a great 16th hole kicks off an outstanding homestretch, making for a truly unforgettable conclusion to the round.
To find a place on this list, each hole must be compelling and acclaimed in its own right, which nudges Pebble Beach (16th) and Cypress Point (18th) from consideration. For those who favor the grand finale to go on for a while, here are the 10 greatest closing trios in golf.
10. Harbour Town—Hilton Head Island, S.C.
The journey home at Harbour Town begins in the trees at the 434-yard par-four 16th, where Pete Dye called for a precise drive to avoid a massive bunker up the left side on this dogleg left. Once accomplished, the approach features a view of Calibogue (pronounced “Cali-bogey”) Sound, which means that wind will factor into club selection and trajectory. The one-of-a-kind, 185-yard par-three 17th plays over a lagoon and a 90-yard-long bunker—bulkheaded by railroad ties—that curls to the left of the slender, banana-shaped green. The ride ends at the fabled 472-yard par-four 18th, one of golf’s “must-play” holes. To the left of the vast fairways are the breeze-fueled salt marshes of Calibogue Sound. To the right are trees, condos, and out of bounds. A large, flat green is protected by a large, flat fronting bunker. In the distance looms Harbour Town’s most enduring symbol, a candy cane-striped lighthouse. Spring in the Lowcountry is a special time.
9. Diamante (Dunes)—Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
It’s been nearly 10 years since Diamante abandoned its original par-four 18th for clubhouse traffic flow purposes, which transformed the former 15th, 16th, and 17th holes into the closing stretch. And what a closing stretch it is. The 432-yard par-four 16th heads straight for the beach. Davis Love III, who with brother Mark and Paul Cowley designed the course, considers the 15th his favorite green, a rumpled target that falls off steeply at the back and to the sides into waiting sand pits. Sand and scrub that once obscured the green at the 175-yard par-three 17th are now gone, but the tiny putting surface remains, at the edge of the Pacific, with ever-present breezes making it a tough target to hit. Love’s favorite hole is the 590-yard par-five closer. It heads away from the beach, though yielding stirring views and features multiple landing areas amid the dunes and a green elevated by 50 feet.
8. Shinnecock Hills—Southampton, N.Y.
Stretched another 76 yards for the 2018 U.S. Open, the superb, 616-yard par-five 16th features a slender, undulating, S-shaped fairway that gently slithers between strategically placed bunkers. A right-side bunker 100 yards short of the green is a good aiming point for second shots. The narrow green is protected by eight bunkers short and left and two more short and right and is backdropped by the iconic Shinnecock clubhouse. At just 180 yards, the par-three 17th packs a wallop, given its propped-up green that’s set on a diagonal to the tee, angled short-right to long-left. With the prevailing southwest wind coming from the left and deep bunkers short-left and back-right, the tee shot must be alarmingly precise. The wildly undulating, 485-yard par-four home hole curves to the left around a bunkered hillside, then uphill to an intricately contoured green.
7. National Golf Links of America—Southampton, N.Y.
This 1911 creation from Charles Blair Macdonald offers the greatest variety of strategic holes and intriguing greens in American golf, as exemplified by its closing stretch. The 415-yard par-four 16th (which played 476 yards for the 2013 Walker Cup) is called “Punchbowl,” for its hollowed out green. Next to the green is a magnificent 50-foot windmill that was added after the course had opened. The beautiful, downhill, 370-yard par-four 17th, called “Peconic,” falls away toward the sea. Your drive must carry a vast diagonal area of sand. It’s a longer carry down the left side, but your reward is a more open shot to the green. A safe or short drive to the right risks finding fairway bunkers and faces a subsequent blind shot over a hill and more sand to reach the green. A poor shot can find a pond. Visually, the combination of large, sandy waste areas; smaller, formal white-sand bunkers; golden fescue grasses; green fairways; and blue ocean is memorable. National Golf Links concludes with “Home,” a 502-yard, uphill par-five that runs along the bluffs. A low handicap player can make an eagle, a higher handicap can make a par, but danger lurks at every step.
6. Cabot Cliffs—Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada
A Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw creation, this one a seaside layout along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Cliffs features a finish likened by Matt Kuchar to Cypress Point. Most spectacular is the 176-yard par-three 16th, which demands a heroic carry to a clifftop green. The green’s right side looks as if it’s going to tumble 10 stories down into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, yet the toughest hole location is back left. The drivable 331-yard par-four 17th calls for a blind drive, uphill over a cliff edge to a fairway that slopes toward the water. At 532 yards, the par-five 18th slithers along the cliff, with a ravine jutting into the green’s right side. It’s fabulous risk/reward fun.
5. Sand Hills—Mullen, Neb.
Approaching its 30th birthday, golf’s ultimate Field of Dreams (“If you build it, they will come”) continues to top the modern course rankings, due in part to its stellar finish. The 612-yard par-five 16th tumbles down to a green that slopes left to right and which allows for a running shot to use the left-side contour to maximum advantage. Amid a sprawling canvas of grass-topped dunesland, the 150-yard 17th is practically swallowed up by its vast surrounds. It features an all-carry shot to a tiny, 3,200-square-foot green surrounded by bunkers and native wispy fescues. The 467-yard par-four 18th climbs uphill around a gigantic blowout bunker before concluding in an amphitheater green. Another Coore & Crenshaw design, it’s lay-of-the-land golf at its finest.
4. Merion (East)—Ardmore, Pa.
Known since its inception as the “Quarry Hole,” this legendary, 430-yard par-four 16th has fascinated and tormented. Roughly 300 yards from the tee, the sunken fairway stops cold at an old limestone quarry. This vast pit of despair is choked with impenetrable scotch broom, wild sand splashes, and gnarled rough. For those who can’t handle the carry, a fishhook-shaped sliver of fairway allows passage to the right. The sprawling putting surface features a lower tier, raised up some 50 feet above the quarry and a huge upper tier, where the pin is often placed. Back over and through the quarry we go to tackle the 246-yard par-three 17th which features a hard-to-hit green framed by five bunkers and club-twisting grasses. At the 521-yard par-four 18th, where Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron in 1950, a right-to-left-sloping fairway and a domed green make things tough for players of any generation.
3. Carnoustie (Championship)—Carnoustie, Scotland
Carnoustie’s closing trio isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but the satisfaction of conquering its unmatched difficulty makes it a standout. It starts with the 248-yard par-three 16th, which features a 46-yard-long, undulating green bunkered front-left and front-right. After his fourth consecutive bogey on 17 in 1975, the eventual Open Championship winner that year, Tom Watson, called it, “the most difficult par three I’ve encountered.”
At 460 yards, the 17th is the hardest hole at Carnoustie, and it’s nasty whether conditions are calm or calamitous. Its name, “Island,” comes from the sanctuary of fairway where most drives land, which is surrounded by a loop of the Barry Burn. The fairway progressively narrows, making a layup off the tee a prudent play, but leaving a frighteningly long approach. The 499-yard 18th doesn’t usually play as difficult as the 17th, but with the Barry Burn in play, it can offer plenty of torment, as Jean van de Velde can attest.
2. St. Andrews (Old Course)—St. Andrews, Scotland
Called by Sandy Lyle as one of the most dangerous holes on the Old Course, the 418-yard par-four 16th terrorizes from the tee if the wind is up, thanks to OB all long the right side, courtesy of a fence that abuts an old railway line, together with a cluster of fairway bunkers just left of center called the Principal’s Nose. Carry those traps and 40 yards further on lies the Deacon Sime bunker. The slightly raised green is ringed with small, par-thwarting contours. The 495-yard 17th, the Road Hole, is rightly ballyhooed one of the toughest, most distinctive holes in golf. The 356-yard 18th plays awfully short these days, but is there a more memorable, historical closer in the game?
1. TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium)—Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Pete Dye’s preferred sequencing for the finish to a round—reachable par five, watery par three, and long, tough par four—works to perfection at the home of the Players Championship. The 523-yard 16th, 137-yard 17th, and 462-yard 18th yield the best odds to see someone catch up, or toss up, the lead. The island-green 17th is golf’s ultimate gut check, and the water-all-the-way-up-the-left 18th is just plain brutal, but the 16th is gettable by all, providing you can avoid three distinct trouble spots: a tall live oak jabbed into sand to the left, a small bunker front-right, and a lake that guards the final 175 yards along the right side.