Top 10 Penultimate Par Threes

Typically, the 18th hole is a course’s grand statement, the big finish that settles all bets. On occasion, however, it’s the 17th hole that steals the show. On a fistful of courses, it’s the next-to-last hole that resonates strongest, where history has been made, especially when that hole is a par three.

Combining challenge, lore, beauty, and the anticipation and thrill of playing it, here are the top 10 penultimate par-three holes.

1. TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium)—Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 137 yards

There isn’t a par three anywhere that jacks up the heart rate like the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Your palms start sweating thinking about the shot within seconds of booking your tee time. Pete Dye’s most legendary design (concocted with significant input from his wife, Alice) is only a short iron from the tips, but to hit and hold its breeze-influenced, apple-shaped island green requires perfect distance and trajectory—and perhaps a little help from above. A few have prevailed. Paul Azinger aced the hole in the third round of the Players in 2000 and in 1987, he birdied the hole all four days. Fred Couples scored a final-round ace in 1997. Even more improbably, in his first round in 1999, he hit his first shot into the water, re-teed—and holed out for a 3. Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia have both clinched Players Championship wins with brave shots here, but most unforgettable—thanks to broadcaster Gary Koch—was Tiger Woods’s double-breaking, 60-foot, “better than most” birdie putt in Round 3 of the 2001 Players. Visually intimidating in its isolation, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is the ultimate gut-check and the most thrilling hole in golf.

2. Pebble Beach Golf Links—Pebble Beach, Calif., 177 yards

It isn’t the one-of-a-kind stunner that its little brother the 7th hole is, but the 17th at Pebble Beach delivers plenty of eye candy of its own, with its hourglass green, fierce bunkering—especially the vicious, amoeba-shaped, front-left trap—and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Where 17 dominates is in the famous footsteps department. Jack Nicklaus’s masterly 1-iron that clanked the flagstick at the 1972 U.S. Open, leaving him a tournament-clinching, kick-in birdie and Tom Watson’s chip-in from thick greenside rough to cement his 1982 U.S. Open victory are among the greatest shots in major championship history.

3. Tara Iti—Mangawhai, New Zealand, 160 yards

Already acknowledged as the Southern Hemisphere’s premier links since its 2015 debut, Tara Iti has no important tournament legacy as yet, but it makes up for its lack of lore with a combination of beauty and strategy that has few peers. The shortish 17th earns votes as best hole on the course thanks to a foreground composed of artistically sculpted bunkers, plus sea and mountain backdrops. Vegetation-flecked low dunes complete a stirring picture. Yet, its shot demands are nearly equal to its aesthetic appeal. The hole usually plays into the wind, so choosing the right club and flighting the ball properly are paramount.

4. Harbour Town Golf Links—Hilton Head Island, S.C., 196 yards

Not as famous as the iconic par-four 18th with its candy cane-striped lighthouse, the 17th may well boast the stronger shot value. Typically it calls for a short-iron, or even a mid-iron with either cross- or headwinds sweeping in from Calibogue Sound. The tee shot plays over a lagoon and a 90-yard-long bunker, bulkheaded by Pete Dye’s infamous railroad ties, that curls to the left of the green. Complicating the task is a small, slender, banana-shaped putting surface and a marshy slope behind the green. An ace is a possibility even when the wind gusts, as Peter Malnati proved in the final round of the 2017 RBC Heritage, but equally astounding was Boo Weekley’s chip-in for par from behind the green en route to victory in 2007. Still, perhaps the most amazing shot of all took place in the final round of the 1985 event, when a bunkered, stymied Johnny Miller aimed one deliberately at the hard wooden planks that shore up the bunker. He gauged the rebound perfectly and the ball settled six-and-a-half feet from the cup.

5. Whistling Straits (Straits)—Sheboygan, Wis., 223 yards

Maxing out at 249 yards, this spectacular hole features massive sand dunes and bunkers submerged 20 feet below the green. Yank it left and you might find Lake Michigan. Fade it short or right and more tangled grass and a large, elevated bunker cut into a sand dune await, yet right is the preferred miss because of the nightmares that lurk to the left. The ideal play is to carry the dune bunker and land it on the right-third of the green, as the contour will direct the ball to the left from there. Collin Morikawa’s stunning shot to one foot that clinched the Ryder Cup for the U.S. was as pure as they come, but the hole is best remembered from that event in 2021 for Jordan Spieth’s impossible blind recovery from the jungle left of the green, where his follow-through nearly deposited him into the lake.

6. PGA West (Stadium)—La Quinta, Calif., 168 yards

Pete Dye was skeptical about replicating his Sawgrass island green in the desert, but colleagues, the developers, and PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman convinced him otherwise. Backdropped by mountains, the hole differs from its Florida cousin in that it’s lined with rocks, rather than railroad ties. Additionally, “Alcatraz” is longer by 30 yards and its green is significantly larger and less undulating. Yet, even with an elevated tee and a more visible target, it can induce the shakes in almost anyone, especially in a breeze—anyone, perhaps, except Lee Trevino. In 1987, Trevino conquered it in jaw-dropping fashion, holing a cut 6-iron in the Skins Game. Less fortunate was three-time PGA Tour winner Jonas Blixt, who hit consecutive backward shots off the rocks in the opening round of the 2022 American Express event on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7 and YouTube infamy.

7. Sand Hills Golf Club—Mullen, Neb., 150 yards

Western Nebraska’s Sand Hills is far too remote to play host to any significant championships. Nonetheless, its second-to-last hole easily earns Top 10 honors for its rugged natural beauty and its superior shot requirements. Amid a sprawling canvas of grass-topped dunesland, the 17th is practically swallowed up by its vast surrounds. While certainly on the short side, the green can be maddeningly hard to find and hold. It is tiny, at 3,200 square feet, and surrounded by wispy native fescues and by bunkers with deceivingly high grass lips. Thus, the tee shot is all-carry to the green, but prairie winds can destroy the best intentions.

8. Shadow Creek—North Las Vegas, Nev., 154 yards

No longer the most mysterious golf course in America, Shadow Creek has enjoyed television exposure three times since 2018, with The Match: Tiger vs. Phil, the PGA Tour’s 2020 CJ Cup and the LPGA Tour’s 2021 Bank of Hope Match Play. In each event, players and viewers were captivated by the 17th. Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn sculpted a literal oasis from a flat desert floor, creating elevated tees, a shallow, rock-framed, virtual island green, a forest of trees behind the green, a quartet of bunkers, and a cascading waterfall that slips across the rocks and slides down into the pond that fronts the putting surface. Tiger’s chip-in birdie from the back of the green squared his match against Phil, but a better shot was hit by European Solheim Cup player Bronte Law. During the second round of group play in 2021, Law ended her match emphatically—with an ace—to close out Austin Ernst, 2 and 1.

9. Bandon Trails at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort—Bandon, Ore., 182 yards

Often overshadowed by one, two, or even three sibling courses at Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails features a varied journey from dunesland to meadow to forest and back to the dunes. Its penultimate hole features an elevated tee shot, often into a crosswind, which must carry scrub-dotted sand, culminating in a gorgeously framed green. Its three bunkers are perfectly situated, with a vast, deep bunker front-right, two less penal bunkers front-left and back-left, plus native grasses, shrubs, and trees beyond. While the pretty picture entices, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw stiffened the challenge by installing a pronounced false-front on the putting surface. Merely clearing the false-front is no guarantee your ball will remain aboard; the green will also funnel less-than-perfect shots off the back-right of the green.

penultimate par threes

10. Seminole Golf Club—Juno Beach, Fla., 185 yards

Seminole’s next-to-last hole could make this list on aesthetics alone. Its elevated tee box is perched on a sand ridge above the beach and the Atlantic Ocean and its green is framed and fiercely guarded by seven bunkers. Escalating the challenge is a southeast wind that usually sweeps off the ocean but you can’t feel it as much on the tee because you’re sheltered by sea grape. The right-to-left sloping putting surface is deep, but not terribly wide. When conditions make the green complex firm and fast, shots hit onto the right side of the green may well leak into the right bunker, or even up to 50 yards away in a collection area, as contestants at the 2021 Walker Cup ruefully discovered.

PGA host
(photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

What penultimate par threes would you add to the list? Let us know in the comment section.