Over the course of the summer and playing all sorts of new courses, I have found myself most intrigued by par threes. The shortest holes on a golf course can range from 75 yards to 250 yards, and I believe I have probably hit each club in my bag into a par 3 this summer, including a driver at the 245 yard third hole at Cedar Falls in Saugus and a sand wedge into the miniaturized 9th hole at Concord CC, which shortened for the day and usually plays around 140 yards.
Par threes have the benefit of putting everyone in the same position firing into the green. The experience of the hole is like the architect hit the perfect drive for you, and now it’s your turn to not mess it up with a tee in the ground and (usually) an iron in your hand.
Typically, a golf course has four par threes, but I have seen as many as six on some courses this summer. So one thing par threes can do to a course is manipulate the par. Six par threes probably means you’re dipping into a par 68 or 69, which some people turn their noses at. I used to be like that but not anymore. A par 69 can be as challenging as a par 72 in some instances. Plymouth CC is a course really enjoyed played last year, it’s a par 69, but that doesn’t mean the course is toothless. I’ve played plenty of easier par 70 courses than Plymouth CC.
I tend to think of par threes as a set or grouping. They can be enjoyed and looked at separately, and the best ones on a course tend to stand out when reflecting on a round, however, they should be looked at together, too.
I like when the par threes are different lengths. It’s never a good sign when I stand on a tee and hear the phrase, “This is pretty much the same shot as the last par three we played.” Different clubs should be used on each par three. Obviously, that can’t be the case every day on every course with conditions and wind and everything, but on a calm summer day, players should pull a different club on every par 3. Some holes should feel like we’re playing a short par 4, a scoring club in our hand. Others should feel we’re on the fairway of a long par 4, it’ll take two good ones to make birdie, but three shots will be a worthy par.
It also drives me crazy when par threes are used to manipulate the yardage on a golf course. A shortish course made to feel longer because of three 220+ par threes in silly. Give me one long par three, even two if I know I’m playing the tips of a long golf course, but spare me the monster holes for a few hundred yards on the scorecard. It also clogs up the golf course.
Individually, par threes should have some elevation change or at least the appearance of elevation change. A dip in the ground between the tee and green offers a visual effect that can make the player wonder if the yardage is accurate. There is nothing more dull than a par flat par three. The fifth hole at Putterham is one example of a boring 200 yard par 3. You can see every blade of grass from the tee, no thank you (however, the 12th a Ponkapoag is a favorite of mine, even though it’s a flat hole. I like the setting and the framing behind the hole).
Water is another way to make a par three memorable, it’s also a way of ruining a hole if it’s done poorly. Natural waterways, ponds, wetlands, or (if you’re lucky) the ocean are all exceptional hazards when used properly. Water for waters sake is not interesting. The third hole at Shaker Hills in Harvard, MA is one of my favorite par threes I’ve played. They have two tee boxes, one up high, making the hole about 200 yards with a pond wrapping around the left side. But they have a second tee down in front of the water, forcing a short shot over the water with no elevation change into a green that wasn’t built to receive shots from that angle. Water can make your palms sweaty and rise the blood pressure, but it can’t feel forced. These two tees boxes at Shaker Hills shows that, I think.
Par threes also offer the designer a chance to wedge a cool hole into a spot that a par 4 or 5 might not fit. Waverly Oaks and Boston Golf have some cool par threes in spots that highlight some of the properties wrinkles, but do it in a fun, interesting way. The 6th hole at Boston Golf is another on my favorites. I’d play it 18 times, if I could. The land between tee and green would be unusable for a golf course, but it’s great to frame a short, maddening par three. At Waverly Oaks, Brian Silva uses the tops of massive escarpments for putting surfaces. The 8th and 17th holes are excellent. One 8th has the player hitting down to the green and the 17th is a long shot up to a flat spot that’s blind from the tee box.
Boston Golf also has another intriguing par three, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The 18th hole at BCG is a 170 yard uphill par 3 (with a great patio). It’s a fine hole that comes after a fun, fair stretch of 15-17 where birdies and eagles are available to the brave. Finishing a round with a par three is a little anti-climatic. The drama of having to hit driver and find the fairway in a close match is erased, the architect hit the tee shot for you and put a mid-iron in your hand. In BCG’s case, it’s a blind shot, too. So the drama comes from people on the patio reacting to your shot, because from the tee it’s just a guess about where your shot ended up, unless a massive front bunker swallowed up your golf ball.
A finishing par three was another thing that used to bother me. I felt robbed of playing a “real hole” to finish the round. I assumed the designer drew up 17 lovely holes and crammed one more in to reach the clubhouse. In some respects, it feels like a warm-down hole. Akin to soccer players running across the field a few times to cool down before hitting the showers. A bad closing par 3 can feel the same way. Mount Hood has a bevy of par threes, and it finishes with a 145 yard par 3 that truly feels like just a way to arrive closer to the clubhouse.
I have yet to start on a par 3 course this summer, I can only think of one course I’ve played in my life that starts with a par 3 and that’s the exceptional Quechee Highlands. However, that also feels like a warm-up hole. It’s not hard, it’s not long, it’s just an opening hole. Possibly the gentlest of hand shakes. Royal Lytham and St. Annes in England is the only championship golf course I can think of that kicks off with a par three (this week, some of the field will begin their US Open rounds on the 10th hole at Winged Foot, which is also a par three.).
Par threes have seared themselves more in my memory during this new quest, both the great ones and the bad one. I appreciate them more now than I have in the past because of all the new places I’ve seen this summer. They really can tie a course together or turn you off to the experience if they don’t cut the mustard.