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What Makes a Great 18th Hole

Depending on the day, the 18th hole can have many different emotions: sadness, joy, anger, nerves, elation, pensiveness. Sometimes we’re drunk, other times we’re not. The first 17 holes mix the potion of whatever emotions are flooding through us on that 18th tee box. A great 18th hole pulls those feelings out of us and maybe even some memories, too.

The 18th hole is, in some respects, the end of a journey. An 18 hole journey, a 36 hole journey, a once-in-a-lifetime golf trip, or maybe just a quick three holes in a golf cart with your son or daughter.

Any way you slice it though, a great 18th hole needs to have a few things to make it worth the trip while luring you back for another round. Just like the first hole, there should be a chance at birdie, but unlike my first hole requirements, there can also be a bit of danger and risk-taking. A par five with a water hazard that makes you grab that hybrid or 3-wood out of your bag, palms a bit sweaty, $10 on the line, and decide to bash it up there is great drama. The risk factor is not a requirement of mine for a final hole, just merely a bonus, and usually only effective on a par five. A par five should also be reachable, don’t give me one of these 600+ yard par five for us mere mortals. A nassau match should never come down to your opponent hitting driver, 6-iron, sand wedge while you know two great shots won’t give you an advantage or an outside chance at eagle.

I have yet to play a good closing par five on this quest of mine. Shaker Hills might be the closest and fairest closing par five thus far. The drive isn’t too demanding, but if you don’t place it in the right spot the second shot becomes real squirrelly real fast. But it’s reachable, and instead of water there’s a ledge to the left and the driving range to the right. Black Swan’s 18th hole is in the running for my “Bulldozer 18.” Just a horrific par 5 (like the rest of them on that course), with a massive dogleg that basically requires a sliced tee shot to hit the fairway.

But what about par 4s? Personally, I don’t need an ass-kicking par 4 to finish up my round. This might make me a snowflake, but a hole like 18 at Sawgrass, while fun to watch professionals play, and probably a treat to play once for its gravitas, is not the kind of hole I want to play on my way home. I’d rather play the 18th at St. Andrews than the 18th at TPC Sawgrass. However, I don’t mind having to hit a long-iron into an 18th green, and I don’t mind having a premium on driving accuracy. Holes like the 18th at Concord CC and The Country Club (which I haven’t played this summer), are long enough holes where a good drive rewards you with a chance to take aim at the pin, but a bad drive leaves you gashing at your second shot in deep rough or a fairway bunker, hoping to miss the yawning front bunkers.

If you’re going to finish with a par 4 or 5 put driver in people’s hands, please (par 3 finishing holes are getting there own post next week…). Save your hybrid lay-up holes and cross hazards off the tee for the first 17 holes; the 18th should put the big dog in everyone’s hands.

The atmosphere of an 18th hole also matters a lot to me. I like the feeling of coming “home.” I love when the clubhouse looms in the distance, visible from either the tee or the second shot. There’s something wonderful about standing on the 18th tee and asking where to aim and being told, “You see the cupola on the clubhouse? That’s the best line.” The 18th at Brookline Golf Club has a great clubhouse to aim at off the tee, so does Concord CC, Thorny Lea, and Worcester CC.

There should also be a sense, as you play the hole, that you’re being watched. The drama of the 18th should be shared beyond your playing companions. The 18th green should have some sort of area for people to watch you finish your round, preferably while drinking a beer or eating. The hum of people recounting their round, especially during a tournament, adds such a wonderful layer to the 18th hole. Some venues have the spot right on top of the 18th green, like Worcester CC, where I remember seeing more than one skulled wedge slam between members on the patio because it was so close. You can draw a straight line from the tee through the fairway up to the patio at Worcester. As soon as you’re on the 18th tee, you’re in view of everyone.

The green on the final hole matters, too. A short-iron or wedge approach should require some accuracy, either because the green is small or tiered so that you have to hit a really good shot to hit it close. The green should be protected: bunkers, water, dunes are all fair game. If you make a ten footer on 18 to save par or make birdie, it should be a good putt. A tough putt.

The final hole is every player’s last chance to find a reason to come back after a bad round. It’s the hole that can make your next meal go down smooth or like shards of glass. Whatever the final result, it should be on the player, and not some design technique, that decides how that cold beer and cheeseburger taste while sitting on the patio watching other players finish their round.

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