What Makes a Great First Hole
The anticipation of a round of golf on the first tee never goes away with experience. It might be a weekend round with the regular group or a trip to some far off destination. Can the feelings of anticipation rise and fall depending on the round? Of course. Golfers aren’t robots. I’ve stood on first tees with clattering knees and sweaty palms, and I’ve also had that giddy excitement of having a group together for four hours with the understanding that there’s a drink cart making the rounds on a regular basis and no rain in sight.
Every round must start with a tee in the ground, ball on tee, and a club in the hand (unless you’re a monster that doesn’t use a tee…). So what kind of opening hole is appropriate for that first tee excitement? There is a certain chemistry involved, I think, to how we all want to start a round.
Having played the brunt of my golf in New England where you could throw a golf ball and land on a Donald Ross course, I believe in his “gentle handshake” approach to the design of a golf course. Now this doesn’t mean the holes needs to be easy or simple. All it means, in my mind, a 30 minute warm-up isn’t necessary to ensure a solid first number on the card. There should be allowance for the guy that either tuns from his car to the first tee or decides to chip and putt and then grab a few clubs, swing them around like a weighted bat, swivel his hips a few times, and start his round.
A rather wide open landing area is a good place to start, a bit of space on the right would be appreciated by most right handed golfers, as the right miss is a popular one. This doesn’t mean the fairway needs to be massive, but spare me the wandering creek, yawning bunker, or OB. I’m don’t mind hitting my second shot out of a bit of rough. Many of the courses Ross designed had no driving range (some still don’t or use a sliver of land that doesn’t allow for woods and hybrid shots), so to have the player belly up to the bar on the first tee and have to hit two long shots to have a birdie putt doesn’t seem very kind or gentle at all.
The last two rounds I’ve played have had very different opening holes, both fair and gentle in their own way. At Mount Hood in Melrose, the opener is a par 5, dogleg left. All along the left is O.B. and a creek runs across the front of the green, forcing the player that hits a good drive to make a choice if they want to try and start their round with an eagle or birdie. My buddy Paul hit a solid drive and reached in two. I fanned my drive right, laid up, and had a wedge in my hand for my third (which I skillfully bladed over the green…). At Waverly Oaks, Brian Silva’s design, which had plenty of length and nastiness in the heart of the course, started with a lovely par 4 that measured 340 from the tips. There was enough space for a driver or a player could just hit a long iron out there and have 140 yards left. Silva doubled down on the Ross philosophy with a short and simple 18th hole, too. Bookends to a round, leaving the player, hopefully, with a happy memory of par or birdie. You do, after all, want return customers.
On the other side of the spectrum, go and play Bethpage Black or Red. Those two openers are not gentle handshakes; they are a pound of smelling salts preparing you for a 4.5 hour barroom brawl. Bethpage Black’s opener isn’t too hard, but it requires some length and precision to find the sliver of fairway. The tee box is also in a conspicuous space on the property; it’s rather public with a warning sign to scare off unskilled players and a bulldog of a starter who has no qualms making you completely uncomfortable . Instantly, you’re on watch, needing to prove you’re worth admission with one single swing (enter knocking knees and sweaty palms). Bethpage Red is a bit more of a private experience, but it’s a par 4.5. I played it into a 30 mph wind and hit a solid driver and good hybrid but still came up 30 yards short.
More locally, Granite Links has a three different opening holes (three nine hole courses), and I’d rank two of them pretty low on my list. The first hole at Quincy is the one hole I enjoy starting my round on. It’s a fair par five, trouble left, but so much room right that there’s really no excuse for going left. But the Milton course’s opener is a beast of a hole; it requires a forced carry off the tee and a then a long iron into a green that I’ve seen more balls disappear around in the long rough than actually hit the green in the times I’ve played there. There is nearly always a prevailing wind. The opening hole on the Granite course is an abomination of a hole, and I won’t spend any more time discussing it.
The key to the opener is how it also plays in concert with the second hole, too; that second hole needs some charm and even some bite after the gentle handshake. Two gentle handshakes in a row means 30 minutes of golf that doesn’t feel that interesting or challenging. A course like Concord Country Club is notorious for it’s opening two holes, that basically play like a par 9. The opener is a short par 5 with the second shot over water. But the second hole is one of the best par fours in the state (among an amazing crop of par fours at CCC in general). If you walk off the second hole even par, you’re feeling pretty good. You don’t care if you made a 4-5 or a 5-4. Anything better is gravy, anything more is annoying.
The first hole should be a gateway into the round, something meaty enough to chew on with some margin for error so the round isn’t in shambles before the second tee shot (and if it is in shambles, it’s the golfer’s fault not the designer).