Bigger Not Always Better


Northern Trust OpenFor some a perch and an adult punch adjacent TPC Scottsdale’s infamous 16th hole is manicured heaven, while others may consider that stretch of magical surf and turf at Pebble Beach Golf Links' 18th hole the ultimate arena. But for pure architectural artistry, to say nothing of timeless relevancy, count Riviera Country Club’s 10th among the Tour’s best reasons to call in sick to work.

Short, drivable par 4s are professional golf’s version of black pants: smart, stylish and, thanks in no small part to the efforts of U.S. Open set-up man Mike Davis, back in vogue. And few, if any, on Tour are as good as No. 10 at Riviera.

Consider the math: of the 557 par 4s played on Tour last year, only four were shorter than Riviera’s 10th hole, and yet at a mere 315 yards the L.A. gem played to a virtual par push with a 3.932 stroke average, two eagles, 109 birdies, 56 bogeys and 14 others. All total for last year’s Northern Trust Open 153 attempts were made to drive the green. Only seven succeeded.

The 10th wasn’t the toughest par-4 on Tour last year –  it ranked the 419th hardest, in fact – but it made every Tour type think, and that is largely a lost art in the bomb-and-birdie era.

“Easily one of the best par 4s we play all year, long or short,” Steve Flesch said. “Length is totally overrated anymore.”

To Flesch’s point, 21 par 4s measured over 500 yards last year, whereas a decade earlier just two of 597 par 4s came in at over 500 yards. In short, the Tour landscape has been on an HGH drip for a decade in response to advances in modern equipment and improved fitness, or vice versa depending on one’s point of view.

There are now 11 TPCs in play on Tour which would explain much of the yardage explosion. And unless the powers in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. have plans to co-opt Harbour Town or Colonial into the TPC fold, longer may not be better, but it is what we’ve got so deal with it.

The Tour is not alone in the art of ever-expanding tee boxes. In what has become a major championship trend the last decade, the line between par and performance has been blurred. For last year’s U.S. Open, Pebble Beach had a par 5 (the 523-yard sixth) that was just a hair longer than a par 4 (the 505-yard ninth). But, at least for the USGA, that tide seems to have ebbed somewhat.

The par-4 fourth hole at Pebble Beach last year played to a tantalizingly short 331 yards, just 43 yards longer than the par-3 fifth at Oakmont played for the 2007 U.S. Open. For this year’s national championship at Congressional, Davis plans to actually increase par (from 70 to 71) by converting the nondescript par-4 sixth hole into a par 5.

“I looked at it and thought this is just not a good par 4. It would be an overly hard, somewhat boring par 4,” said Davis, who plans to play the sixth between 530 and 570 yards. “We’re going to keep forcing the issue until a large portion of the field can go for it. It’s kind of like 18 at Torrey Pines (for the 2008 U.S. Open).”

It is curious that Davis and the USGA, the same organization that stretched Torrey’s South Course to 7,643 yards in ’08 and Bethpage the next year to 7,426 yards, have embraced balance over pure brawn while the Tour is content to combat every increasing swing speeds with more real-estate.

Yet bigger is not always better, particularly when compared to the erstwhile likes of Riviera’s 10th. The hole is something of a museum piece on the bomber’s Tour – short and subtle. A chess match in what has largely become a bar brawl.

“Every course needs a reachable risk/reward (par) 5, drivable (par) 4 and a tough 150 yard or less (par) 3,” was Arron Oberholser’s take when asked this week about the 10th at Riviera.

It’s why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors.

If one size fit all there would be no need for 14 clubs, yet just 26 par 4s on Tour last year measured south of 350 yards.

Tour brass will say distance gains have rendered anything less than a pitch-and-putt not worthy of the world’s best, but the real culprit here seems to be modern architecture. How else would one explain a 3.932 scoring average on the fifth shortest par 4 on Tour last year?

Bubba Watson and his ilk weren’t flying the ball 330 yards when George C. Thomas cut Riviera’s 10th hole into a hill in 1926, bunkers littered about the lot guarding a heavily pitched putting surface, yet somehow No. 10 remains relevant.

Maybe that’s the ultimate compliment for any architect, or maybe it’s an indictment of the modern game that gems like Riviera’s 10th have gone the way of the Dodo. Either way, this week’s Northern Trust Open will once again prove that bigger is not always better.