Between 4 and 5, golfers find frustration and elation in equal parts

Between 4 and 5, golfers find frustration and elation in equal parts

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — The drivable par-4 has become a much-loved concept by the USGA, which had a beautiful example of it at Oakmont (No. 17), Torrey Pines (No. 14) and other places. Of course, the concept is a word game — or a numbers racket. Davis Love, talking the other day about the 260-yard 15th hole at the Atlanta Athletic Club, said, “The PGA wanted a drivable par-4, and they got it.” He was being funny. Fifteen played as a par-3.

But the greatest hybrid in golf-course design is not the drivable par-4. No. The greatest hybrid is the hole too long to be a true par-4 and too short to be a true par-5. And the Atlanta Athletic Club had a prime example of one of those: No. 18. Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley played the hole out of the textbook on Sunday, both in regulation and in the playoff.

Peter Kessler, the noted Jonesophile, told me on Sunday that Bobby Jones himself used the term “par-4½.” I didn’t know that, but it’s no great surprise. Jones saw golf in original ways. In these more digital times, you might hear it as the “par-4-point-5.” They’re an odd and interesting thing, these in-between holes. If your 4½ is called a 5, golfers are filled with glee. If your 4½ is called a 4, folks get all cranky. Exhibit A: the two short par-5s on the back nine at Augusta National, Nos. 13 and 15. Jones, working closely on their design with Alister MacKenzie, wanted them to be eminently reachable in two after an excellent drive. But if you turned Augusta National into a par 70 and reduced those two holes to par-4s, the entire character of the course — nay, the whole Masters tournament! — would be different. Really, nothing would change but semantics and attitude, but it would be enough.

Then you have the other end of the spectrum, the par-4½ that’s called a par-4. The most famous example of that is the 17th at the Old Course, the Road Hole. A celebrated hole, but not a beloved one. (Ask Tommy Nakajima.) The hole is dreaded, really. Nobody ever steps off the 16th green at St. Andrews and says, “Here comes that old Road Hole hole. Par-TAY!” No. The 17th there is an exercise in survival: tee shot, approach shot, pitch shot, first putt, second putt. Good par! Except that five is actually, technically, a bogey. Lee Trevino (do you not miss the shotmaking and verbal genius of Lee Trevino?) used to say, “The reason the Road Hole is the greatest par-4 in the world is because it’s a par-5.”

As for No. 18 at the Atlanta Athletic Club, it is actually a par-5. That is, for 361 days this year, it’ll be a par-5. A par-5 that measures 570 from the tips and 500 or so yards for everyday member play. For no particular reason, the par-5 finishing hole is not one of golf’s delightful things, but what can you do? Actually, there is a reason. The par-5 is a slog for most amateurs. Who wants to end the day on a slogging note? That’s why the downhill finishing hole is so welcome, although rare, as clubhouses are usually built on high points and near 18th greens, at least traditionally. Anyway, for the four days of the PGA Championship, the final hole was not a par-5. It was a 485-yard (plus or minus a little) par-4 with a 4.6 stroke average, making it the hardest hole on the course, relative to par. Of course, if you called it a par-5, it would have been the easiest hole on the course.

You can hit it in the water on the tee shot, or you can hit it in the water on the approach shot, or you can hit it in the water on both shots, as Jim Furyk did on Saturday. Rees Jones, the architect who re-worked the course for the PGA, likes to say there’s really only one hazard from which pros cannot recover, and it’s water, which is why 13 and 15 at Augusta are such complete fascinations and why the finishing holes at Torrey Pines and the Atlanta Athletic Club are interesting, too. The 18th is certainly a memorable hole, and Dufner and Bradley had their wits about them from start to finish there. A decade after the fact, look how many people remember the four that David Toms made on the 72nd hole in the 2001 PGA Championship, when he drove it in the rough, knocked it down the fairway, pitched it on and made the putt to nip Phil Mickelson by a shot.

Mickelson said the other day that the AAC course lacks “intimacy,” and I applaud him for the word. Intimacy is what the inviting old-timey courses have and the gnarly you-must-suffer modern ones do not. But 18 at AAC was loaded with intimacy for the PGA. There were fans lining the fairway and ringing the green. They were within arm’s length of the players as they walked the narrow bridge that links the fairway to the green.

Some of the resident experts were saying last week that you could only hit a driver if you could hit a draw at one of the fairway traps, but that’s not really true. For starters, off the tee, there were players hitting drivers, 3-woods, hybrids and irons. You have to admire a hole that makes you think so much off the tee.

You can play the 18th at Pebble with a fade over the ocean, or a draw that starts at the mansions. Or you can bomb it straight at that tree if you have that shot in your repertoire.

Keegs — presumably that’s what Tiger will be calling Bradley on the Presidents Cup team — bombed high, drawing tee shots on 18. On the 72nd hole, he came into the green with a 5-iron, a half a club too much, as it had to be. Half a club too little puts you in the drink, as Steve Stricker found out on Sunday. In the playoff, Dufner hit a big tee shot that looked like an old Nicklaus-style power fade, the way it took a perfect left-to-right bounce and finished on the right side of the fairway. Big Jack, in his prime, would have hit a fade on 18. But the modern ball, which goes higher and straighter (for the pro) than the old balata ball, allows the world-class golfer to hit high, soft, super long draw shots as never before. That’s what made Rory McIlroy so dangerous at Congressional. That’s what made Bradley so unafraid at the scary 18th in Atlanta at the PGA.

Ben Crane made a birdie on 18 on Sunday, and it was something else. He drove it straight and about 270 yards into a humid, light breeze. He then hit a 220-yard 24-degree hybrid that hit the flagstick. He rolled in his 15-footer for a . . .

What would you call that three? Technically, of course, it’s a birdie. But it felt like more, though not as much as an eagle. Crane is offering this: a beagle.

In any event, he really doesn’t like the hole. He really doesn’t like 17 at the Old Course, either. On the other hand, he loves 13 and 15 at Augusta. You know why. When you make a four on a par-4½ that’s a par-5 on the card, you feel good about yourself. When you make a four on a par-4½ that’s a par-4 on the card, you only feel so-so. Make a five, and you go into a bogey funk. Especially when it comes at the end of the day.

Crane was wishing he could sell his beagle on 18 to Keegan or Bradley. “I wouldn’t take less than $200,000 for it,” he said while those two were still going at it. “It’s going to be worth a lot more to them than it is to me.”