“Do you like a 9 or a wedge,” my golfer asked me. We stood about 140 yards to the center of the green at the ninth hole of Chicago Highlands, facing downwind to a flag roughly towards the front. He was a good player; the yardage and the wind indicated that either of those clubs were possible. I pretended to think a moment—I’d already been rehearsing what to say—then replied, “I think it’s a 7.” My golfer looked back at me without saying anything for a moment, then said, “But we’re downwind.” “I know,” I said, “that’s why.” There was another silence.
It may be a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but Golf Digest’s architecture editor, Ron Whitten, named Chicago Highland’s 9th the “Hole of the Year” for 2010. The title may not be the most euphonic, but the ninth is a golf hole—a “giant chocolate drop of a hole” according to Whitten—that has, to one degree or another, been an enigma to the golfers I’ve worked for this year. It’s a hole I’ve mentioned here, though only in passing, despite the fact that it has been the center of nearly every discussion provoked by the question (“what do you think of the course?”) that I try to ask every one of my golfers.
At most courses I’ve worked at, the better the golfer the more nearly the opinions tend to converge—an interesting phenomenon, that—but at the Highlands, and especially as concerns the 9th, opinions have both converged and yet spread during each conversation, particularly among the better players. Although many of the same points are raised, the golfers I’ve talked to have become less, rather than more, uncertain about their own minds when discussing the golf course. That’s unusual.
To those who don’t know it, the hole is this: the highest point on the golf course, surrounded on all sides by fairway—it’s not for nothing that, as Whitten says, the hole has been compared to Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, setting for the famous photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag there. The only feature to the hole besides the hill is a small pot bunker about twenty yards directly in front of the green. The bunker is the single obstacle; there is no water, nor even any rough really. Naturally, it’s difficult to avoid looking at that bunker, the only bunker, from the tee.
Also naturally, the bunker—reminiscent, so far as I can tell, of the “D.A.” at Pine Valley’s 10th—is deep, so deep that merely escaping it requires effort. The green, only 20 yards away, is just as naturally unreachable for most—though I did see what may have been the first birdie by someone who’s tee shot found the bunker. Yet curiously, the bunker is for most purposes a smokescreen to the hole’s real challenges, which are more hidden and cerebral. And, in fact, have little to do with the tee shot, and the bunker’s devilish prominence for that tee shot, at all—a fact that makes the hole’s outward similarity to Mt. Suribachi a more-than-casual comparison.
The name of the John Wayne film that memorialized the Battle of Iwo Jima—The Sands of Iwo Jima—actually disguises the reality of the battle: the word “Sands” induces thoughts of beaches, so that one imagines the difficulty of the battle was merely landing on the island at all. The word “sands” conjures the nightmares of Omaha Beach on D-Day during the invasion of Normandy—but the strategy of the Japanese at Iwo Jima had nothing to do with stopping the invasion at the waterline. Instead, the Japanese depended on what military tacticians call “defense in-depth”; constructing a series of hidden tunnels and bombproof shelters, the Japanese proposed to draw the Americans into a meat-grinder that would delay the march towards Tokyo. The “sands” of Iwo Jima, that is, were a mirage: the danger lay not at the high-tide mark on the beach but hidden beyond it. What looked, to the Americans, like a relatively simple conquest once a few speed-bumps were driven over, would become ever-more consuming …
In the same way, the “beach” on the ninth is also a mirage: the real problem posed by the design has to do with the green, which is tiny and extremely bumpy, with little dips and hollows scattered about. The question the golfer has to ask is, do you come at the green low, or high? In other words, do you try to land a high, spinning shot directly on top of the pin—with the risk that a spinning shot might come all the way back down the slope? Or do you try to hop the ball in front of the green, hoping that it comes to rest somewhere close to the pin—with the risk that the ball may not stop, may just keep rolling right off the green down the slope on the other side?
I’ve guessed wrong as often as I’ve been right about what shot to play—every shot is different, I suppose, depending as it does not only on the conditions (particularly the wind) but also on the golfer—but the real point of interest to me is that there is a difference at all. That is, most times for approach shots the difference is a comparatively trivial question of which iron to play (9-iron or 8-iron?), while the approach to the ninth actually demands that the golfer think of what shot to play, only then leading to the question of which club. That is a kind of thinking that, I’d say, most golfers in America have never really faced in their entire careers.
Almost all approach shots on American golf courses, in other words, ask for precisely the same thing: usually a high-flying ball that lands and stops somewhere near the pin. Asking for something else, then, often will send American golfers into a kind of catatonia or paralysis; the low-running shot is just simply not in their bags. A number of times, while looping the ninth, I’ve mentioned the possibility of trying to run a shot into the green and been met with blank stares, or even outright dismissal, because the golfer cannot comprehend what it is that I’m saying.
Even good golfers can be capable of this, which is perhaps why a number of very solid players I’ve worked for have been disparaging of the ninth. Some of them have called the hole an example of “goofy golf,” a term that has come into vogue as a means of rejecting different forms of architecture. But some, after denigrating the hole, have also come—after some discussion, at times—to find some merit in the hole. Perhaps, after thinking about it, they come to realize that the initial way they played the hole was not the only way to play it; that, if they had played it some other way, they might have had some success. And that, for some golfers, is unusual: good golfers, after all, have found some means of being successful most of the time; for a hole to cause them to re-evaluate not their execution but their strategy is something rare.
“As one who has steadfastly insisted he’d seen it all in golf design, I humbly beg for a mulligan,” says Whitten. He is, I would say, paying tribute to that aspect of the ninth, something that’s exceedingly rare in golf. “There is no hip-hop, rap, or even jazz in golf architecture; it’s all Stephen Foster and John Phillips Sousa,” as Whitten has complained elsewhere. In other words, most golf architecture is merely the slavish imitation of the past: the “Redan” hole, the “Cape” hole, the “Biarritz” green; all holes first designed nearly a century or more ago. That isn’t to say that such holes are bad, of course—there’s a reason they’ve been copied, which incidentally is mostly because those styles of holes offer a choice in how to play them—but Whitten’s point is that there is very little in the way of new thinking in golf architecture.
The ninth, I think, offers a way around that. Driven by equipment changes, the setups on Tour and elsewhere have worked towards narrower fairways to offset the tremendous jump in driving distances: the ninth has one of the widest fairways I’ve ever seen. Driving distances have increased so much that classic courses are constantly pushing back their tee boxes: the ninth plays under 300 yards most days. The USGA and the R & A have worked to limit the amount of spin pros can get from their wedges: a spinning wedge shot to the ninth leads almost inevitably to a ball that drops off the front edge of the green. Maybe, I’d suggest, the ninth isn’t “goofy golf” at all; maybe it is, instead, “golfy golf.” Or, maybe, just golf.
My golfer, in the end, hit a low eight-iron that landed in the front of the green—and rolled to the back, a long way from the hole. He ended up three-putting for bogey; not a particular surprise on a green so dominated by rolls and mounds. But on the other hand, as he said later, at least he didn’t double—a speed-bump, not a quagmire.