At This U.S. Open, Golfers Will Face a Rare Collection of Par 3s

At This U.S. Open, Golfers Will Face a Rare Collection of Par 3s

If there were ever a postcard of the Los Angeles Country Club, it would show the breathtaking view from the tee box on the par-3 11th hole. Downhill and in the distance, the towers of the city skyline frame an elevated, sloping green that’s protected by three bear claw-shaped bunkers.

The hole, however, is symbolic for more than its vista. It is one of five par 3s on the North Course, site of the 123rd United States Open that begins on Thursday. Together, these assorted holes are a rare sight, because the typical U.S. Open course features only four par-3 holes.

In an era where massive drives are routine, this distinctive feature will test the accuracy of players trying to gauge par-3 flagsticks from as close as about 100 yards or from as far away as nearly 300. The holes form a prized collection of gems as the club hosts its first major tournament.

“I think the membership looks at each of them individually because they are so different,” said Richard Shortz, past president of the club and co-chairman of the U.S. Open Committee, of the way club members see the holes. “They’re proud of them all, but they’re not clustered in a way that you can classify all five.”

One, though, deserves special classification: the 15th. That’s the hole for aces.

Last October, Shortz was playing the course. The 15th hole played at just 78 yards during the 2017 Walker Cup, but on the day that Shortz played, it was playing at 120, because the flag was farther back in the green. Shortz struck a clean hit with his 9-iron and felt like the ball might be close to the hole. But with the pin hidden behind the front bunker, Shortz still took out his putter.

When he approached the green, he didn’t see the ball until he peered into the cup, and grinned. It was Shortz’s first hole in one on the 15th.

Looking ahead to the Open, he made a bold prediction for a hole that’s listed on the tournament’s scorecard at 124 yards.

“I think on 15 we’ll see some holes in one,” said Shortz, who is an older brother of Will, The New York Times crossword creator. “It’s not as though it will be easy. If someone hits the right shot, well, these guys are good.”

There have been noteworthy holes in one in the past month: from the Southern California club professional Michael Block at the P.G.A. Championship and from Scottie Scheffler at the Charles Schwab Challenge the following week.

Scheffler, ranked No. 1 in the world, may have an advantage because he competed six years ago at the Los Angeles Country Club as an amateur in the Walker Cup, along with Collin Morikawa, who is scheduled to play in the Open.

Judging by statistics, the leaders in par 3s on the PGA Tour could also be favorites: The world No. 2 Jon Rahm is ranked first in this category (averaging 2.92 strokes), followed by Max Homa (2.94). Scheffler ranks fifth.

In 2013, Homa, then a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, shot a first-round 61 at the Los Angeles Country Club, en route to winning the PAC-12 tournament. Rahm, then a freshman at Arizona State, finished 10th.

Still, that limited experience may not guarantee success, said the architect Gil Hanse, who in 2010 restored the George C. Thomas Jr. design from 1928.

“The par 3s are not going to favor one particular type of player,” Hanse said. “Here, because you’re talking about accuracy with the wedge versus accuracy with a 3-wood, that’s a big gap to have, to have one player be able to accomplish all of those things.”

Jeff Hall, the U.S.G.A.’s championship director who set up the 7,421-yard, par-70 course for the Open, marveled at the “dramatic variety” of these so-called short holes. The two longest par 3s are the 228-yard fourth and the 290-yard 11th.

“Just week in and week out on tour there are just not a lot of par-3 holes that play to these kind of numbers,” he said.

Each of the par 3s is problematic in its own way, marked by natural hazards and firm, tricky greens.

The first par 3 — the 228-yard fourth hole — features a barranca, a dry, sandy ravine typical of Southern California, which slithers like an anaconda through the front nine. At the fourth hole, it lurks in front and then curls back behind the green. There are also two bunkers sloped off the sides of the green.

“It’s a smallish target for a long hole with a lot of trouble around it,” Hanse said.

In 1927 and 1928, when Thomas worked with Billy Bell to improve the original 1921 design of W. Herbert Fowler, he created some par 3s with flexibility to play as par 4s. The 284-yard seventh hole is one of those. It’s a par 3 for the Open, and it could also play at 264 yards, depending on where the tee is, Hall said.

The seventh green, though, will be particularly difficult to read because of the topography. “You feel like the putts aren’t as uphill as they actually are, because your eyes fall to the barranca, thinking it’s more downhill,” Hanse said.

Following the par-5 547-yard eighth hole — one of three par 5s on the course, which is also one more than usual for a U.S. Open — players come to the final par 3 on the front nine. The ninth hole measures 171 yards on the scorecard.

“It feels like it’s a level hole, but it’s really uphill and deceptive,” Hanse said. “There are four distinct quadrants in the green to move the pin around.”

During a tournament, officials change the location of the pin not only to reduce wear on the greens, but also to challenge the players. Hall, who oversees the course setup in his role as the golf association’s championship director, explained that tee boxes at the Los Angeles club also have some room for the tees to move up or back. So, depending on the tee and the pin locations for a certain day, golfers could be dealing with a 30-yard variance on the eighth hole, he said.

The next par 3, the 11th, will test players’ adaptability. From afar, “it’s such an amazing view, sometimes you want to stand there and not hit the tee shot,” said Shortz, the past president of the club.

Up close, the 11th offers a history lesson. The green is modeled after Scotland’s 15th hole on the West Links Course at the North Berwick Golf Club. In the 19th century, when a veteran of the Crimean War was playing that famous hole, he noticed that the green protruded in front and then sloped downward right to left; the shape reminded him of a fortress from Sevastopol.

The triangle jutting out beside the fortress’s entry point was called a redan. The redan has since become a feature that golf course architects love working into their course designs.

For his part, Thomas turned the Los Angeles Country Club’s 11th hole into a reverse redan because the green, 39 yards deep, slopes down left to right. But the downhill carries only halfway through the green because it turns slightly uphill again, Hanse said.

“It was actually quite a monumental achievement when you look at how much dirt they moved to create that,” he said. “If you look down the valley, all of a sudden there’s this protrusion of a green that sticks out into it, and that didn’t happen naturally.”

The final par 3, the 15th, comes after the course’s longest hole, the par-5 623-yard 14th. Considering the 15th is followed by three stout par 4s, the first two averaging 531 yards and then the 18th at 492 yards, players might be tempted to be too aggressive on the 15th to birdie the hole before facing the rigors of the next three.

Beware: Hanse put in a slight hump dividing the front sliver of the green and the main back portion of the 15th.

“It’s not OK just to hit the green,” Hanse said. “You have to hit the green within the green in order to not have to worry about three-putting.”

Or, like Shortz, you could just bury it in the hole and not worry at all.

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