Sunday, June 12, 2011

Getting Past the First Tee: Questionable Golf Holes

A brief description of the high handicapper's mindset as he approaches the first tee:

"Please...just let me get it airborne. Just this once. A weak pop-up to the right? Great! A dying 100-yard screamer to the edge of the fairway? Works for me! A 280-yard banana-ball that flies 100 yards into the woods and out of bounds? Ummmm, well...okay, sure! But hey...anything will do: just don't let me top the goddamn thing." --from When Bad Things Happen to Bad Golfers by Gary Perkinson and T.J. Tomasi

I've managed to overcome most of my first tee jitters and I don't worry too much about topping my drives anymore.  Sure, my banana ball comes and goes (in my dreams, it goes 280 yards.)  I'm more likely nowadays to get 14th or 15th tee jitters, when I know I have a good round going and I don't want to blow it on the last few holes.

In retrospect, I've come to believe that my past first tee jitters might actually have been because I was playing on golf courses with lousy opening holes. In fact, I might even say that most of the courses I've played in my golfing life have had poorly designed opening holes.  What could be a worse way to start a round than knowing something bad is likely to happen on the first hole?  I suspect it's a little like going on a blind date and tumbling head first down a set of stairs as you approach your date's door. Misery sets in before the fun begins.

Most of the reading I've done on golf course design has taught me a few lessons about what makes for a good opening golf hole.  Combined with my own opinion, here's what a good opening hole should look like:

1. It should probably be a par 4.  Par 3s make for a long line at the clubhouse--anxious golfers waiting to get the first hole over with.  Also, more time for first tee jitters to settle in.

2. It should have a fairway that is fairly easy to hit. No one wants to play from the trees on the opening hole.

3. It should not require any shots over water. (See first tee jitters).

4. It should not cross a road. (You want to add to the pressure the possibility of hitting a passing car?)

Maybe that's ideal, but I've played courses which broke all of these rules and then some.

There was the opening par 3 hole in Tennessee where the line for the first tee stretched around the clubhouse. Bad opening hole.

When I was in graduate school in Georgia, I played on a course that began with a long, dogleg par 5 which required a 3rd shot over a pond to reach the green. I was having a hard time getting my ball consistently airborne at the time. Bad opening hole.

But the absolute worse opening hole I've ever played takes me back to my high school days.  As a member of the JV golf team, I had playing privileges at two different private clubs in our small town.  Both clubs actually suffered from dumb first holes, but the worst was at the course on the side of town closest to the airport.  (As a side note, this course was also next door to a rifle range, which was a little disconcerting on the 6th and 7th holes, which ran parallel to the range.)

About that first hole:  It all began with a blind, uphill tee shot.  Just off the front of the first tee, the fairway climbed a gradual hill for the first 175 yards or so--enough so that you certainly couldn't see where your ball might land--and then dropped off and ran downhill to a generous landing area.  It made for a silly opening tee shot because you couldn't see when it was safe to hit because it was impossible to tell when the golfers playing in front of you were out of the way. The result was that a lot of golf balls were flying around on that first hole.  A lot were too close close for comfort.

To remedy the situation, the pro at the club had a telephone pole and mirror installed at the the back of the first tee box.  The idea was that you could turn around, look straight up at a cloudy mirror pointed at the bottom of the hill and tell when the group in front of you was finished.  The problem was that the mirror was pointed at the the middle of the fairway, so if the group in front of you weren't chasing down perfect tee shots in the middle of the fairway, they were invisible.  It didn't take long for us to accidentally hit into a couple of groups. 

Our solution?  We turned the freshmen on the team into forecaddies and made them run to the top of the hill and signal back when it was safe to hit. This system worked well until one day our golf coach watched as we sent a freshman to the top of the hill.  Our coach drove over on his golf cart and wanted to know what was going on. We told him our system and even he agreed it was pretty smart. Then he volunteered to drive up to the top of the hill, make sure the hole was clear and watch our tee shots. So we let him. He didn't usually hang around us JV golfers too much, instead preferring to watch and coach our better players who had a little more game.

Anyhow, three of us teed off as the coach watched.  Then our freshman player stepped to the tee, hit a high popup--a moonshot of sorts--that went about 150 yards and came down directly on top of the coach's golf cart, bouncing loudly off the roof of the cart and into the rough.  Normally, the coach would zoom off at this point to the other side of the course to watch the good players.  But he stuck around this time as we climbed the hill and tried to spot our tee shots.  When we got to the top of the hill, he waved us over to his cart.  I think we all expected a demand for an apology, or at least some sort of speech about the importance of yelling "fore."

Instead, he cracked a broad smile, looked across at our foursome, a bunch of middle-class high school kids that had no idea what we were doing and simply said, "No wonder you guys are on the B-team."

And off he went.


  1. Great story, Scott. My regular course has a welcoming first hole, but I often don't get to start there due to the way we shotgun the start of our weekly tournaments. I typically have to start by playing 16 -18 as the opening holes, and they're the hardest stretch on the course. An uphill par 4 to a protected green, the longest par 3 on the course, and a dog-leg par 4 with out of bounds on one side and a hazard on the other. We're all usually depressed by the time we reach the real 1st hole.

  2. For some reason, it drives me nuts to start anywhere but on the 1st hole, which is fine because my home course has a welcoming first hole, too. But sometimes we start on hole 10--luckily, another welcoming hole.

    On a slightly related note...why are holes 15, 16, and 17 nearly always the tough stretch on the course? It seems like a lot of courses are like that.

  3. I can't decide if you were tactful or cowardly by not naming these courses and providing links. :)

    I was laughing at the pecking order: surely there was the hotshot freshman who could shoot 2 over on the front? Or maybe not but there were the varsity golfers who might have poked fun at you along with the coach. Then there were you guys who picked on the freshman. Sounds like the start of a John Hughes film.

    Fun to think over opening holes I know.



  4. Oh sure, I can name names of courses. Maybe I'll have to do that, but I guess it's not the point...but come to think of it, I always ask my writing students to aim for that level of specificity in their writing, so maybe I should practice what I preach.