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Why Length is No Defence

A few weeks ago, I played the stunning Fire course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. Without a doubt, Fire ranks as one of my favourite UAE courses, and in many respects I think it might well be the best course here. No, it doesn’t have the history of the Majlis or the breath-taking aesthetics of Yas; but Fire is certainly what you’d call “a great all-rounder”. Always presented in great condition, Fire offers a great variety of holes that require a combination of solid course management and a fair dose of luck. Play well here, and you can go low. But bite of a little more than you can chew and you can very easily rack up some big numbers. In my time, I think I’ve doubled – and maybe tripled – every hole around this course.

The beauty of Fire, and what sets it apart from many others in the UAE, is the variety of holes on offer. For example, nestled in amongst some brutal par 4 holes where par is a bonus (4th, 9th, 10th) are a few “scoring” par 4’s where birdies are on offer (1st, 12th, 16th). Many of the holes on Fire feature elevation change, turning what would otherwise be straight-forward tee and approach shots into a club-selection nightmare. The 1st, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 12, 13, 17th and 18th all rise or fall at some point on the hole, in places making a shot play +/- 20 yards on standard distances.

Yup, I like Fire all right, it’s a wonderful place to play golf. Except…of course…the par 3 holes. Interesting…yes. Beautiful…without a doubt. Collectively too long…definitely.

If there is one single word that characterises par 3 holes in the UAE, it would be “length”. And in some instances, you can stick the word “ridiculous” on the front. As with everything else in the UAE that has to be the biggest, highest or largest, it seems the course designers got caught up in the frenzy and decided that in order for a course to be considered “championship” standard, every course has to include 2, 3 or even 4 excessively long par 3 holes.

Now I’m not averse to long par 3’s holes. But I do get a little tired when par 3s are long for the sake of being long, and higher handicap players (and a few low handicappers too!) are forced to pull a hybrid or fairway wood from the bag and to rip it as hard as possible with very little control. There’s no fun in that.

So back to the Fire course. A few weeks ago, I played the course with some friends and the par 3 holes on that day were bordering on the ridiculous. From the green tees, the shortest of the par 3’s…let me repeat again….the shortest of the par 3’s…was 187 yards (14th). The longest? A mere 236 yards (11th). The average length of par 3 that day was 205.75 yards, which is comparable to, and probably longer than, the average length of par 3 holes for most European Tour or PGA Tour events. Throw in the wind, bunkers and water hazards that Fire also features and you’ve got a recipe for some very disgruntled amateur golfers.

So how long is “too long”? Well of course, that’s subjective. If you can confidently hit a 4 iron over 200 yards, and shape it in both directions, then 200 yards probably isn’t too long. But if you’re like the average amateur, who can’t hit over 180 yards with any real consistency or control and who tends to hook or slice the ball, then 200 yards might as well be 200 miles.

I mean seriously – how often does a mid-handicapper hit a green from over 200 yards? Not that often if my own game is any kind of benchmark. Well, let me give you a scientific, accurate, perspective. According to the PGA Tour website, the best player on Tour at finding the green from over 200 yards is Justin Rose, who finds 62.18% of greens from that distance. That’s right folks, the current world number 5 and reigning US Open champion finds less than 2 in 3 greens from over 200 yards. So if he had played Fire with me that day (which would have been nice), the stats say that he would have hit 2 out of the 4 par 3 greens. Now before you say it; I know, I know. Not all the par 3’s that day played over 200 yards (they averaged over 200 yards) and on par 3 holes, we can use a tee which make it a bit easier. I’m just trying to give an example of just how tough a 200 yard really is. If Justin Rose averages 62.18%, then the rest of us are way down under 10%.

So what should a par 3 holes look like then? If not length, then what? Well, I’m not saying a par 3 hole can’t be over 200 yards. What I’m saying is that the par 3 holes on a course should offer variety. And in my experience, length isn’t the only factor that makes a par 3 difficult. In fact, some of the most famous and hardest par 3 holes in the world are very short – “the postage stamp” at Royal Troon plays 123 yards, the island green at TPC Sawgrass plays 137, the 12th at Augusta plays 155 yards. The shortest par 3 on the PGA Tour is the 7th hole at Pebble Beach, which is moved back to play 109 yards for major championships. Each of these holes is capable of making the best players in the world sweat, and each has at some time been the setting for a collapse of monumental proportions.

Take the four par 3 holes on the Majlis. These prove, more than at any UAE course, that par 3 holes don’t need length to be difficult. When I played the Majlis last week, none of the par3 holes played more than 175 yards…and yet I was +7 for these holes (in my round at Fire, I was level par for par 3 holes). The par 3’s on the Majlis use a clever combination of elevation change (4th), baffling distance perception (11th), the distraction of water (7th) and a hidden putting surface (15th) to confuse players. None of these holes allow you to just walk up and play. Though these holes all played under 180 yards on the day, they all made me think about which club to use, whether to hit it high or low, where the bail-out options are. OK, I must have made my decisions pretty poorly on that day as I recorded three double bogeys and a bogey, but that is testament to the design of the holes. The fact was that, even as I addressed the ball, I was unsure what to do, and as we all know, uncertainty is the bane of weekend golfers. If you’re not committed, you’re unlikely to play a good shot.

For example the 4th hole on the Majlis plays downhill around 170 yards, with water on the right, and bunkers on the left and at the back. The pin was cut right, and I generally fade the ball. The wind was left-right. So from the outset, this is a hard shot – there’s not much here to help the player. I quickly eliminated the option of going for the pin, as I know that even a hint of slice on that line will mean a watery grave. So I look at bailing out to the left hand side of the green – but if I get that wrong and find the left trap, i’ll leave myself with a tricky bunker shot onto a fast green with water on the opposite side of the green. So perhaps I should just smash one long, into the back bunker, and try to get up and down from there? Well, perhaps…but then the harder I try to hit the ball, the more likely I am to make a mistake, and with the wind, any mistake is going to be greatly exaggerated.

So clearly I have some decisions to make about what to do, but I’m not afforded the luxury of thinking time and before I know it I’m on the tee box and taking my address position. I’ve decided to play for the left hand side of the green, and I’m taking an extra club to counter the slightly-toward-me wind. But here’s the problem with amateur players. I take an extra club…but then I swing too gently. I get all out of shape on the downswing, leave the face wide open and end up slicing right across the back off the ball. For a brief second, the ball is travelling straight and it looks like it’s going to find the centre of the green. But no. It’s just a matter of time before the laws of physics take over and my ball starts to veer to the right. And just in case I haven’t sliced it enough to find the water, the wind then gives the ball an extra shove and the inevitable splash appears about 10 yards from safety. I walk off the tee box, telling myself, as I always do, that “i over-thought that one. Just get down and hit a solid shot!”

If only it were that simple. The point is, the designer made me think. He put the uncertainty in my mind. He knows the most common faults in golf and he put hazards in place to punish them. He allowed nature to play a part, adding natural variation (wind) to elevation change, hazards and fast greens. Course designers know that the hardest shots in golf are often the shortest. They’re the ones we take for granted, the ones we get complacent on. The ones we expect to get right.

So next time you ditch a 120 yard par 3 tee shot into the water, don’t blame yourself. You fate was sealed when the designer first put pencil to paper