Architecture Glossary - Drop-Shot Par Three

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Drop-Shot Par Three’.

The average mid-handicapper is more than familiar with occasionally dropping a shot at a par three. In fact, some have dropped a half-dozen shots (and a sleeve of balls) at any given island green. That, however, has almost nothing to do with the concept of a “drop-shot par three.”

Geoffrey Cornish, within his book Classic Golf Hole Design, defined a “drop-shot” as being “from a tee elevated 75 feet or more above the green, an interesting par three may result.” This, however, limits the number of examples that exist. A more broad definition accepted by most is a par three where there is a significant drop from tee to green, which requires clubbing down one or more numbers.

Justifying the existence of such holes doesn’t require much thought, as both reasons are quite simple. The first is that sometimes that terrain at a course requires a quick connection on a severe descent. The second, and more likely reason, is that golfers derive the same thrill from such a dive that riders on a roller coaster do. There is a natural pleasure in hitting a ball out into space and watching it fall farther, farther, and farther still.

Although there are examples of proper drop-shots in the linksland of old (Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club’s No. 4 hole, “The Shelf,” certainly applies), the designers of these courses often avoided such descents. In a land where keeping the ball low and out of the wind is key, a shot that demands contesting the strong breezes is counterintuitive. In less extreme climates, however, these picturesque holes flourished.

Stanley Thompson is as good an architect to consider as any. The Canadian icon was known to walk a property and identify the locations for his par 3 greens first, as he took special pride in crafting memorable, adventurous short holes. Perhaps the most famous par three in his oeuvre is No. 8 at Banff Springs, “The Devil’s Cauldron.” Although the actual “cauldron” is the bowl the green sits within, the real eyecatcher is the translucent pond players must hit across. It plays 192 yards from its tips, but players must consider the altitude as a strategic factor; their usual club from that distance might end up well beyond the putting surface, while clubbing down too much could end up wet.

The 'Devil' in 'Devil's Cauldron' is the detail of choosing the proper club to adjust for its drop from tee to green. Photo credit: Patrick Koenig,www.pjkoenig.com

This strategy makes the skilled golfer sweat a bit more than the usual question of wind, as most struggle to calculate how much distance x-feet-of-drop takes off of their distance. Add in the day’s wind, and a drop-shot can quickly become a crapshoot, especially the higher the teebox gets from the green.

This explains why a good number of course analysts dislike the idea of a drop-shot par 3; although there is argument to be made that altitude is a condition that players must gauge to succeed, there are equal numbers who push back on that notion.

Pete Dye resisted ownership’s push to bring the back tee at Pete Dye Golf Club No. 7 even farther up the hill, as he complained this would be more luck than skill. He also designed the teebox in the shape of a horseshoe, so that different tee placements might offer a different angle to the flag from day-to-day, and keep the shot fresh.

A look down to the green at Pete Dye Golf Club's No. 7. Dye had to resist urges to move the tee box even farther up the hill. Photo credit: Patrick Koenig,www.pjkoenig.com

There’s little doubt that these holes became more and more popular during the age of the “heroic school” of golf course architecture (which Dye certainly helped usher in), where forced carries and adventurous shots occasionally took precedence over strategy. This is not necessarily a criticism of drop-shot par 3s: Once again, there’s a viable argument that measuring one’s shot and choosing clubs wisely is a legitimate skill.

Robert Trent Jones beat Pete Dye to the concept of an island green, and he one-upped Dye in the difficulty of his floating one-shotter as well. No. 16 at Golden Horseshoe’s Gold Course is a definitive statement in heroic-school golf, measuring 170 yards from the back tees and falling down to an island green (this putting surface is sizable but features an array of bunkers as well). You may spend minutes pondering which club to pull.

Several clubs have gone to such extremes that they don’t bother hiding the pure tourist appeal in such an adventurous hole. The third hole at Treetops Resort’s “Threetops” par three course is named “Devil’s Drop” (the devil, appropriately, shows up in many hole names where the golfer must descend a long way) falls 145 feet across 220 yards from tee to green. The resort’s description of the hole sums up how seriously one should take it as a test of golf: “Your guess is as good as mine on club selection. In calm conditions, you can subtract about 50 yards from the back tee yardage…but it’s rarely calm.”

Still too tame for your liking? The most infamous drop-shot par 3, the “Extreme 19th” at Legend Golf & Safari Resort, measures more than 395 yards long. That’s actually shorter than it is tall, free-falling 470 yards. Those who would rather spend £200 on a single golf hole rather than multiple rounds of golf can take a helicopter ride to a teebox built on a nearby mountain before hitting at an Africa-shaped green far, far below. Believe it or not, there have been 14 recorded birdies in the history of the hole.

Where does the line between “great golf hole” and “tourist magnet” start and stop? And does the ounce of luck that comes in measuring up such a shot necessarily mean that it’s not a great golf hole? These arguments have been had among golf course architecture aficionados for generations, and Top100 hopes to keep those arguments going (civilly, of course).

As to their role in championship golf? Those watching the U.S. Open this year will likely notice that No. 12 at The Country Club will probably offer the professionals enough trouble with its relatively small amount of drop…and Pebble Beach’s No. 7 does so annually. That’s likely why the 75-foot falls described by Cornish are not frequently found at the world’s most acclaimed courses.