H is for HOG’S BACK
It is difficult to trace the exact origin of the Hog’s Back hole, but many variations of the concept exist across links golf. Rye Golf Club provides as good a starting point as any, as the stretch of holes from No. 4 through No. 7 have been referred to as “hog’s backs” for more than a century, possibly a reference to the ancient road that climbs over the downland ridge in the adjacent county of Surrey.
Rye Golf Club 4th hole - image courtesy of Rye Golf Club
The Hog’s Back holes at Rye, like the road, run along the top of a dune ridge, rather than between the dunes. Among these, the best representation for what is now accepted as a “Hog’s Back” template is the fourth. Rye pulls few punches, with nine Par 4s longer than 400 yards, but No. 4 is one where players may want to lay off the pedal. Its geographic placement means that few drives are safe; too far left in the fairway could topple down into the thick links rough, and too far right brings the same fate. Channel your inner Calvin Peete, as the matter of a yard may be the difference between a flat lie or a vicious kick off the hog’s spine. Although any fairway-in-regulation is admirable, a lie along the right side will provide a better angle to a green that tilts from left-to-right.
Harry Colt may not have intended to create a template at Rye, his first design project, but C.B. Macdonald would have celebrated Colt’s use of the land’s natural features for No. 4’s signature challenge. There is little doubt Macdonald visited Rye during his time overseas, but he probably experienced the Hog’s Back phenomenon at other locations during his links journeys. Either way, No. 5 at the National Golf Links of America became “Hog’s Back.”
NGLA 5th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Macdonald’s major twist on the premise was his addition of a sizable bunker at the foot of the short grass. It’s an intimidating bow-shaped hazard in front of the hogback fairway that begins higher than the player’s line-of-sight. This causes golfers to question the ideal landing area; a deep hollow is visible on the left, but another collection area on the right is not. The rightward route means avoiding the front bunker and this fools some golfers into taking the “safe path,” but the landing zone is home to a wickedly undulating portion of fairway. The closer to the left hollow, the better the angle to the green, which greets approaches that ride the fairway down right-to-left (à la the Redan). Those coming from the left must carry a bunker that guards that angle of approach. Both the hollow on the left and the right are cut at fairway height, making unfortunate tee shots less of a guaranteed bogey than a denial of red numbers on the scorecard for this short Par 5 (478 yards).
Macdonald’s strategy makes great matchplay sense, where two well-struck shots lead to a potential eagle putt... and any strike made less-than-well results in a detour. Unfortunately, the hole has since transitioned from a Par 5 to a Par 4 on the NGLA scorecard, converting it to a simple stiff challenge, rather than a measured test.
Less essential, but still notable to the template, is the large fairway bunker that intersects the fairway maybe 275 yards from the tee, and moves back and right, creating a “Bottle”-style formation.
To emphasize the universality of the Hog’s Back concept, the Top 100 team recently experienced an excellent specimen at Castletown Golf Links, where—similar to NGLA—the closer one can place their tee shot to the edge of the leftward tumble, the better opportunity can be had at the green, which also accepts approaches more readily from the right than the left, due to a trio of fronting pot bunkers. Old Tom built Castletown, but it’s unlikely C.B. made it out to the Isle of Man. Good architects simply take advantage of good geography.
Castletown Golf Links 9th hole - image courtesy of Castletown Golf Links
Seth Raynor and Charles Banks were keen on the concept, although finding the ideal ground for such a design was not always possible. Therefore the pair more frequently created “Hog’s Back” greens, which feature a central ridge that divides the green vertically into left and right sections, with flag position ultimately determining the best angle of approach. George Bahto cites Knoll Golf Club West’s No. 4 as the best example of such a green. A poor angle to a flag on the right side of the green heightens the odds that the approach is kicked into a long greenside bunker, while the left side is fronted by its own large hazard. Regardless, ending up on the wrong side of the ridge makes for a tricky two-putt. Interestingly, Banks also included a partially blinding bunker at the fairway’s fore.
The Hog’s Back, being a less formal template, means we must take informal stances on ambiguous topics, and we welcome differing opinions in the comments. Thus far we have defined a “Hog’s Back” as what a hog’s spine actually resembles: a lengthy and pronounced ridge that drops sharply off at the sides. However we have seen many references to Donald Ross’s “Hog’s Back” greens at sites such as Pinehurst No. 2. These certainly drop off from their highest points...but in all directions. Thus the “turtle-back” term seems to apply better than “hog’s back.” Our proposed difference is that a “Hog’s Back” demands a laser-guided line, while a “Turtle’s Back” (or “crowned” green) additionally demands accuracy in distance. We acknowledge that Bahto himself described NGLA’s landing area by saying “in general, the hog’s back refers to a turtle-backed landing on which the sides are sloped away.” We choose to emphasize “sides” over “turtle-backed,” because a true hog’s back fairway would make for a very awkwardly-shaped turtle (Bernard Darwin’s grandfather would struggle to justify it).
Pinehurst No.2 14th hole - image courtesy of the Pinehurst Resort
Continuing our bold streak, we’ll raise an argument against Tom Doak’s “Hog’s Back” at Old Macdonald. Indeed, there is a significant ridge and there is an ideal line, but due to “Hog’s Back” running diagonally from near left to back right, there is little incentive to actually land, and stay, on the ridge. True to the template’s origins, a shot right of the ridge is doomed. When considering the left, however, the tee shot plays much like a Cape. The challenge is biting off as much of the ridge as you can, while also playing an optimal line. An overly conservative shot to the left will settle in an uneven landing zone far, far from the green on this lengthy Par 4. Big hitters can take the maximum distance over the right end, but risk the downslope kicking them down into a well-placed fairway bunker. The ideal drive will cross at maybe 50 to 75% up the ridgeline, getting a nice kick down into the fairway on the other side. With the ridge itself serving as the “blinder” for hazards on the other side, Doak’s tweak is a brilliantly strategic hole, but perhaps too much of an experiment to classify as a true “Hog’s Back.”
Old Macdonald 4th hole - image courtesy of Bandon Dunes