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I is for Island – Template Holes

12 November, 2019

I is for ISLAND


A green surrounded by water is not a new concept. In fact, even the denizens of the Golden Age of golf course architecture occasionally surrounded the putting area with liquid hazard. The truest grasp on the concept of the “Island” template begins with No. 9 at Ponte Vedra (what is now known as the Ocean Course at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club).

Herbert Strong completed the Ponte Vedra Club in 1928, and it was apparent he intended to test the mettle of the game’s best with dramatic greens and demanding hero shots... much like a nearby course to-be-named-soon. Like that other course, Ponte Vedra featured a Par 3 green set upon an island in a lagoon, 145 yards from the tee. The hole was originally No. 18, and upon walking off, Bobby Jones commented that Ponte Vedra “[is] a course to challenge professionals.”

Ponte Vedra Ocean course 9th hole - photo courtesy of Ponte Vedra Inn & Club

This original island held far more than a green; three pot bunkers (more were added later) fitted along the back of the putting surface, and a larger one sat front-right. There was even an apron of fairway...but too much spin could easily bring a short shot back down into the water. It seems like a generous target today, but after the shell-shock of playing one of America’s then-toughest courses, it may have intimidated even the best.


We have already alluded to another Florida course that would become the standard for the “Island” template, the infamous No. 17 on the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass. Pete Dye had a pit to fill, and legend claims his wife and frequent contributor, Alice Dye, suggested just placing a green in the middle of the future lake. No doubt the pair took inspiration from Strong’s work at the nearby coastal course. The Stadium course was created with the intention of hosting The Players Championship, and players immediately set upon its design for its over-the-top greens.

TPC Sawgrass Stadium course 17th hole - photo courtesy of TPC Sawgrass

No. 17, however, was not a challenge because of its size or slopes. It plays at 137 yards, a simple wedge for most players. At 78 feet in length, the green is much smaller than Ponte Vedra’s version, but hardly a tiny target. The challenge is solely of the nerves, knowing the lake will take all misses. Based on its 7% double-bogey percentage at The Players, this factor impacts pros almost as much as everyday players. It is perhaps the most pure rendition of “target golf.” The island is not quite a black-or-white equation, however. As with many penal holes, there is an element of matchplay risk/reward: Playing to the center of the green is always safe, and attacking the pin is—more often than not—dangerous. A strong backbone goes a long way in saving par, but strong conviction goes a long way in winning the hole.

Granted, the “Island” concept is still rather binary for the mid-handicapper, which alienates some critics. Not helping the template’s cause is its appeal for the tourist crowd, a group that instantly appreciates the visual appeal of an island, versus the more subtle strategic pleasures of, say, a Double Plateau. In some cases, this leads to kitschy entries, à la the fruit-shaped No. 17 green at Apple Tree Golf Course. Although the Coeur D’Alene Resort built some tourist appeal (and excess round lengths) into its Island Par 3, via the necessary boat taxi to the green, it also created an interesting element for potential multi-day tournaments. The No. 14 green floats, and can be maneuvered to land for maintenance purposes, which suggests they could also alter its placement in the lake to change the hole’s identity from day-to-day. It’s essentially the putting surface version of runway tees.

Coeur D'Alene 14th hole - photo courtesy of Coeur D'Alene Resort

One hole that often gets overlooked in the “Island” conversation is The Creek Club’s 11th hole. The only real expectation of the modern “Island” template is a relatively short length, to emphasize nerve and accuracy over power. Geographically, however, the only real requirement of an “Island,” is that the green be surrounded almost entirely by water. Seth Raynor’s No. 11 is indisputably a Biarritz (200 yards and a signature swale), but there’s no reason why it can’t be an “Island” as well. Any template Par 3 could theoretically be adapted to “Island” form.

The Creek 11th hole - photo courtesy of The Creek

We’re honestly not trying to force MacRaynor into every conversation on templates!


We stated earlier that many island greens debuted prior to Ponte Vedra’s (including the aforementioned Creek Club). Baltusrol’s Old Course featured one as early as 1910 (it was in play for the 1915 U.S. Open) and A.W. Tillinghast created an island green at Aronimink's No. 13 when he was the first to tweak Donald Ross's original design.

The difference between Baltusrol and Aronimink’s entries from that era is that they are not Par 3s. It’s a “simple” distinction, but one that drastically alters the mindset during play. In these cases, the player must eventually cross the water, but they have an option of when to do it. Feeling bold? Go for two. Not so sure, or your tee shot was poor? Lay up. It is a viable risk/reward strategy, allowing players to choose how much distance is included with their forced carry. An “Island” Par 3 is a more predetermined test… ”do or die.” Every player is given the same basic task, even during matchplay. The options that a player may flex on a Par 5 with an island green, or even a Par 4, make the formula different. Famous short Par 5s with island greens—such as No. 17 at Cherry Hills or No. 15 at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium course—make for exciting play, but they do not fit within our definition of the “Island” as a template.

Cherry Hills 17th hole - photo courtesy of Cherry Hills Country Club

Interestingly, Tillinghast may have also created the first Par 3 surrounded by water. His “Moat” hole at Galen Hall is a beast: 190 yards to a raised green, which is surrounded by the aforementioned moat, dug by Tillinghast for the purpose. We would argue, however, that despite its Par 3 status, the 15th hole doesn’t quite live up to the “Island” standard, even with the watery surrounds. Because the moat is so thin (compared to a lake), the option exists to lay up short of the moat, and play for par with a short pitch over the hazard. This makes it a shorter version of the Par 4s and 5s we described in the previous paragraph, versus a true “Island” hole in the Strong / Dye sense.

Galen Hall 15th hole - photo courtesy of Galen Hall Golf Club

David McLay Kidd gave the Ponte Vedra version a spin at Sand Valley’s Mammoth Dunes No. 8, in that there is additional short grass around the green for players to land upon... the catch being that the green itself is about half the size of Mammoth’s other elephantine putting surfaces. The major difference between this and the Strong / Dye version is, of course, the water being replaced with sand. This will surely make for a tough recovery, but it does not result in an automatic loss of a stroke, which dramatically alters the psyches of those teeing off. McLay Kidd intended Mammoth to be the more playable than the Sand Valley course, so we’re sure he won’t mind if that means sacrificing true “Island” status.

Mammoth Dunes 8th hole - photo courtesy of Sand Valley


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