N is for Narrows
Muirfield - 15th hole
Discovering the “original” Narrows requires some reverse engineering, beginning with the hole we now understand as the “true” Narrows. Based on the above quote from a 1906 issue of Outing, Macdonald had two holes in mind, and the latter of the two is more similar to the final product. From the tees on this long Par 4 (447 yards) at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a player who pulls driver can get extra distance from a downhill slope beyond the small fairway bunkers. The template’s purpose becomes more obvious when you are playing back uphill to the green, however. There are two more fairway bunkers pinching the left and right of the fairway (known as the “Twins”), which create the “narrowing” effect. A third, centerline bunker sits about 30 yards out from the green. There’s plenty of room to roll home, but the player’s mind is easily muddled when these hazards prevent a clear sightline. Some may play too short and find the centerline before the ball can run, and some may haphazardly play long. Even a poor placement on the green known as “Camel’s Back” is unfortunate. Knowing the yardage and, more importantly, trusting your yardage, is the key here.
From Muirfield, Macdonald created what is considered the standard for “Narrows” holes, which is No.15 at the National Golf Links of America. He began by shortening the hole (417 yards) so that his rendition of the “Twins” are in play from the tee, immediately creating questions for the player. The right side of the fairway will provide the best approach angle to the green, and the right Twin cuts into the fairway accordingly, challenging those who wish to add distance off of the tee. The approach will be less uphill than at Muirfield, but the centerline still finds a way to mess with the player’s mind in a number of ways. A combination of this bunker, another left fairway bunker, and a slight spine running across the fairway make the last 60 yards to this large green much more mysterious than a player might hope. A common theme that most “Narrows” would share moving forward is a green set to better receive an approach from the right of the fairway, and an uphill slope from front-to-back. Macdonald also added “moat”-style bunkers, as he and Raynor did with many of their geometric greens in years to come.
NGLA - 15th green - courtesy of John Sabino
“Narrows,” perhaps more so than any other Macdonald template, avoids instant, cookie-cutter recognizability. Macdonald’s effort at the Greenbrier Old White TPC course may not appear a “Narrows” at first glance, but proves itself a more daring take on the concept. A dogleg left, the best angle to the green again comes from the right. But now it will require a carry of at least 250 yards to cross the rightward “Twin,” which runs perpendicular across the right half of the fairway. Those who try to go left of this bunker and get a shorter yardage will need to deal with the other “Twin,” which runs flush with the fairway for more than 100 yards. There is no centerline bunker, but the final fairway bunker sits in a second-cut mound along the right side, perhaps 25 yards out from the green. This mound, more so than the bunker it holds, is responsible for blocking views of the last stretch of fairway leading up to the green. The green itself takes its shape and slope from Macdonald’s standard at NGLA, with a few bunkers alongside.
Greenbrier Old White TPC - 14th hole
Charles Banks took some cues (but only some) from Macdonald on his “Narrows,” the second hole at Forsgate’s Banks course. The most interesting difference is the use of a hill as the muddling “hazard,” rather than a central fairway bunker. The fairway rolls in such a way that— if the player arrives in the ideal landing area off the tee, there will be a small valley in front of them— which rises to green level at about 65 yards, before rolling into another small valley. The concept makes the player question how much room they need to give their approach to roll up to the green, versus getting stuck in a “valley of sin.” Missing left or right lands in deep greenside bunkers.
MAYBE... MAYBE NOT
Was the opening hole at the legendary Lido Golf Club a “Narrows”? According to Macdonald in Golf Illustrated, “the first hole is more or less like the fifteenth or Narrows at the National, which is a good drive and a full iron shot.” Gil Hanse is currently working on Ballyshear, a new Thai club conceived as a tribute to the Lido, which may shed some light on the topic. Hanse Golf Course Design was kind enough to share its blueprints for the opener, titled “First” like the former No. 1 at Lido. Indeed, two “Twin” bunkers will pinch the fairway as the hole doglegs slightly to the left. There will be a bunker perhaps 50 yards out from the green, which will serve to confuse the sightline of those who manage to get their drives beyond the right “twin,” hiding the exact dimensions of the landing area for those who hope to run their approaches up to the hole. More relevant, the placement of all three greenside bunkers at the front of the putting surface leaves a very slight window for anyone aiming to roll their approach on. This strong promotion of an aerial attack will make Hanse’s proposed design strategically different than other variants of the Narrows, which are open to the confident placement of running approaches.
The “Narrows” at Seth Raynor’s Yeamans Hall provides a more vexing question. The initial concern is that the 12th hole is a mere 350 yards, 50 yards shorter than its cousins. The angle and slope of the green are very much in line with Macdonald’s standard, but there is a lack of center fairway bunker to create problems of perception. The lack of a bunker specifically isn’t a problem, as we saw above with Banks’s use of a hill at Forsgate. Yeamans Hall has no valley to serve as a “hazard” for the approach, however. Assuming the player does not land in the cross bunker on the left side of the fairway, their view will not be impeded upon approach. Granted, the greenside bunkers may not be fully visible, but players can use the “chocolate drops” on the right as a standard for playing safely. “Stay left of us, and these bunkers shall do you no harm.”
There are many holes across golf that are named “Narrows” without fitting the “Narrows” template. Prestwick’s famous “Narrows” is a fine Par 4, requiring an accurate tee shot. Saunton East’s is a long Par 4, with a canyonesque approach among the dunes that certainly merits the “Narrows” descriptor. Perhaps most interesting is the “Narrows” hole at St. Louis Country Club, another Seth Raynor design. It’s obviously an example of the Double Plateau template, despite its title.
Prestwick - 15th hole