P is for Punchbowl
Claiming an “original” Punchbowl green is probably a lost cause, as the earliest of designers didn’t necessarily look at the decision as a piece of golf strategy. It was, in reality, a piece of agronomic planning. The original links courses, winding among the dunes, feature many hollows in which to house greens. Rain provided the only irrigation, and therefore areas where it would collect provided the best opportunity to maintain these greens. The sandy soil drained well enough to prevent pooling (an issue American designers would need to work around during the Golden Age).
Royal Cinque Ports - 3rd hole
These hollows, which fed wayward shots back toward the putting surface, provided some strategic opportunity, however. Because the greens are relatively accepting, many designers coupled them with blind approaches, for play that is both mentally intimidating, and reasonable. One example is No. 3 at Deal's Royal Cinque Ports. The green on this 510-yard Par 5 is one of Henry Hunter’s three remaining original greensites and it’s certainly reachable, where the inviting Punchbowl adds to the allure of a long second shot. However, another pair of hollows pinch the fairway some 50 yards out from the green, almost guaranteeing a blind third for those who go astray looking for eagle. The green may collect approaches, but it makes no guarantees as to the ease of the putt. Within the Punchbowl are separate, compartmentalized collection areas.
The relative formalization of the “Punchbowl” concept came (surprise) at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, where No. 16 bears the template green’s name. Macdonald also realized the benefit of coupling Punchbowls with blind shots, and continued the trend of combining the Alps template concept with Punchbowl greens (the original Alps at Prestwick features a Punchbowl green as well). Players will have a blind approach to the 16th green regardless of how well they hit from the tee, due to the fairway’s upward travel. The large fairway bunker along the right brings an element of Cape into play as well; those who avoid the bunker too far to the left may roll into a hollow similar to those at Cinque Ports, or NGLA’s own No. 5 (a Hog's Back hole). Playing from the right of the fairway may be blind, but at least there is a directional pole rising behind the green. Those in the left valley won’t be able to see this target either. Hopefully these players aren’t rattled, realizing that a pair of bunkers (a rare Macdonald forced carry) sit 50 yards short of the green.
National Golf Links of America 16th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Seth Raynor carried the Alps-Punchbowl concept with him to Fishers Island, where it fits right in among the course’s other eye candy. The hole doglegs right along the coast; players can actually see the general area of the green from the tee, but not upon approach. The trick is that those who are closest to the green, hugging the corner of the dogleg, will have the most obscured view as well, only able to see the tip of the guiding flagpole over the crest of the slope. Although the Punchbowl’s ancestry lies in the natural hollows of Scotland, Raynor intentionally manufactured many of his own to suit the needs of a blind approach, and Fishers Island is no exception. He also designed outlet channels as part of his Punchbowls, allowing necessary drainage for excess rain. The spine that divides this green adds a further element of suspense, which will intrigue some players and infuriate others as they descend the slope to see whether their approach ended up flag-side.
Fishers Island 4th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Punchbowls often serve as relative backstops as well, killing momentum on rapid descents into a green, such as at Macdonald’s St Louis Country Club, where many an approach has been saved from ramping into the creek behind No. 5’s green. Charles Banks, another Macdonald acolyte, applied similar logic for the first hole of Montclair’s Fourth nine. A reachable Par 5, a fairway chute dives into a deep Punchbowl at about 40 yards out. The green has two tiers, higher on the left—where a running shot would enter—and lower on the right. Ending up on the correct tier is recommended for those hoping to two-putt. Those attacking flags on the lower tier, however, must carry a sizable bunker at the top of the slope on the right side. Getting over likely means your ball will receive a friendly roll down to the putting surface. This bunker distracts from where the slope begins, however, and catches the ball of those who are fooled into leaving it short.
The modern move toward naturalist design has brought the Punchbowl back to vogue. No. 5 at the Kingsley Club in Michigan demonstrates how, even as a one-shotter, the Punchbowl is hardly automatic. A ridge blocks the view for most of the green, and the apron seems to dip so severely back into the valley that paranoid players may take an extra club. However, there’s plenty of room to work with around the green, and a ground approach will be well received. Local knowledge advises that players observe the No. 5 flag position while coming off of the first green. It will come in handy later.
Kingsley Club - 5th hole
Some Punchbowls provide better strategy than others, such as when combined with other natural features to work with blind approach shots. That said, the concept of the Punchbowl green relies more upon the geography of the land and not other strategic elements of the hole, which is why it works well as either a Par 3, 4 or 5. Geography can often give the false impression of a Punchbowl, even when the green itself does not operate as one. For example, many artificial dunes were raised around the Trump Golf Links Ferry Point property, and Jack Nicklaus tucked many greens within them. Although the approach to No. 10 is gorgeous, the green and its surrounds do not function as a Punchbowl; your aim will need to be on-point if you expect to putt in regulation.
Trump Ferry Point - 10th hole
The Dell at Lahinch's Old course is a classic example of natural landforms creating the misperception of a Punchbowl. Playing over a large dune to a waiting green lives up to the blind shot often affiliated with a Punchbowl. But (spoiler alert): If you hit the back of that fronting dune, odds are your ball won’t kick forward to the putting surface. Most will stay within thick rough. Many a player has lamented Lahinch’s iconic Par 3 not playing like a true Punchbowl.
Lahinch Old course - 5th hole "Dell"
The same logic applies at “Nemesis,” a Par 5 at Tobacco Road that’s fronted by more than 10 feet of sand and natural growth. The fairway leading into the green becomes laughably thin, so most will be forced to lob over the ridge, even after laying up for a wise third shot. The two-tiered green brings the same suspense as a Punchbowl, but the geography of the site won’t mercifully bring a short/long pitch back into a putting position. You don’t get a name like “Nemesis” by demonstrating forgiveness.