The Year in Par-3s, Part I

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No. 5 at Kapalua’s Bay Course

If you’ve paid somewhat close attention to the blog since it started four months ago, you may have noticed a slight bias toward par-3s.

This isn’t because the blog likes par-4s or 5s any less; it’s more of a visual thing. The overall goal of providing quality content on the blog includes visuals (golf’s a visual game, and perhaps the most visual game, right?), and par-3s just happen to be largely easier to photograph. That’s not to say you can’t make good or even great photos of some 4s and 5s (you can), but par-3s are just a little easier and even the most novice photographer can grasp why.

Anyway, one thing I’ve also noticed about courses is that great ones almost always have great par-3s. When reflecting on my golf season, that’s one thing that occurred to me. I tried to think of my favorite courses throughout the year and in nearly every instance I could easily recall at least one truly outstanding par-3.

And, as we know, par-3s in golf come in all shapes and sizes (legal limit being 275 yards, I believe) and beauty or appreciation can often be in the eye of the beholder (I’ll take a one-stroke cliché penalty there) with an obvious birdie/bogey bias. We don’t tend to the love the holes (or courses) that don’t love us back.

Well, regardless of what ended up on my card, I can say I love all the par-3s I’m about to list.

Since golf is a game of nines, here are nine of my favorite par-3s from the year that, I think, represent the range of what has undoubtedly been the best golf year of my life. I’m going to simply give course, hole number and reflection on these unless the exact yardages are really necessary. I’d like this to be a visual joy ride as much as anything. And there is no attempt to rank here, although my No. 1 is hardly a mystery.

Also, for the purposes of being blog-friendly, we’ll do this in three parts throughout the week.

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No. 5 at the Bay Course, Kapalua (Maui/Hawaii)

We’ll start with the hole of the year, regardless of par or score. The pinnacle of my golf season was standing on this tee box in Maui in July.

No. 5 is the second of the consecutive ocean holes on the front nine and the epitome of golfing on the ocean.

The name Kapalua means “arms embracing the sea” and you rather feel the sea embracing you on this stretch – or trying to blow you off the island depending on the day. Playing out and back on an emerald peninsula, you are completely surrounded by the ocean.

We had a gentle breeze the day we played, and I could’ve stood on this tee box for days. It’s golf heaven, as I currently know it.

If you’ve ever been, or have golfed in a similar tropical scenario, just viewing the photo probably already has transported you there.

But for those who haven’t been …

Yes, the water is that clear, and waves are crashing all around. You may need to zoom in a little to clearly see the pin, but it was in the front of an undulating green where the wacky physics of Hawaii golf are fully in play.

Arnold Palmer did some fabulous work here. I’ve never seen a hole that fits my eye more, and possibly perhaps a little too much.

The seductive quality of the hole, and the lack of a guarantee you’ll ever get back here, makes you want to go for broke and chase the ace of your dreams, risking water or crashing on the rocks into a very serene OB.

My playing partner, who had played here before, thankfully talked me out of it.

“You don’t need to go for the green,” he said. “Play it out left and let gravity take over.”

That proved to be some wise caddying. I hit a smooth 7-iron and watched my ball find the fairway and track right to the fringe of the green. I walked off perfectly content with a two-putt par.

We played a lot of great golf over three rounds in Hawaii, but I didn’t play a more beautiful golf hole than this. It speaks to your golf soul and you spend the rest of your round playing blissfully with your head in the clouds. Bogeys couldn’t dent me the rest of the day.

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No. 17 at Journey at Pechanga (Temecula)

And now for an entirely different kind of “awe” … as in awe-fully hard.

This is the monster par-3 that waits two holes from the finish at Journey at Pechanga. This was the hardest golf hole I played all year, made all the more so by playing it from the tips – 200 yards, all carry, into a mid-afternoon gust. Gulp.

A fairly solidly struck 3-wood never had a chance, although my playing partner, a former teaching pro, reached the horizontal oblong green with a terrific Rescue that just caught the right side.

A course staff member confided that he’ll go here most days and hit one from the back just to see if he can “get lucky.” Yes, this is what a golf lottery shot looks like.

Understandably, this is one of the holes that gives Pechanga its fearsome reputation, but difficulty aside, it’s also one of the holes that gives you views unlike many other places. The four “view” holes on the course highlight a course that is still pretty great when it brings you down from the mountains.

If you descend with a par at 17, you’ll have bragging rights in the bar and grill because it’s doubtful you’ll have much scorecard company.

I need another run at 17 in 2014 and to try it from the blue tees. Put a par here on my wish list for the New Year.

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No. 8 at Royal Links (Las Vegas)

I played Royal Links in February, thus the dormancy, and I was quite stoked to do so.

At the time, I was taking my Golf Course Landscape and Design class at golf school and we had just studied links courses. Royal Links, for those unfamiliar, is a replica course with holes modeled after those in the British Open rotation, all routed around a clubhouse that is built like a castle.

I had played links-like golf before but nothing that aimed to so closely recreate the British experience. I loved this place and walked away with a major appreciation for links-style golf. I can’t wait to do it again.

Until you stand on the tee box of a par-4 with a yardage book in hand that shows 10 scattered fairway pot bunkers, and you see none, you can’t truly grasp the challenge of this style of golf.

The more you know your British Open history, the more you can appreciate Royal Links. For those who don’t know, the stone hole markers that are designed like books are only too happy to clue you in.

This is No. 8, the par-3 taken from Royal Troon nicknamed “The Postage Stamp.” Played at a mere 153 yards from the tips, this is where Gene Sarazen made ace at age 71 in his final British Open appearance.

The photo doesn’t quite do this one justice, but what it doesn’t show is a square bunker off the right side of the green. I recall it clearly because I was in it.

It wasn’t the jail that many British Open bunkers can be, but it was challenge nonetheless, so for a score, let’s just go with “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” shall we?

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         Stay tuned for parts II and III of my par-3 series throughout the week.

        

Golf Day Trip: Stonehouse at TCI

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The view from the fairway of No. 3

The first time I played the Stonehouse nine at Temecula Creek Inn last year, I remember arriving at the first tee and feeling like I’d been transported to another state.

The mountains. The pine trees. The elevation changes. It immediately evoked feelings of trips I’d taken to Boulder, Colo.

And that’s how I describe Stonehouse. It’s like a little manicured piece of Colorado landed in California.

If you’ve not been to Temecula Creek Inn (TCI), it’s the 27-hole resort course you see while traveling the 15 south of the first Temecula exit. It’s actually Stonehouse you see from the Interstate. The landscaped “TCI” is the No. 3 fairway.

If you’ve played TCI and haven’t played Stonehouse, well, you’ve missed out. The other two nines – Creek and Oaks – are essentially the same nine. Stonehouse is a drastically different experience and for me is a treat to play for a number of reasons.

Once you learn to negotiate the two blind tee shots here, Stonehouse should be a scoreable nine for you, no matter your skill level. It’s more aesthetics than challenge that draws me to Stonehouse, though it does have by far the toughest hole on the course – the downhill par-4 6th, which we’ll delve into later in this post.

As much as anything, I just like the feel of Stonehouse, probably because it speaks to my Midwestern soul, even when it’s 82 degrees in November as it was on Thursday.

Also, the more I play Stonehouse, the more I appreciate how over nine holes it embodies the sound design principals of what you want in a great 18.

It’s eases you in with an easy (if you know where you’re going) par-5 and short par-4 (I watched someone with a very limited tee game par both) and then gradually gets tougher while also revealing increasingly interesting holes in a pleasing evolution.

Before fast-forwarding to No. 6 to highlight the home stretch of Stonehouse, I’ll simply offer this shot advice on the preceding holes, though you have to play them to understand.

The tee shot on No. 1 is bewildering to first-timers. I’ll just say swing away and don’t sweat it. You don’t need to be perfect and can recover here, even if you find the bunkers on the right off the tee, as I did Thursday.

On the blind, short par-4 No. 4 – there’s a complex of bunkers you don’t see on the left that you can’t possible account for without having played it. The first time, lay up to 220 yards or so and then try to bite off the whole 331, which can be done, next time. If there won’t be a next time, favor the right side, and good luck.

On the dead uphill 180-yard par-3 5th – the locals say it plays two clubs up. I don’t disagree, though it’s a bear to chip back if you go long. There’s nothing wrong with being a little short here and taking an easy par.

Now a hole-by-hole of the final four.

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No. 6, par-4, 416 yards (blues), 396 (whites) – Take in the view, because you won’t find many like it, save for at Journey at Pechanga just down the road (which you can actually see from the No. 5 tee and green and probably the No. 6 tee as well).

Like a Colorado ski slope, No. 6 is dead downhill but played to a mountainous backdrop with traffic on the 15 streaming by (noiselessly, I might add).

The fairway is actually quite wide, but the complicating factors here are wind, dead into you, and slope. The fairway slopes right, so favor the left side off the tee. It’s a tough shot, one of I’ve mostly failed at it. But if you catch one here, savor it, because it’ll look postcard pretty, soaring above the mountain peak before nestling in the fairway.

The second shot is again downhill to an undulating green placed amongst dense woods. Even with the wind, club down here as second shots are prone to going long and you’re playing for par anyway. It’s a tough hole, the No. 1 handicap.

Especially stay out of the right woods, which is a hunting expedition for your ball followed by a beastly recovery.

Make par here and I’ll like your odds of walking off Stonehouse with a nice number.

No. 7, par-4, 351, 333 – A subtle dogleg right that seems to play downwind, but, given the yardage, hardly requires a monster tee shot. Lay up to the turn and it should be an easy par. I, however, hit a draw 290 over the trees on the right with a 3-wood and made an easy bird, so obviously I’ve favorable to that approach. My ball settled in next to the third green and made for easy access to the seventh green.

On the green of this secluded hole, you see get an unexpected surprise by discovering the course’s quaint event area centered a little cottage. Part of me wishes this was a brewpub and you could stop for just one and savor the experience. The first time I encountered it, the area was lit by lights and truly gave off a special aura.

But alas, pace of play demands you press on.

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          No. 8, par-3, 165, 153 – Like the cottage, quaint could also describe this hole, a rather harmless par-3 that’s a prime birdie opportunity with a well-placed tee shot. Just don’t miss right into the woods and there’s little to trip you up here.

No. 9, par-5, 555, 540 – Negotiating a tight tee shot is the biggest obstacle here, but it’s a three-shotter (though I did reach in two with a rescue once), so mostly hit what you’re most confident with and stay in play.

The green is essentially an inland, fronted by ponds and a waterfall with landscape accents. It’s a fabulous finish, especially if your approach finds the green and you walk off with a four or a five on your card.

The tiered green is smallish, also making reaching in two tricky, and is best approached from an angle as far down the fairway as possible. If you’re still 200 out, hit and pray. If you’re much closer, just know you can’t go over or there’s cart path and OB.

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The view of No. 9

When I played it on Thursday, Stonehouse was in the best shape I’ve seen it and draped in fall accents. It evoked feelings of fall in the Midwest, except better because it was mid-November and I was golfing.

If you make it to TCI, make sure to include Stonehouse in your loop and enjoy a golf experience you don’t find in California every day.

Highlight hole: No. 17 at Cross Creek

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I’m not sure this photo quite captures what a cool little hole this really is, but this is one of my favorite par-3s in the area. This is No. 17 at Cross Creek in Temecula. It’s a gem of a hole on a hidden gem of a course. Cross Creek is on the other side of the mountains west of Old Town Temecula, where there’s little reason to suspect a golf course exists.

But one does, and it’s worth checking out. The secluded location and lack of nearby homes makes for a serene golf experience on a course that just seems to roll along the countryside giving you consistently great and unique golf holes one after the next.

You come to No. 17 after a pair of testy par-4s, and this little par-3 is off to the right of the 18th tee box, kind of off in its own little world, framed by the trees and fronted by a creek. It’s got a gently sloping green that provides for multiple challenging pin locations.

The hole plays 170 yards from the tips and a mere 137 yards from the golds. It’s tempting to go pin-seeking here because that’s exactly what the hole’s tempting you to do. But beware that if you clear the creek but end up short, the rough you’re in is ankle-high and no picnic to get out of. On the other hand, go long here and you’ve plenty of room to recover and save par. In other words, when in doubt, take an extra club.

The wind can also tricky on this hole. The day we played, the Santa Ana’s were howling, but the 17 green seemed protected from the wind enough to be unaffected, although we could feel the wind on the tee. But the winds were also coming from an unusual direction that day we were told. Wind behind you could make a big difference here.

Anyway, if anyone reads this who has played this hole and wants to toss in their two cents, feel free, but this is the hole I think of when I think of Cross Creek. I’ve made birdie, par and bogey here and each one has given me a different appreciation for the challenge this hole presents. I look forward to it every time.