By Jeff Silverman
that the one snippet of architectural argot that virtually every golfer can
toss about with assurance – "the signature hole" – has nothing to
do with golf course architecture at all. But there it is – like Waldo,
everywhere -- argued about with conviction over beverages in the grill room,
pronounced reverently from the broadcast booth, and embraced with rapture at
every station of the gamut from the lowly goat track to venues hosting major
championships. The notion’s so ubiquitous it seems a golf course can’t be a
real golf course without one.
just what is a signature hole?
the Supreme Court’s take on pornography, the definition’s not specific, but we
all know one when we see one. "They wow you," says Tom Fazio, "even without playing them."
We are drawn to their mountains, their deserts, their oceans, their lakes,
their fountains, their waterfalls, their elevated tees, their azaleas in bloom,
their lighthouses, their windmills, the grass monkeys planted in their bunkers,
even the Statue of Liberty – or rollercoaster – in the distance on
the aiming line from the tee.
are the holes that lure us, the holes that excite us, the holes on which we
pull out our cameras to record our presence on them, the holes we know are
something special, the hole’s we’ve decided are the best. And some are. Yet,
there’s an odd golfing disconnect at the core of any conversation about them
for stunning as these holes we single out may be for their aesthetic and photogenic qualities, sometimes the
beauty’s only skin deep. Sometimes, as a strategic test of golf, there’s no
ask the architects. When they end up with a hole so anointed, it’s not because
they themselves set out to create one.
a design concept," dismisses Tom Doak, "it’s irrelevant."
the signature hole at Pine Valley?" asks Steve Smyers. He’ll
gladly prosecute the case for each.
No. 2? "You can’t find one. Its greatness rests in its entirety," and, he
adds, the specific challenges of each hole, not the drama of the course’s
can you find just one on Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, or Augusta,
Keiser, proprietor of Bandon Dunes. "It’s like saying I have four children and this one’s
my signature child," he sighs. "The idea is sort of sad."
self-defeating, like identifying the signature chapter of "Moby Dick," the
signature track on "Abbey Road," the signature scene of "Casablanca," or the
signature phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
implication," suggests Gil Hanse, "is that the rest isn’t
every architect worth his backhoe wants each of the 18 to be a keeper.
Jones, "People are always asking, ‘What’s the signature hole?’ Not the most
meaningful; the signature.
It’s entrenched. It’s part of the golfing lingo."
its source residing in his own genetic line. "My father had nice handwriting,"
he says. "He really liked his signature." So much so that he turned it first
into a tool and then into a concept.
father, of course, was Robert Trent Jones, the best-known designer of the mid-20th
century. A savvy self-promoter, Jones pere engineered a seismic shift in the perception of his
profession. While predecessors like A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas,
and Alister Mackenzie aspired toward art on enormous canvases, Jones --
who aspired no less nobly – tacked another layer to the job description:
trading on his most recognized assets – his name and reputation – Jones, in
the ‘60s, began punctuating his advertisements with the phrase "Give Your
Course a Signature," signing off with his autograph underneath. A Jones
"signature course" had negotiable cachet. It also had a unified story conveyed
in 18 connecting chapters – some certainly better and more memorable than
others – that came together to reflect the heroic style of its creator.
Like the signature below a painting, the phrase implied pride of authorship,
endorsing the work as a whole.
the game developed through the ‘80s, courses – particularly daily-fee and
resort tracks – sought new ways to attract customers. The handwriting, so
to speak, was on the wall, and, from it, an altogether different script was
forged. "My guess," says Jack Nicklaus, "is that the term was created by some marketing or
public-relations firm in an effort to find a creative way to promote their golf
course, because I seriously doubt that it was a term coined by a golf course
designer." Like Jones, Nicklaus has adopted the use of "signature" to describe the
courses, like the recently opened Dismal River in the Nebraska sandhills, that get his best attention from start to
finish. But he would never label any individual hole a "signature." "You want
every one," he says, "to be as strong and as enjoyable as the next."
from an owner or developer’s perspective, the label makes exquisite sense.
"You’ve got only one shot to inspire people to come visit," says Steve Adelson, partner in the Discovery Land Company,
developer of up-scale golf communities like The Estancia Club in Scottsdale. "A
collection of holes is too complicated for people." But the right one is just
enough. "You can photograph it. You can put it in your ad. You can put it in
your brochure. You can put it on your website." (And hope that publications
like this one slap it in their pages.)
you build it, they will come.
identifying and advertising the one that instantly revs saliva glands into
overproduction, the hope is that the pull of its presence will tempt golfers to
come try the rest. Forget the e pluribus unum of Jones’s "signature
course" concept. How much simpler to avance the unum
– like a sound bite, a movie trailer, or a few sample bars from iTunes
– to shill for the whole.
a marketing tool, it has stuck. In fact, believes Adelson,
"It’s become one of the most overused terms in golf." As an expression of
architecture or design theory? "The superficial nature of the discussion gives
me a special pain in the chest," sighs Brian Silva, "but it’s better, certainly, than
no discussion at all."
a signature holes can come in any shape and size, they’re "absolutely site
driven," says Jim
Bellingham, senior vice president of development services at Troon Golf,
which creates and manages upscale facilities like the Westin La Cantera
in San Antonio and Troon North and Talking Stick in Scottsdale. "It really
gives the course a story to promote."
that promotion, par 3s tend to predominate. The daunting 17th at Sawgrass.
The rowdy 16th at the TPC of Scottsdale, home of the FBR Open.
The majestic 16th at Cypress Point. The dropshot
7th at Pebble Beach. Different as they are, all one-shotters
share a feature that makes the story-telling easier. "They unfold completely
from the tee," says Rees Jones. "They strike you the minute you see them."
do man-made structures. At Dismal River, Nicklaus opted to incorporate an existing prairie windmill into the
strategy of the his par 5 4th hole by nestling the green beside it.
"No one’s saying it’s the best hole or the strongest hole," he says, "but I
imagine it is the one that will be photographed quite a bit because of that one
element." Ta-dah! The signature. Sometimes, you can’t
avoid it. Click!
than Tom Weiskopf and Jay Moorish could avoid the Six Flags/Fiesta
Texas’s rollercoaster just beyond what would turn into the green of the
temptingly short par 4 7th hole at La Cantera’s
Resort Course. Click!
Donald Trump, on the other hand, manufactured his own set of
ponds and waterfalls around the 13th green at Trump National north of New York City.
Click! So pleased was he with his rock-walled Niagaras,
he made sure the hole was designated with signature status in the course
the signature hole idea gets dicey is in the discussion of classic courses
built before the idea was ever born. Honestly, how could Pebble Beach not have a spectacularly snazzy series
of holes given its site, but, of course, they’re not just pretty faces. As for memorability – consider the 12th, 13th,
and 16th at Augusta; the beached par 3 3rd at Kittansett; the Road
Hole at St.
Andrews; Hell’s Half Acre at Pine Valley; the Redan
and the Cape at the National Golf Links; the par 3 6th with the bunker
mid-green at Riviera.
"Certainly," observes Doak, "there are iconic" – note
the avoidance of "signature" – "holes populating golf courses."
elevates them so? The combination of how they look and how they play. "Design," says Silva, "is
always a balancing act." It’s the architect’s job to coax the most from the
land, and when the keenest strategy and the most humbling beauty intersect
– as they do, to universal agreement, on the 16th at Cypress Point,
the 8th at Pebble, the 16th over the quarry at Merion, the heroic 4th at Bethpage –
the result is unforgettable. Signature holes? Of course. Who can argue? But
that they can be ascribed the same sobriquet as the cover art on the brochure
put together to help sell real estate at the latest golfing community seems to
cheapen the concept entirely. As Adelson concedes, "a
signature hole may not be the best playing hole. It just has to be the most
every architect wants his holes – each of them – to inspire. "A hole should be
beautiful to look at," stresses Hanse, "but not at
the expense of how it plays." Indeed, architects present a unified front in
insisting they would never sacrifice playability just to provide a client with
they do get asked.
they do accede.
the results aren’t always pretty.
architect who’d rather keep the specifics buried in a bunker admits, despite
objection, to forcing the routing of one hole at a particularly prestigious
club toward an especially scenic landing area. The hole he came up with was
beautiful, but, the domino effect of his accommodation was back-to-back blind
shots on the next hole, which he had to squeeze in to fit. The membership
roared, and both holes were soon redesigned. By another architect.
much as architects pooh-pooh the concept of signature holes, they do, however,
get a kick out of the debates. "I’m often surprised at the holes they ask me
about," says Doak -- but at least they’re asking. At 92,
Cornish, the dean of the profession, thinks that’s a good thing –
that golfers are
"We’re hungry for
golfers to appreciate our art form," he says. "Signature holes stimulate
interest. That might get them thinking what else these holes might have besides
beauty. That’s a step toward getting them into golf architecture."
aim, in this space, precisely. Which, of itself, makes this neither a good
column nor a bad one necessarily, but perhaps a signature one all the same.
Jeff Silverman edited the award-winning book "Bernard Darwin on Golf." He writes regularly on the game for
such publications as Sports Illustrated and Travel & Leisure Golf. He lives in Chadds