What makes a truly great 18th hole? Easy: It must be a summation of all that came before.
The most iconic courses in the world finish with the grandest of flourishes. Some prefer the grandeur of a majestic, sweeping par-5 so the golfer has a chance to close with a birdie. Others prefer 18 to be the hardest par-4 on the course, demanding your best drive and best approach of the day. And still others praise the rare but wonderful par-3 finisher that exceeds all expectations. With Winged Foot West’s mighty 18th shining brightly in the spotlight this week, let’s take a look at some of the greatest finishing holes in golf.
MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP VENUES
WINGED FOOT – PAR-4, 469 YARDS
So much horror has unfolded on the West course’s 18th hole, you’d think it was designed by Stephen King and not A.W. Tillinghast. I’ve seen a number of hockey games break out on that green, some of which put Danny Lee’s 6-putt this week to shame. In one instance, with the Anderson Memorial Fourball trophy on the line, three players needed 13 putts before one finally fell in the hole via the side door to end the tournament. And yes, there is a (metaphoric) graveyard nearby where you can read the headstones of everyone from Al Espinosa to Forrest Fezler to Phil Mickelson and several generations of golfers in between.
PEBBLE BEACH – PAR-5, 552 YARDS
Curving gracefully like a scimitar around Carmel Bay, don’t come to this hole needing a birdie to tie, especially on a windy day. It’s crowned three immortals in the gloaming: Nicklaus and Woods, both of whom put on virtuoso performances, and Tom Watson, whose chip-in at 17 in 1982 belongs in golf’s eternal time capsule. Pebble will host its sixth U.S. Open in 2027.
THE OLD COURSE AT ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND – PAR-4 356 YARDS
Though short and laid out over reputedly, “the widest fairway in the world,” this par-4 can’t help but bring a tear to a golfer’s eye as he waves farewell to the Old Course before crossing Swilcan Burn and returning to wherever from whence he came. The history on the hole is incomparable. Every golfer in the world should make a pilgrimage to the Mecca of golf once in their lifetime.
My personal favorite memory is Jack Nicklaus sinking the winning putt in 1970 to end the 18-hole playoff with Doug Sanders, then accidentally losing grip on the putter and nearly braining the hapless Sanders by accident as it flew through the air; Sanders had to duck and cover.
CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND – PAR-4, 499 YARDS
Serpentine Barry Burn crosses this criminally narrow fairway in three dangerous places, while out-of-bounds guards greenside left, and bunkers guard the right. Infamously, Frenchman Jean van de Velde came to the 72nd tee with a three shot lead, and had to one-putt for triple bogey seven after turning the hole into chopped salad. He still lost to Scotland’s Paul Lawrie in a three-way playoff that also included Justin Leonard. In 2007, Padraig Harrington fumbled a two-shot lead at the 18th as well, but Sergio Garcia missed a 10-footer to win and Harrington outlasted him in a playoff.
MERION GOLF CLUB (EAST COURSE) – PAR-4 511
Site of Ben Hogan’s triumphant return from the car crash that nearly killed him and his wife, his 1-iron to the 72nd hole is still one of golf’s enduring images. During the third round of the 2013 U.S. Open won by Justin Rose, it played a whopping 530 yards. And during Thursday’s opening round it played to a whopping .77 strokes over par average for the field. Tough way to end the day…
OAKLAND HILLS (SOUTH COURSE) – PAR-4/5, 498 YARDS
This short par-5 for members gets converted for major championship play to a brutish, uphill, narrow par-4 to a pedestal green with two distinct tiers. Ben Hogan closed with a 67 in the 1951 U.S. Open, and then proclaimed he “brought the Monster to its knees.” Not to be outdone, in 1961 Gene Littler won his only U.S. Open with a sparkling 68 to close. And Padraig Harrington, playing 33 holes on Sunday in 2008 after rain softened the course, closed 66-66: one of the great finishes in PGA Championship history (or any major for that matter). All that makes up for the milquetoast 1985 Open where T.C. Chen (the T.C. stands for two chip) blew an Open he led all week with a quad eight on the fifth hole, opening the door for Andy North to claim his second U.S. Open title.
RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB – PAR-4, 483 yards
Instantly recognizable beneath the gorgeous clubhouse, the 18th at Riviera climbs its way out of the canyon through which the rest of the course meanders. The drive rises to a fairway 60 feet above the tee box; then a power fade takes the player home to the green. Hogan won the first of his four U.S., Opens here in 1948. The course also hosted two PGA Championships, won by Hal Sutton (1983) and Australia’s Steve Elkington (1995).
GARDEN CITY GOLF CLUB – PAR-3, 190 YARDS
Golf Architect Tom Doak called it, “the best Eden hole in America,” and he’s right. With the clubhouse and the old Garden City hotel as tableau in the background, it’s a stirring finish full of old school charm and Golden Age grandeur. Travis dug his own grave deepening the front left bunker…he left the semi-final of the 1908 U.S. Amateur in it, losing to eventual winner J.D. Travers. Water and OB and the clubhouse veranda serve as hazards.
By the way, for those of you scratching your heads wondering what it’s doing on a list of major venues, back then the Am was a major. Moreover, the club also hosted the 1902 U.S. Open won by Laurie Auchterlonie.
OTHER GREATS FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
PINE VALLEY GOLF CLUB – PAR-4, 483 YARDS
The number one course in America closes on a long, dog-leg left par-4. What makes Pine Valley so fiendishly difficult is that although there is no rough, if you miss the fairway, you are in dense trees – unplayable lie or lost ball territory. The 18th’s green is 11,000 square feet, among the largest in the United States.
CASA DE CAMPO (DYE FORE), DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – PAR-5, 610 yards
Swirling like Charybdis, the Greek mythological whirlpool that ensnared Odysseus and his men as they tried to return to Ithaca. Your eye is drawn to the green and what appears to be a diagonally-angled fairway. That is, however, the cruelest of Pete Dye’s jokes, because it’s also one of his finest and most troublesome optical illusions. You must play the tee ball to a tennis court sized piece of fairway far away from the distant green and ribbon of fairway you see from the tee. Otherwise the ball is sucked into a rough-covered chasm and you face 400 yards of uphill thrashing in the rough.
Still, it’s one of the most gorgeous settings for a golf course, (they filmed parts of Apocalypse Now at Dye Fore), and a worthjy rejoinder to the tremendous Teeth of the Dog.
PASATIEMPO GOLF CLUB – PAR-3, 170 YARDS
Though only a mid-to-short iron, this hole is anything but an afterthought. The wickedly pitch green is guarded by cavernous bunkers and a fescue-covered arroyo. Do not be above the hole, it’s a sure 3-putt. Tom Doak’s restoration has done Mackenzie proud; Pasa is as good as anything on the planet.
FORSGATE COUNTRY CLUB (BANKS COURSE) – PAR-4, 490 yards
Haven’t heard of Forsgate yet? You need to. Mid-way between New York and Philadelphia Charles “Steamshovel” Banks completed the final course in the portfolio of the greatest golf architecture bloodline in American history. Between 1910 and 1931 the triumvirate of Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor, and Banks completed over 50 golf architectural marvels across the country.
Forsgate has all the most strategic and best loved holes in their repertoire: Biarritz, Punchbowl, Short (with a gorgeous thumbprint feature), Chocoiate Drop and many others. The closer is unique to Forsgate: “Purgatory,” named for the gargantuan Purgatory Bunker that lies at the front right base of the green eight feet below green level. The hole requires two long carries: one to crest the first hilltop ridge, and the other to avoid Purgatory and reach the green perched atop a second hill with the clubhouse veranda just steps away. It’s a heavenly finish, but if you think the 18th hole is terrific, you should see the rest of the golf course!