Wednesday 13 February 2013

The First Hole

The term "gentle handshake" has often been used to describe an ideal opening hole and there is a lot of merit in this approach.  Much like placing golfers on a stage with an exposed first tee, an overly difficult first hole can induce psychological trauma in many golfers before the round begins.  Golf is a difficult sport, and people play for recreational enjoyment, and there is nothing more frustrating than destroying the prospects of a good round after only one hole.  (The same consideration should be given to the tenth hole as it is often used as a starting hole when golf courses attempt to maximize early morning weekend tee times).

The first hole need not be mundane and devoid of hazards or strategic elements, in fact, it should inspire your golfing spirit by introducing you to the type of architecture you will confront throughout the round.  Avoiding out-of-bounds, dense bush, deep fescue rough, blind drives and the possibility of an abnormally high score is however, a good starting point.  I believe Nick Faldo once defended his propensity for tough first holes as giving an advantage to those (like himself), who arrive early and put in the necessary practice to hone one's swing.  However, with time becoming more valuable in the modern world, asking typical weekend golfers to spend an additional half hour or more to practice before a round is not realistic.  We want golfers to feel comfortable on the first tee, especially if their swing isn't.  Knowing they can miss the fairway or hit their opening drive less than solid and still manage a heroic par or bogey is a pleasant way to start the day.  Playing a provisional or hitting three from the tee is not, and golf architects are not out to embarrass anybody.

The tenth hole (a likely starting hole on weekends) at Firerock GC in Komoka, Ontario presents a blind drive, with the ideal line of play defined by the pole well left of the fairway over the bunkers.  This scenario has the potential to back-up play right away, and adds great discomfort to those new to the golf course.
From the standpoint of course management, allowing players to get away comfortably means limited back-ups early in the round and improved customer satisfaction.  Therefore, starting with a par five is not ideal, as some players will be in a position to reach the green in two strokes causing delay for those waiting to start their round.  The same can be said of reachable par fours, especially under certain wind conditions.  A mid-length to longer par four (390-430 yards) is good, as it enables players to play two full strokes to help loosen up and avoids major delays.  Like everything in golf course architecture however, these are not un-breakable rules, as the land will often dictate a less than desirable opening hole type, perhaps even a one-shotter - that owing to the precise demands of the hole - traditionally falls later in a routing.

The first hole at Portsea GC in Australia presents a comfortable start, playing approximately 400 yards to an undulating and inviting fairway.
Stray drives on the first hole at Portsea may end up in the driving range right or the 18th fairway left, but the chances of losing a ball and slowing down play is slim. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Another rule of thumb when routing the first hole is to avoid playing in an easterly direction.  I played much of my junior golf at a course with such a set-up, and nothing is more frustrating and unnerving than hitting the ball solidly and losing track of it due to the rising sun!!

I'll end with one final and entertaining quote from the great Donald J. Ross pertaining to opening holes;

"It's a beastly nuisance, when starting off play and before getting limbered up, to drive a ball out-of-bounds.  It generally means delay, loss of a ball, vexation, and even profanity."


  1. The post is really interesting about serene golf course of first hole.

    1. Golf course architects have some control over the way a round begins, and providing a comfortable, relaxed start is a nice way to ease players into a round. The game of golf is difficult, and a poor start can negatively impact the overall enjoyment of the day, often before it has really begun.

  2. I’m a beginner at golf and like to do it for recreation, but nothing turns me off a course more than being challenged right at the get go. I prefer courses that build up on difficulty after every hole, so I can see for myself how my golf game is improving.

  3. Sofia,

    Golf can be a very intimidating game, especially for those looking to begin or just learning the game. Golf architects can help the sport by making it a little less daunting by making the first tee/first hole experience more inviting. I'm not so sure I would go so far as making each hole progressively more difficult, as mixing the holes up in terms of difficulty creates a more dynamic golf experience.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. Really interesting post for all beginners. I like the way you design perfect club course for newcomers.