When the Black course at Streamsong Resort opened September 29, it joined the rarest of clubs in golf course architecture.
I'm not talking about joining those courses ranked on Top 100 lists, even though I'm certain the latest creation from Gil Hanse is headed in that direction. It's this: The par for the routing of Streamsong Black adds up to 73. That's an anomaly in golf.
There are at least 350, but probably not more than 375, par-73 18-hole courses in the world, according to my research of Golf Advisor's extensive database. Comparing that total to the number of R&A-recognized golf facilities world-wide (33,161) indicates only one percent of the world's courses are par 73s from at least one set of men's tees. (Many others are par 73s or higher from the women's tees).
Most of them were done by unheralded architects in foreign countries, although some famous architects besides Hanse have tried their hand at one ... Stanley Thompson, Harry Colt, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr., Gary Player, C.B. Macdonald, Martin Hawtree, Ireland's Eddie Hackett and others. Englishman Donald Steel and Jack Nicklaus have done at least three apiece.
Why is a par 73 so rare? For one, it's not a natural number to reach. Designing a par 70 or 71 makes perfect sense if an architect doesn't have enough land for a fourth par 5. He or she might be forced into an extra par 3 or to shorten the fourth par 5 into a par 4, etc. To reach 73, it either takes space for a lengthy fifth par 5 or the architect might make the controversial decision to go with just three par 3s. Neither scenario is ideal.
Doak designed his only par-73 course early in his career - Black Forest at Wilderness Valley in Gaylord, Mich. - and may never do another again. Black Forest, which sports five par 5s, is known as one of the tougher tests in northern Michigan.
"It's a tough sell to golfers," Doak wrote in an e-mail. "Good players focus on par, and par is easier to beat on a par 73; but average golfers focus on breaking 90 or 100, and that's harder on a par 73. A par-73 course also takes up more land and costs slightly more to maintain as a result."
Editor's note: Reviews of Black Forest over the past several years indicate deteriorating course conditions.
Ironically, one of Doak's favorite courses in the world is a par 73, the Garden City Golf Club, an exclusive men's only club on New York's Long Island. Garden City hosted the 1902 U.S. Open and several U.S. Amateurs, the last in 1936. It only has three par 3s, not the extra par 5 like most par-73 courses do.
"I think par 4s are the strength of any course," continued Doak, who has worked on Garden City's Walter Travis/Devereux Emmet design. " ... I think short par 4s give way more freedom to create something different and cool than a par 5 does. Generally, par-5 holes are the hardest to design - there aren't many great ones - so trying to include more of them in a design makes it harder to build a great course."
The Pilgrim's Run Golf Club in Pierson, Mich., only has three par 3s as well. It became a par 73 when architects Kris Shumaker and Mike DeVries made the 10th hole a short par 4 instead of a par 3. Four par 4s shorter than 330 yards from the blue tees make up for that missing par 3, providing ample opportunities for birdie, including the dramatic 322-yard, risk-reward finishing hole (pictured).
"It works great and the course flows well, so I like it and it is fun to say I have a par 73 - rare indeed!", DeVries wrote by email. "As to doing it (a par 73) or not, I think it comes down to being the right fit for the land you have, not trying to hit a certain par number."
Not every par 73 course wants to be part of this unique club. Some have actually changed their scorecards to fall in line with tradition. Wisconsin's Erin Hills Golf Course - co-designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten - debuted as a monstrous 7,800-yard par 73 in 2009. Then the USGA stepped in, requesting the par-5 10th hole be transformed into a par 4. The hole's original Biarritz green, upwards of 100 yards long, was abandoned for a new green with more pin locations for the 2011 U.S. Amateur and ultimately, the 2017 U.S. Open.
"The first owner, Bob Lang, who was a casual golfer but a good marketing guy, thought that having a par 73 would distinguish Erin Hills. We tried to gently convince him otherwise, but he thought that it showed how big the golf course was and how difficult," recalled Hurdzan in an e-mail.
The private National Golf Links of America, a top 100 American classic by Macdonald, used to be a par 73 until the fifth hole became a par 4 on the scorecard in 2006. The club simply adjusted the par of the former short par 5 to account for distance advances in the modern game. On a less heralded scale, the 27-hole Perham Lakeside Golf Club in Minnesota and the Libbaton Golf Club in England have recently tweaked holes to get back to 72. Although its history is shrouded in mystery, the East course at Pocono Manor Resort & Spa in Pennsylvania - with nine early holes tied to Donald Ross in 1912 - might have been a par 73 when its second nine holes were added in 1927, according to the resort website. Today, it is played as a par of 72 of 6,565 yards from the tips.
A few other par 73s actually play as par 72s from more forward tees. The most famous example would be the Pines course at The International in Bolton, Mass., outside of Boston - one of the world's longest courses. At 8,325 yards, the "Tiger Tees" push par to 73, but who's crazy enough to play back there? Not me. When I took on the Pines a couple years ago, I played the par-72 'white tees', still long at 6,547 yards.
I've teed it up on many of the world's best par 73s, and frankly, enjoyed most of them. Doak's right, though. As a 10-handicap, I never seem to score that well. I'll take a dynamite short par 4 over an extra par 5 any day.
Curious how would you fare on a par 73? I've come up with a guide I'm calling 'Deegan's Dozen', the 12 best par-73 courses you can play. It's an interesting collection of resort courses, regular pro tournament stops, world Top 100 selections, treasured Irish links and even a former major championship venue:
12. West Course at Hershey Country Club, Hershey, Pennsylvania
Comment: The West Course at Hershey Country Club is one of 30 major championship venues open to the public, having hosted the 1940 PGA Championship won by Byron Nelson. The course climbs up to the front lawn of Milton Hershey's estate, High Point Mansion, providing fine views of the "sweetest town on earth". Its tree-lined fairways also hosted the LPGA’s Lady Keystone Open for almost 20 years.
11. Glen Abbey Golf Club, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Comment: The Glen Abbey Golf Club plays as a par 72 for the big boys of the PGA TOUR and as a par 73 for the members. The club will hosts its 30th Canadian Open in 2018, although there's still uncertainty whether the first design by Nicklaus will survive or eventually become a housing development by owner ClubLink. Three of the five par 5s play shorter than 495 yards from the blue tees.
10. Donegal Golf Club, County Donegal, Ireland
Comment: Isolated on the Murvagh Peninsula, the Donegal Golf Club, designed by Hackett and tweaked by Pat Ruddy, plays long from every tee combination, so tee it forward on this demanding links. Of the five par-5s, No. 8 is the most awkward with a blind second shot over "Moyne Hill."
9. Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club, Los Cabos, Mexico
Comment: The combination of the par-37 Marina nine by Nicklaus and the par-36 Mission nine by Greg Norman could change next year when the second Norman nine opens at the Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club. Eventually, the plan is for Nicklaus to return to add nine more holes and finish his Marina course.
8. Pines Course at The Prairie Club, Valentine, Nebraska
Comment: With the expansive land available at the Prairie Club, both architect teams - Graham Marsh on the Pines and Tom Lehman/Chris Brands on the Dunes course - went ahead and built par 73s with five par 5s apiece. The Pines Course rolls through the open sand hills and explores the pines near the cliff of the Snake River Canyon.
7. Dunes Course at The Prairie Club, Valentine, Nebraska
Comment: The Dunes Course sweeps across the plains in grand fashion with fairways and bunkers among the biggest in the game. You can spray it all over the place and still score if you can solve the greens.
6. West course at the Wentworth Club, Virginia Water, England
Comment: The renovation work Ernie Els has done to this Colt course outside of London has drummed up plenty of controversy for the Wentworth Club. It has hosted the 1953 Ryder Cup, the 1956 Canada Cup (today's World Cup of Golf), the World Matchplay from 1964-2007 and the European Tour's flagship event, the PGA Championship, since 1984. Els, a resident, has won an amazing seven times at Wentworth by aggressively navigating the heavily wooded site.
5. Streamsong Black, Bowling Green, Florida
Comment: Streamsong Black, a walking-only course in high season, goes the five par 5 route, opening each nine with a three-shotter and finishing with the par-5 18th hole. Having enough land was never an issue for Hanse. Streamsong, home to Doak's Blue course and the Coore/Crenshaw Red course, has been developed from an expansive mining site south of Orlando. I'll be curious to see how resort players embrace the difficult par-5 fourth hole. It was the only hole I didn't fall in love with during a tour last January.
4. Dunes Course at Enniscrone Golf Club, County Connaught, Ireland
Comment: Hackett original's routing outside of the dunes was completely altered in the 1990s by Steel, who found more dynamic holes in the dunes. The Dunes Course at Enniscrone Golf Club delivers a fun ride of blind shots and beautiful scenery as one of the most scenic links in Ireland.
3. Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, Maui, Hawaii
Comment: The famous Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, host of a January PGA TOUR event since 1999, sports only three par 3s. Coore and Crenshaw wisely created wide fairways, so resort guests can survive the howling trade winds. Its views of the Pacific Ocean and West Maui Mountains captivate everyone who visits.
2. Hotchkin Course at the Woodhall Spa Golf Club at National Golf Centre, Woodhall Spa, England
Comment: Yet another routing with only three par 3s, the Hotchkin Course at the Woodhall Spa Golf Club at National Golf Centre has brought in Doak as a consultant to keep its status among the World's Top 100.
1. The Links Course at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate, George, South Africa
Comment: I consider the The Links Course at Fancourt, host of the 2003 Presidents Cup, to be one of the most interesting courses - both visually and architecturally - I've ever played. Of the five par 5s created by Player, the finishing hole is the cruelest with its wicked, blind, uphill tee shot ending the day.
Editor's Note: Other highly regarded par 73s to consider: The Mussenden links at Castlerock Golf Club in Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth Golf Club in Australia and Bobby's Legacy, one of two stellar designs by RTJII at Craguns Resort on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minn.