Golfers can follow charles blair macdonald’s footsteps to North Berwick to view the original redan, step on the tee box of the Road Hole at St. Andrews and climb the Alps of Prestwick. But venture to France and Biarritz Le Phare Golf Club to seek out the “chasm” hole Macdonald drew inspiration from to create the Biarritz template hole and you will find the front door of someone’s house. Locals agree that the original tee now sits in the backyard. Of all the famed template holes that golf-course architecture enthusiasts obsess over, the Biarritz is the lone orphan. This untraceability is only part of what’s led it to be such a polarizing hole; supporters swear it adds a memorable element of strategy and fun, while critics question the design and its very placement in the template canon. Does it belong? And are technology and scorn destroying its future viability? After discussions with experts and architects like Gil Hanse and Tom Doak, the answers, like the hole’s origin story, remain murky at best.
The Biarritz’s defining characteristic is the deep swale in its middle, so deep that it becomes a saddle. Two plateaus, often of equal height, rest on opposite sides of that swale, and many believe that the “proper” (if ever quotation marks were needed in course-design shop talk, it’s for the Biarritz) way to play the hole from the tee box is for a player to use a 3-wood or driver to run the ball into the front portion of the green—what Macdonald called “a hog’s back”—and then have it run through the swale and disappear, only to reappear on the back tier of the green. The idea was the adventure of it all—the momentary loss of sight as the ball dipped below the green’s horizon and then the jolt of recognition and joy as it materialized.
The Biarritz harkens to an earlier era of golf that demanded a different variety of shots but also asked more of a golfer mentally, assuming that they knew bad breaks and bad bounces—the “rub of the green”—were as much a part of the game as the ball placed on the peg. To look at the Biarritz in full is to see a hole composed for a game in which how a ball reacts to the ground is more important than how it flies through the air. In fact, if you were to transplant one template green to your local mini-golf facility, it would be the Biarritz.
It would not be transplanted to the PGA Tour. Zac Blair, one of the few professionals who talks cogently and passionately about golf-course architecture, is a fan of the concept and appreciates the skill involved in hitting a long club on a one-shotter. But he says his contemporaries are often baffled by the third hole at The Old White TPC at The Greenbrier, one of the few Biarritz holes they play regularly. “After they had the flood [in 2016], and with all that damage, some of the guys joked they hoped they would level that green and start all over,” he says.
Of course, as technology has improved, many golden-age courses have suffered to remain relevant to better players. A 220-yard Biarritz that would have been a 3-wood or driver when first conceived can now be handled with a 5-iron by most Tour pros and a hybrid or 4-iron for a quality amateur, which will allow them to drop the ball out of the sky in a way that a persimmon club never could. The quirky design and nature of the Biarritz makes it the template green most susceptible to becoming obsolete, falling by the wayside like the niblick and the gutta-percha—victims to the unrelenting march of progress to make a difficult game easier.
The progenitor of the template, the “chasm” hole, was originally No. 3 at Biarritz. Golfers stood on a cliff 80 feet above the Bay of Biscay and took aim at a green 220 yards away on a separate 50-foot cliff. George Bahto has detailed much of this on GolfClubAtlas.com and in his book, Evangelist of Golf, including a schematic that shows the hole and the way the tee box was pushed inland over the years from the original Willie Dunn design. In fact, upon watching Dunn hit shots across the chasm, William K. Vanderbilt, then new to golf, reportedly exclaimed, “Gentlemen, this beats rifle shooting for distance and accuracy. It is a game that I think would go in our country.”
Once they were across the bay, golfers were forced to keep it straight, as strip bunkers flanked the green on both sides. The plateau green sat well above the fairway and was heavily sloped from back to front, and Macdonald incorporated these three elements into his design. What we call a Biarritz today is a mashup of these components along with the swale, which Macdonald developed because of the steep slope of the green; Bahto believes a “valley of sin” concept was incorporated as well to comprise the swale. There are exhaustive debates on the golf-architecture message boards as to how this swale and its preceding land should be mown—fairway height or green height—that go deeper into the weeds than necessary, since no matter what, the hole is a tough one for a 10-handicap. Some believe that if mown at fairway height, the grass will allow a player to bounce it into the hog’s back and traverse through the swale as intended, whereas a green-height hog’s back may ask a player—if the pin is placed on the front tier—to hold that green. And that’s another thing: Some believe a “proper” (that damn word again) Biarritz should allow for pinnable locations in all three green sections.
Alas, much of this confusion stems from our inability to see the original, to pore over aerial photos or see original schematics drawn up by Dunn with notes for improvement. In recent years, officials at Biarritz Le Phare have tried to document what the original course looked like by transposing the routing on the land using Google Maps. When looking at those photos, the mighty chasm hole loses nearly all of its bite, as the carry from cliff to cliff proves to be only 90 yards. Yet this adds to the weird allure and mythology that has surrounded this hole from its first appearance in the States. After all, if Macdonald considered it a template hole, then why didn’t he build one at National Golf Links of America, home of all the others? His goal from the outset was to bring the game to the U.S. by importing what he deemed to be the best holes in the British Isles. His omission of the Biarritz is seen by some as making it lesser than the other templates; in fact, when he did build his first one, at Piping Rock Golf Club in New York, it was termed “Macdonald’s Folly” for its never-before-seen putting surface. Later, Seth Raynor would build upon the Biarritz concept, creating many of the best, such as No. 3 at Chicago Golf Club, the eighth at Camargo Club and, what many consider his finest, No. 9 on The Course at Yale. Raynor took the template holes from Macdonald and expanded their reach, designing more than 100 courses in his lifetime as Macdonald’s interest in building courses waned.
But the answer to either question or diving into the debate about mowing height—I stand with Team Green Height—isn’t going to make you play this hole any better. Here’s what you need to know: Biarritz holes are hard, weird, gimmicky and fun. Brian Silva, who built one of the wildest and most daring modern Biarritz holes at the Black Creek Club in Chattanooga, says it takes a client who either has historical perspective regarding course architecture or “doesn’t think that all 20,000 golf courses in America need to look the same.” The hole at Black Creek is massive: a 243-yard par 3 with a green measuring some 210 feet long and a 5-foot-deep swale. It’s a stunner. In fact, the real appeal of the Biarritz may have less to do with its playing characteristics than its visual oddity. Only a few of the most famous ones take on the chief trait of the original, playing over a “chasm,” such as the ninth at Yale and its 200-yard carry over water.
In addition to Silva, I asked two of golf’s best-known architects what they thought of the Biarritz concept and if it was in danger of being left behind by technology—an idea that Silva rejected outright. Gil Hanse said that length wasn’t an issue to nullifying the concept because “we can always [move tees] back.” Instead, he cited irrigation as a concern, as courses are maintained for lushness more now than they were in the golden age: “I would hope that a firm and fast course would allow for the premium to be placed on holding the front plateau—if it is green—or using the ground contour to allow the ball to roll through the valley up onto the back plateau, which is one of the most fun shots in golf.” Hanse went on to say that golf’s most exciting moments are the “nearlys and almosts, and the [Biarritz] produces those moments of triumph and despair as well as any template feature I know of.”
Tom Doak also thinks the hole hasn’t been obviated just yet. “I think that shot would still work for seniors, who play a lower trajectory and don’t spin the ball much at all,” he said. “The flat-bellies today are then stuck with carrying a tee shot over 200 yards to clear the swale and then stopping it quickly, so it’s still a relevant hole for them, too.” In general, though, he believes the template holes are too slavishly followed, and it’s one of the reasons the Biarritz’s charms are lost on him: “I’ve never been a big fan of the Biarritz hole.”
He says it seems more “unnatural than gimmicky,” and “nearly everyone insists on building a completely symmetrical copy of the hole Raynor stamped out, even though from the best accounts I’ve seen, the original hole in France was nothing of the sort.” Which is true. From a practical perspective, the Biarritz template followed today is one created by Macdonald and modified by Raynor, meaning subsequent iterations are a secondhand interpretation of a secondhand interpretation.
The most interesting thoughts I came across about the concept were from a former Doak associate, Mike McCartin, who designed the highly regarded Schoolhouse Nine short course in Sperryville, Virginia.
“My impression has always been that the Biarritz design was better in concept than it is on the ground,” he said. He has developed a three-part theory on why. The first is topography—that the hole is generally placed on “benign land,” meaning flat and uninteresting. The second is that the design elements are “overly prescriptive.” He explained, “While you could argue this is the case for any of the MacRaynor templates, I think this negatively impacts the Biarritz more than any of their other short holes. The elements of the template just take up so much space, making them hard to build. A huge part of the fun of playing their courses is noticing the differences between the templates as they are applied to different properties, but to me the Biarritz holes end up looking too similar from course to course.” Lastly, he said modern hole length can’t keep up with the design. Rather than run the ball up and through, long hitters will just carry the ball to the back tier of the green, thus eliminating the concept and forcing it to play “like any other par 3.”
Silva argued against this last point, though, saying the majority of golfers lack the firepower to nullify the design’s intended line of play. And so the debate goes on.
Admittedly, it’s a small sample, but I was surprised by the polarity of opinions on the Biarritz. When I asked Doak if it was possible to build a proper one in 2018 given the length needed, he raged against our new least-favorite word: “I’m not sure I want to address what a ‘proper’ Biarritz hole is,” he said. “I am sick of arguing such things with people who want to establish their bona fides as greater purists than me. You can build a sharp swale in front of a green for any shot over 180 yards, and it will come into play for a lot of people.”
And that was the thing that stuck out most for me: As much as golfers chase scores, there is a subset of players out there chasing history—not records or titles or numbers, but the roots of the game, the literal foundations the sport was built on. They are not interested in interpretations of the great holes, but in exactitude. Look no further than the 2018 major championship season, which shined a light on two gems in Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Carnoustie Golf Links, back-to-back relics that took the average golfer on a tour de force crash course about how links courses should play versus how they play today. (The USGA’s setup is another journey for another day.) Many demand the game to present itself as it was first designed, even though most have traded in the hickories. It’s the reason a lost course like Lido is so often mentioned when discussing great holes and why the rediscovery of Askernish has caused golfers to make an implausible trek to an improbable place. Something about playing these templates reminds us that more than a century has passed since their creation, but we don’t have to cling to faint retellings or renderings. We can see them, play them and somehow be connected to a land and time different from our own.
It’s as if we have driven into the past only to disappear briefly down into its stories and ideas, then arise on the other side, hopefully closer to hole, nearer to home. Don’t get too carried away with the metaphor, though. Some people just want things to be exactly as they once were, which is an impossibility and foolish to boot. It’s even more so with the Biarritz, whose original hole didn’t suffer its loss at the hands of the mighty ocean or even a new architect, but to the mysterious powers of French municipal zoning. There’s a lesson in that too, I’m sure, that’s not as poetic but is just as difficult as holding a green an eighth of a mile away with a perfectly struck 3-wood.