Let’s Rip Par in Half

A call to play beyond the rigid numbers on the scorecard

We grew up playing with ghost men. Ghost man on second. Ghost man out at third. Ghost man safe at home. One-on-one whiffle ball required phantom base-runners, and we moved them around our backyard diamonds with each crack of thin yellow plastic. 

As I studied an old scorecard at Reay Golf Club in Scotland, I recalled those intangible teammates. The card was a clubhouse relic with a column listing each hole’s “bogey score,” a nod to golf’s predecessor to par, and it reminded me that a concept we take for granted today—playing toward a target number for a given hole—is a relatively novel twist. Golf grew up as a game of matches (more like tennis or billiards), but when you didn’t have an opponent handy, you could battle against bogey. It was golf’s original ghost man, and its roots are more spectral than anything my school buddies and I meant to conjure when we called on them to pinch run.

You can trace the term’s origin to a tune from Victorian theater and, before that, to old Scottish legends in which a bogle was a blight-hatching demon. The Bogeyman (predecessor to America’s Boogieman and derived from the Middle English bogge, for “goblin”) stuck in the British imagination in the late 19th century, when the song “Hush, Hush, Hush, Here Comes the Bogeyman” was a hit on the London stage. A 1915 story in The American Golfer describes a player at Great Yarmouth Club in England referring to his sharpshooting competitor as “a regular Bogeyman,” thus linking the folklore to golf; players soon were “chasing the Bogeyman,” matching themselves against an invisible adversary.

The Bogeyman got a promotion when a member from Yarmouth visited an officer’s golf club in Hampshire, where the members liked the idea of playing against Mr. Bogey’s score but decided he needed a commission to play at their course. Colonel Bogey was born. He’d become the resident ace at courses across Britain, though his legacy in music outlasted his place in golf. When an English army bandmaster was inspired by a whistling golfer, he composed the “Colonel Bogey March,” an off-to-work jingle hummed and whistled the world over. (Once you recall it from The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Simpsons or The Breakfast Club, it’ll be stuck on your lips all day).

Bogey scoring eventually gave way to par, an American system better tuned to advancements in equipment and abilities. Golf historian Neil Laird credits the stock market, where share prices were described as above or below par, with popularizing the term. Some British courses stuck with bogey for a time, but par eventually won out as the standard, replacing the Bogeyman as the specter that haunted golfers’ sleep.

Let's Rip Par in Half The Country Club Ouimet
Bogey was still present on scorecards in the early 1900s, like this from the U.S. Open at The Country Club in 1913. But neither the Bogeyman nor Bernard Darwin, his group’s walking observer, could frighten Francis Ouimet on his way to a historic victory. Photo courtesy of the USGA Museum

Goblins and colonels. Stock prices and a few whistled notes. It feels frivolous and random, so much happenstance behind numbers onto which we hoist so much weight, these indexes by which we measure ourselves, the plus or minus tallies that dictate our moods and own our hours. Three wee letters bestride golf like a colossus. A simple placeholder for one’s opponent now shapes our courses and dictates our play. But it’s rigid and reductionist. Common and formulaic. It takes thousands of unique playing fields and binds them in a box sized 72. Stating goals and measuring one’s credentials are important, but par’s limits are revealed when you consider that golf’s very best offerings defy the now-standard prescription of tee, fairway, green, hole. I’m not opposed to par (and I’d sign for it right now), but I’d like to see it offered in halves.

Par gives you two swings to reach the 12th at Pine Valley (337 yards, par 4), but only one to find the much angrier fifth (238 merciless yards). I’ve hit Oakmont’s four-shot 17th with my tee ball more times than I’ve held its par-3 eighth (once between the two of them, but who’s counting? Par is!). Give me four shots to finish the 17th at Merion (244 yards) and I’ll skip to the tee box; tell me I’ve got three and I’m wrecked. You can say the same for the 15th at Royal Dornoch (360 yards) or the 16th at Carnoustie (245), or for just about every hole at Ohoopee and Gamble Sands; the joy and magic of all of the above lie in their rejection of par’s plain recipe. Driver or 5-iron? Should you pitch it or putt? Holes that linger between par reward ambition and punish hubris in a manner far more seductive than a two-putts-for-4 equation. 

Par wants us to lay up on No. 9 at Cypress Point (292 yards)—which is reason enough to oust it from our foursomes—not because it beats us too often, but because it too often doesn’t add up. It’s a lead dog we struggle to follow, yanking us back when we’re out ahead, pushing us toward folly to catch back up. And, as a template, it’s uninspired. We all understand how to play a par 3, 4 or 5, but a 3.5 or 4.5 requires you to learn the hole each time you take the tee. Take the 8th at Inness, a prime par-3.5 candidate: A firm fairway makes its 300 yards attainable, but a humped green nearly guarantees three putts if your drive doesn’t cozy into the proper quadrant. Play for par and you’ll have a fair go at birdie; chase birdie from the tee and you might scramble for 5. Until we welcome half-pars to our scorecards and mix more of them into our routings, whole-number par paints only half the picture.

Par is calm and steady; it’s equanimous and reasonable. It’s also boring. Half-pars are wily and cryptic and provocative. They don’t hamstring architects or inflame distance debates or reengineer holes to meet the demands of an arbitrary total. The finishing hole at the course where I grew up (500 yards with a downhill drive and rightward bend) would be an ideal 4.5; instead, they’ve moved the scratch tees up ahead and called it a par 4, while higher handicappers play a longer hole as a 5. I tee off in front of my 89-year-old father because of a concept we invented for golfers who couldn’t find a match. Colonel Bogey must be rolling in his grave.

The Ohoopee Match Club is a pioneer against the doldrums of par, with malleable yardages, no course rating, and half-pars printed on the scorecard, where the question that matters (and is stitched into merch around the shop) isn’t whether you were under or over, but: Who Won the Match? May its example flourish. On a par 3.5 or 4.5 or 5.5, you never leave a hole feeling ordinary, as if you’ve successfully imitated a blueprint. Like a half-point in Vegas, there are no draws on a half-par, and, as the saying about kissing your sister (or brother) goes, we don’t play golf for ties.

Let’s play nine holes (Gibson Island), 12 holes (Shiskine) or 20 (the European Club). Let’s go for the green on 3.5s and lay back when the sign suggests 4.5. Or maybe not. Answer the questions as you will, rather than playing to the answer already printed on your card. Target tallies are a fine way to golf, and we need a marker like par to know where we stand. But give or take a half-stroke next time you’re out there making numbers, and if you don’t beat them, so be it. Let’s stop pulling clubs because a rating tells us to and remember that if we’re living and dying by par, we’re out there chasing ghosts. 

Los Angeles Country Club North

No. 11
Par 3, 277 yards
Words by Gil Hanse
Architect of the club’s 2009 restoration

Let's Rip Par in Half Los Angeles Country Club
Photo by Brian Oar

What makes the 11th at LACC such a cool par 3.5 is the flexibility in the yardage and the angles. In order to go back to the concept that original architect George Thomas had for the hole, it had to play as a standard par 3 or stretch to a par 4 from the back tee.

As a par 3, it plays primarily from an angle slightly offset to the right. The par-4 tee is farther to the left. Why does this matter? Well, the kicker slope on the front left of the reverse Redan green feeds balls onto it, and for the longer shot, the flatter angle will propel balls from a long club into the green. From the sharper par-3 angle on the right with a more lofted club, the shot shape needs to be left to right to get that crucial kick. Brilliant hole that works both as a 3 and a 4—truly a par 3.5.

No. 16
Par 3, 245 yards
Words by Francesco Molinari
2018 Open Champion at Carnoustie

Let's Rip Par in Half Carnoustie
Photo by Kevin Murray

The 16th at Carnoustie, named Barry Burn, is one of the most iconic par 3s in golf. It is also one of the hardest I have ever played. From the back tee, it’s a brutally long hole at 245 yards, and the prevailing wind is often into you. This means that for the pros it plays anywhere from a long iron to a 3-wood. Pro or not, every time players reach that 16th tee, they are forced into a big decision and a precise swing no matter what they choose.

The green is raised, and there is no help; it runs off short, long left and right. There’s a bunker about 15 to 20 yards short of the green that you have to carry, and that stops you from hitting a low shot off the tee. You need to carry it at least to the front of the green to avoid that bunker. Then there’s another two bunkers on the right, along the length of the front portion of the green, and the green is two-tiered, with slope running up from the front. It’s a long green as well, so if the pin is on the back and you’re just on the front, you’ve got a difficult putt.

It’s not a hole where you are looking for a birdie. And I was certainly not expecting one in the final round of the 2018 Open Championship. I was tied for the lead when we reached the tee, and I knew a par would be a good score. I got a bit fortunate to have my tee shot bounce past the rough short of the hole on the right, leaving a long but delicate pitch back across the green. I was able to hit it to about 4 feet and make the putt. What a relief.

Ohoopee Match Club

Hole A
Par 5, 499 yards
Words by Jim Wagner
Ohoopee Match Club co-architect

Let's Rip Par in Half Ohoopee
Photo by Christian Hafer

The second shot is what makes half-par holes so much fun. At Ohoopee, we would take a par 4 and make it a drivable hole that plays as a 3.5; we could also take a par 3 and lengthen it into a 3.5. So it’s not so much about the drive or the tee shot, but the second shot: You could have a putt for eagle, or you could be facing a pretty wild recovery shot and scrambling for par. Half-pars add an element you don’t get on a standard hole, where you hit your drive and then you’re standing over another 120-yard approach.

The priority at OMC was strictly match play. There are no tee markers; the winner of the last hole chooses where you tee off, and that allows players to add another level of interest as they pick tees based on how and whom they’re playing. So we were able to get a lot more creative because we didn’t have to worry about stroke play or a course rating, and giving a par to each hole wasn’t really a concern.

The A hole on the Whiskey Routing [OMC’s alternate routing incorporates five extra holes that go by letters] is the best. It’s basically a par 4.5; the green sits low in a depressed punchbowl with almost an amphitheater look, and it is a wild green. Since it sits below the grade of the approach by 10 to 12 feet, it allows for a ground-game component where a shorter player can hit out to the right and let the ball funnel down to the green. You can get aggressive and try to carry something to pin, or you can use what we call the “crack” of the A hole: If you can hit a long iron or hybrid into the crack, you should have a putt. It won’t be an easy putt, but it’s an exciting sort of golf that you don’t see every day.

Gamble Sands Resort

No. 8
Par 4, 310 yards
Words by David McLay Kidd
Gamble Sands architect

Let's Rip Par in Half Gamble Sands
Photo by Brian Oar

The eighth hole at Gamble Sands is 310 yards from the tips, but only 280 from the regular tees. It plays slightly downhill over a blind crest and feeds in from the left side. There’s a row of bunkers that run down the middle, perpendicular to the hole. You can see them from the tee, and you can see past the green on the right even though you can’t quite see the green—just the top of the flag. If you’ve played here before, you know that you can land your ball a few yards short of that green, over the top of those bunkers, and it’s going to feed down onto the putting surface. 

The last time I played No. 8, the wind was coming in off the left, and I bombed a driver. It ran right through the green. So you really want to play short with a low trajectory and let the ball run. Then you’ve got the excitement of not knowing where you ended up. You walk up there and you could be in the cup. You could be over the back. It could have peeled right and into one of the bunkers. You could be putting for eagle, or you could have a delicate chip trying to save par or rescue a bogey. For me, short par 4s give you the best of golf: They’re the most fun, the most dramatic and the most memorable. That’s why I built three of them at Gamble Sands.

Royal Dornoch

No. 15
Par 4, 360 yards
Words by Lorne Rubenstein
Author of A Season in Dornoch

Let's Rip Par in Half Royal Dornoch
Photo by Kevin Murray

The 15th hole at Royal Dornoch, called Stulaig, is 360 yards from the back tee and the shortest par 4 on the course. It follows the diabolical 445-yard 14th, known as Foxy. There’s a feeling of relief after Foxy. A birdie can seem almost likely after a Foxy adventure. But caution is advised.

A gnarly mound some 20 feet wide intervenes in the center-left of the fairway. The carry over the mound ranges from 205 to 280 yards. The safe drive is to play short of the mound, then pitch onto the raised green. To reach the green from the tee, one must carry the mound and hope the ball will run up the green’s false front. Neil Hampton, the club’s general manager, is a low handicapper and says the 15th “exemplifies what a great short par 4 is, and why golf isn’t all about length.” The most favorable approach to the green, he notes, is from the left side of the fairway, playing into the right-to-left slope of the green. The rear portion scoots away into rough ground.

Tom Mackenzie, of the architectural firm Mackenzie & Ebert, is a Dornoch member who has worked on the course. To him, the 15th is “every bit as wily and fox-like as the 14th. The approach is angled and steep. This makes low, running approaches nervily tricky to judge. The aerial route is no easier, with many different slopes throwing the ball off in all directions unless it lands in the perfect spot.”

The 15th, Mackenzie notes, is “classic links golf,” and, as Hampton says, its length “indicates a birdie opportunity, but can be the most infuriating of bogeys.” An ideal half-par hole, indeed.