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Overshadowed Star

No. 4 at Chicago Golf Club

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Even the most casual NBA fan knows Golden State superstars Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. They might not know as much about third Warriors star Klay Thompson, but they should. The consensus among NBA experts is that Thompson is also among the league’s elite players. Some believe Thompson is in a similar position to James Harden when he was playing third fiddle to Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Once Harden got his opportunity to shine in Houston, he became a perennial MVP candidate.

Just like Harden and Thompson, outstanding holes can hide in plain sight on great golf courses thanks to their more famous counterparts. At the legendary Chicago Golf Club, the punchbowl 12th, redan seventh and Biarritz third receive the most acclaim. But it’s time the par-5 fourth gets its own headline.

Time has helped its case. The march of progress in modern equipment has turned No. 4 into one of the world’s most compelling short par 5s. That may not have been the original intention; when Seth Raynor, original course designer Charles Blair Macdonald’s protégé, redesigned the course in 1923, few would have described the 536-yard hole as short. Fast-forward to today and the fourth is a rollicking adventure where the green is the grand finale. 

From the tee, the fourth will hardly intimidate the first-timer. Set across some of the property’s least compelling terrain, it creates interest thanks to its orientation and cross bunker that cuts into the preferred left side. The hole moves slightly to the left, making the tee shot more difficult for the longer player. The potential of running through the fairway on the right forces them to take an aggressive line up the left, bringing that bunker into play.

Starting from the second shot, the green is front of mind the rest of the way. The green’s surrounds are simple, the approach open and inviting to a run-up shot. Wrapping around the green from left to right is a thin bunker that sits about 4 feet below the raised putting surface. At first sight, approaching the green looks welcoming—until you see one rejected by the vicious false front. Suddenly, the second shot can induce nightmares akin to a fifth-grader watching Scream for the first time. 

Raynor’s design of the fourth green is a unique masterwork. The front is a simple but confounding feature. Rather than a standard false front that cuts across a green in a straight line, this one is more like two legs of an isosceles triangle, forming a vortex in the middle of the green. This creates a green with a back section and two distinct wings. In normal daylight, this vortex is difficult to discern and leads to greenside approaches hopelessly trickling back to the player’s feet.

Depending on the day’s pin position, the ideal approach changes. When the flag is on the front left, the right half of the fairway is best; with a front-right flag, take the left side of the fairway. Each of these positions requires a full commitment on the second shot. The narrow right and left portions force an attacking strategy; bailing left or right will find the bunker or, worse, the vortex front.

While the back flag is the most approachable, it’s hardly easy. Where the right and left flags require supreme accuracy, the back flag tests a player’s distance control. Shots a few paces short tumble down the false front; a few paces long produces a bunker shot they wouldn’t wish on their least-favorite in-law. It’s a green that intimidates, unnerves and confuses the best players while not discriminating against the beginner.

It’s possible to escape No. 4 unscathed, but odds are someone in the foursome is suffering a big number. Raynor’s brilliance is clear in a hole that becomes more difficult and intimidating with every trip. For many it can evolve into a loathing, perhaps similar to what an opposing team’s fans feel when Thompson lines up an open three-pointer.  

Andy Johnson is a Chicago-based golf writer and competitive amateur golfer. His website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf-course architecture and professional and amateur golf.