Perfect Problem

The 15th at Victoria Golf Club. Par 4 - 316, 296
Images by Ed Sloane

Victoria Golf Club stands alongside Royal Melbourne Golf Club and Kingston Heath Golf Club to create the legendary Melbourne Sandbelt. Oscar Damman and Bill Meader began the design, and Alister MacKenzie was commissioned in 1926 during his visit to Royal Melbourne to finish the layout. The result is a timeless course praised for its routing. As such, No. 15 is a short par 4 slotted between some of the course’s most difficult holes. It seems like the ideal opportunity to get a shot back, but as everyone quickly learns, this hole is no pushover. In fact, it might be one of the most elegantly complex short par 4s in the world.

Victoria Golf Club 316, 296. Illustration: Alex Wier
Victoria Golf Club 316, 296. Illustration: Alex Wier

A Model Example

The Victoria Golf Club has long been recognized as one of the finest tests of golf in Australia. Home to the late, great five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, the 128-acre layout boasts many outstanding features, a fact confirmed even before the course opened in May 1927. 

During his visit to Melbourne a year earlier, legendary course designer MacKenzie was asked to cast his expert eye over the work in progress. He was impressed. 

“Little more is required to make this a magnificent golf course,” said the man whose body of work includes the likes of Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Cypress Point Club and Augusta National Golf Club.

MacKenzie’s words have always resonated with me. As a member at Victoria since the age of 16, my appreciation for the quality of architecture at my home course has only grown over the years. There are so many great holes at Victoria. But one in particular has always been my favorite: It’s not the longest, at only 316 yards from the back tees, and at first glance it doesn’t look too testing, but the 15th is, for me, the model for every short par 4.

Daily Decision

As a kid, I would nearly always hit a long iron off the 15th tee. Only when I began to hit the ball farther did I even consider trying to drive the green. But here’s the thing: The longer I was able to hit my tee shots, the more I came to realize just how wonderful this hole is. As my play improved, the 15th only became more interesting. This is the ultimate compliment for any hole.

Play No. 15 every day for a week and you will play it seven different ways. You get a little braver each day. On Monday, it’s an iron off the tee. On Tuesday, it’s one club more. And so on. By the time you get to Sunday, you’re going for the green and probably making a 5 or 6. Then you go all the way back to 6-iron and repeat the cycle. It doesn’t matter how often you get burned; you keep going back for more. 

Getting into your head might be the 15th’s best attribute. It looks very simple. And if you play the hole sensibly, it stays that way. It never has to be anything other than a 4- or 5-iron, then a wedge to the middle of the green. The putt for birdie is never more than about 15 feet long. Not a problem. One incident in particular crystallized this strategy for me. 

Before I turned professional, I played my way into the last group on the final day of the 1996 Victorian Open. I was paired with Stephen Leaney, who seven years later was runner-up in the U.S. Open. When we got to the 15th tee, Leaney—one shot ahead of me—hit a mid-iron to the fairway. I went with driver and found one of the bunkers up the left side. Leaney then hit a wedge onto the green and made birdie. I made a bogey. Tournament all but over.

At the time, I didn’t have the patience to hit, say, 6-iron off the tee. Leaney did. And that showed me something: Like most youngsters, I tried to hit every shot as close to the hole as possible. It takes time and lessons learned to understand that this isn’t necessarily the best strategy. Deep down, I knew that even before I chose driver that day. It was obvious. Iron off the tee was the right thing to do. And yet I still made the mistake.

After a while, though, that play gets boring. Even the patient golfer eventually cracks and tries to get a little bit nearer the green. Which is folly. The fairway is maybe 60 yards wide about 170 yards from the tee. But it gets progressively narrower until the front entrance to the green is about 10 yards across. The closer you get to the putting surface, the more accurate you have to be. 

In other words, this is a hole that can be easy for the average player and tricky for the better player. Which, from a course-design perspective, is ideal. A near-beginner can play the 15th and have a putt for par, yet a professional can be tapping in for bogey. That range of possibilities makes this hole truly special.

Head or Heart

No. 15 is more than just a mental test. As I learned to my cost all those years ago, there is strategy and discipline involved. Standing on the tee, all you see is that vast expanse of fairway, the hint of a few bunkers on the left and the flag flapping above the sand on the horizon. No big deal, right? This is the first mistake. Respect is required. 

The bunkers on the left start at 190 yards out from the tee. There are six of them, running all the way to the green. Miss the fairway on that side with anything more than a 5-iron and the ball is almost certain to finish in sand. 

Long bunker shots are no one’s favorite. But again, that is part of No. 15’s genius. The bunker farthest from the green actually isn’t too bad. You can hit a full shot from in there. To a certain point, the more aggressive you are from the tee, the worse things get. The next two bunkers are 85 yards and 60 yards from the green; both are awful places to land. In contrast, a ball in the greenside bunker on the left means the tee shot has been struck solidly. It’s difficult to get in there, so the next shot is easier. 

There are bunkers on the right side too. But miss those—which happens a lot, because driving the green means hitting a hard, running draw—and the ball goes all the way down to the 16th fairway. It is difficult to make even a par from there. 

All of that happens because the 15th narrows progressively. But it is only as narrow as you want it to be. As your aggression increases, so does your risk. It is the classic battle between head and heart, with some ego thrown in. Most players can’t help themselves. They nearly always try to go a little bit farther than they really need. 

It’s not all bad news, though. The perfect tee shot gets looked after by the terrain. The fairway crests a little hill maybe 60 yards short of the green, then gradually feeds onto the putting surface. So a ball running on the right angle funnels toward the green, just as anything other than a great shot gets pulled away. This only adds to the temptation. Yes, it is quite possible to hit the ball onto the green and have a putt for eagle; it’s not so difficult that no one ever tries it. So there is enough incentive to go for the green in one. But the margin for error is slim.

As for the green, it is relatively flat—not what you normally see on a short par 4. If you are 20 yards short, a putt is a legitimate option. The fairway doesn’t go up or down; it just rolls straight into the green, which is narrow at the front and wide at the back. The one really tough pin position is back right, tucked behind the greenside bunker. Which is still fair enough: There has to be one spot that is almost inaccessible. Those spots add to the fun and the temptation, especially for the player who needs a birdie.

A Forever Challenge

So many modern par 4s don’t seem to understand the concept of the wide, easy fairway that gives up par to the good player—if they are willing to give up birdie. Many short par 4s tend not to offer the easy lay-up and the easy wedge to 25 feet. They challenge you all the way, so everyone ends up going for the green. But that misses the point and removes a crucial strategic element. The real fun of a short par 4 is in the fact that everyone plays it differently. 

Another fantastic aspect is that the hole sits in an ideal time in the round. The previous four are all tough pars and the 16th is a very difficult par 3. So the 15th is an opportunity to get a shot back, right at the point in the round where your patience is tested most. 

But here’s what I like best about the 15th at Vic: I wouldn’t have come up with it. Nor would, I think, many modern course architects. All in all, this is such a basic, simple hole. Or, rather, it can be. Only when you are tempted into hitting a shot you maybe should not hit do the complexity and subtlety become clear. And that’s where the confusion begins. I’ve played this hole hundreds of times, yet still I stand on the tee not knowing which club and shot to hit. It is the hole Vic golfers talk about in the bar at the end of a round. In every four-ball, things happen on the 15th. There will likely be a birdie. But there will be a 5 or 6 too. What is more perfect than that?  

Geoff Ogilvy is a native Australian and an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 2006 U.S. Open. He is also the “O” in the widely respected and growing OCCM Golf Course Design firm.