This post is the first in a series that will dive deep into the design and outstanding features of the individual holes of Kearney Hill Golf Links, one of my two home courses in Lexington, Kentucky. This course, built by Pete & P.B. Dye, represents some of the most interesting, most challenging, and most fun golf architecture in central Kentucky. It is a public golf course, owned and operated by the City of Lexington, and it’s worth getting to know a little better. I hope you enjoy it.
The first hole at Kearney Hill is close to the perfect, almost prototypical opening hole. It could easily have been plucked from the pages of Thomas’ Golf Architecture in America as an example of simple strategy to engage a golfer’s mind at the beginning of a round.
Ranging from 433 yards from the back tees to 312 from the front tees, it’s a mid-length par four that plays longer and more difficult than its distance by playing into the predominant wind and due to the uphill nature of the tee shot.
It doesn’t awe a golfer and ruin the following 17 holes, but it isn’t a nonchalant warm-up hole, either. It presents a risk-reward paradigm straight from the school of strategic golf design, with birdies and big number equally plausible. The hole grabs the golfer’s attention from the tee and doesn’t relinquish it until the ball is in the cup. Along the way, it sets a good tone for the round with the types of challenges presented and strategic problems to be solved later in the round.
Depending on the golfer’s skill level and execution on a given day, the tee shot is equal parts surviving and setting up the approach for a scoring opportunity. Visually, danger appears everywhere except the middle of the fairway.
The fairway itself is 40 yards at widest point, but steadily narrows to approximately 25 yards wide at the furthest limit of what a long hitter might hope to reach from the tee. It’s plenty wide enough to land a well struck shot by a golfer playing the proper tees, but as the fairway starts to narrow, the contours of the mounding gets more unpredictable. For example, there is a grassy hollow in the left rough approximately where a really long hitter might have to worry about it.
Starting with the rough on the left of the fairway way, the challenges get worse the further one strays: a first cut of rough, then containment mounding that at best leaves a slight downhill lie, then further left a cart path, long rough, and finally a property line fence and Kearney Road beyond it, which is, of course, out of bounds.
The fairway slopes from left to right, more severely the closer to the green one gets. The mounds in the left rough and the cart path occupy the higher ground than the fairway or the mounds on the right side for the length of the hole, providing a consistently better view of the green complex from the left side of the hole.
Stray to the right of the fairway on the tee shot and the containment mounding is laying in wait for the golfer, this time accompanied by a small cemetery plot full of mature hardwood trees that encumbers any hope of a direct line of sight of the green.
The cemetery provides a tremendous vertical hazard because the green, rather than lying at the end of a long, straight fairway, is tucked to the right of the end of the fairway, with the very front of the green sitting some 40 yards from the fairway’s centerline. In effect, the cemetery’s trees force the strategic decision of the hole.
If one plays it safe, favoring the left side of the fairway, they are left with the best angle to the green and the best look at the flag and the putting surface from higher ground. However, they pay a price of longer distance in exchange for playing the safe angle.
The aggressive play is to favor the right side of the fairway, taking on the cemetery plot and the mounds, hoping to shorten the approach shot by at least one club’s distance over an equidistant drive to the left side of the fairway. Pull of a great drive in the right half of the fairway, and it’s a wedge or a short iron over the valley and front left bunkers.
However, miss the tee shot too far right and the prudent play likely becomes pitching out forward, hopefully to the end of the fairway, leaving a clean look at the hole without having to carry any of the bunkers.
With one important caveat: it is possible to miss the fairway so far right with a drive so to have a clean line of sight on the right side of the cemetery plot. Save for coming out of the rough, it’s a much shorter shot than from the fairway, with a treacherous but achievable carry of a drainage collection valley, bunker, and mounds surrounding the green.
The green slopes generously from back to front and is situated and angled in such a way to accept a variety of shots from the bail out area at the end of the fairway, left of the green that covers up to 90 yards and in toward the green.
Depending on the pin position, weather, and moisture conditions, it’s possible to play a putt, running chip, long pitch, knockdown, or flop shot, among other possibilities, which adds an element of fun to the chaos of trying to save par from being out of position.
The fairway is relatively flat laterally in the landing area for mere mortals with anything more than 140 yards remaining to the hole, but for the long hitters the fairway starts to wrinkle, tumble and tilt to the right from inside 140 yards up to about 75 yards. It creates a slight downhill lie across the breadth of the fairway, with tilt towards the drainage collection valley becoming more severe the further down the fairway one plays from.
It is important to note that the fairway’s highest point is at the further forward left corner of the fairway at the top of the approach. From this high point, the hole slopes gently down back toward the forward tees, adding an element of obscured visibility of the green, the difficulty more severe the further back towards the tee. In the other direction, the forward tumble down to the green from the approach’s high point is more pronounced.
The lack of flat, even lies proves an important element of defending a green from longer hitters and better players. The micro-contours of the humps and bumps of the fairway within the more severely titled portions of the fairway and rough add subtle difficulty to what would otherwise be a simple, straightforward shot, especially the less than full-swing shots from the approach.
The aforementioned collection basin lies in the right rough at the bottom of the valley between the fairway, the cemetery, and the bunkers fronting the right side of the green complex. It is a terrible place to play from, to be avoided at all costs.
Almost every shot from the basin is blind, must carry the front right green bunkers, attacks the skinniest angle of the green, and risks finding bunkers, more mounds, or the 2nd tee box if one misses the green long. There are fun blind shots and there are terrible blind shots, and this one is the latter.
As mentioned before, the green slopes generously from back to front on the aggregate. The actual putting surface is broken down into three basic sections: a relatively flat shelf on the front of the green, a transitional middle section with more pronounced back to front slope, and a rear shelf, all of which tilts laterally toward the collection basin to varying degrees.
It’s a large, receptive putting surface, almost all of which provides pinnable surface. It is large enough and pitched towards the common angles of attack from the fairway to accommodate average and above approach shots, while also rewarding good or great recovery shots.
The first hole sets the tone at Kearney Hill. It is accessible to players of all skill levels with clearly presented strategic options. The hazards presented include subtle and obvious challenges that add a richness to the beginning of the round that captures and retains the golfer’s attention from the tee to the cup.