This post is the third 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 short par five 3rd hole at Kearney Hill is perhaps one of the most discussed and controversial because it will often perform more like a long par four, or at best, a par four-and-a-half.
The hole play 497 yards long***, which is plenty long enough to justify a par rating of five in the abstract, but it plays significantly downhill tee to green, mostly after the tee shot, and plays straight downwind of the predominant west-to-east breeze found at Kearney Hill.
The tee boxes are slightly elevated, providing an unobstructed view of nearly the entire hole, a rarity at Kearney Hill, where one notices the significant left to right tilt of the fairway down toward the lake that lies between the 3rd and 17th holes.
The high side on the left half of the fairway is relatively flat, but runs out quickly as the fairway bends right toward the green at roughly 225 yards out from the middle of the green. At the end of this lane of fairway lie moguls, gnarly rough, and a cart path that add exponentially more luck and potential difficulty to the next shot.
The right side of the landing zone of the fairway is significantly more pitched, creating a push lie angle that does not pair well with a second shot with water guarding the right side of the fairway and green without extreme care and planning.
The strategic decision from the tee of whether to play for left or right side of the fairway should likely determine what shot shape one favors on the approach shot. If the fade is favored shot shape, then a drive can be more aggressive, cutting the corner on the lake side of the fairway, because the visual of the fade takes a big chunk of the water out of play when going for the green.
Aim left at the green-side bunker and let the ball drift toward the green; if the ball double crosses the fade and goes straight or is pulled, it can leave a difficult third shot, but at least it will come to rest on dry land.
If a draw is the favored shot shape for the second shot, then the drive will want to hug as close to the mounds and rough thru the fairway on the left side, leaving a straight downhill, down the fairway look at the green. A slight draw can reach the green from here without venturing out over the water at all.
Also, it is a significantly shorter forced carry from the left side of the fairway, as the green is angled and crowned in a way that it will gladly accepts shots from distance that bound and bounce and roll on from the approach, while a shot from the right side of the fairway is going to have to carry almost 100% of the distance of the shot.
However, on drives of equal lengths, the one on the right side of the fairway is going to be closer to the hole and be more likely to run out during times when the fairways dry out and play firm and fast.
All of this strategic thinking thus far presupposes a drive in the fairway or the first cut of rough, which will allow a player that has hit a good drive to at least think about reaching the green in two shots. I
f the drive misses the fairway, not only does lush rough await a golf ball, but there is at least as much contour and shaping of the areas in the rough surrounding the fairway on either side than one finds in the fairway, adding significant difficulty to a second that likely has little chance of reaching the green.
If one misses the fairway, the design of the hole puts a decision to the player of where to lay up to, deciding when to take own the hazards guarding the green. The fairway runs out into the lake pond at approximately 80 yards from the center of the green, so if one wants a full wedge shot for their third shot, it likely requires the discipline to lay well back of the water. Even then, the golfer will likely encounter a slight downhill lie, adding a degree of discomfort to an already nervy shot over the water.
There are few truly flat spots in the third fairway, and the pitch and roll of the ground increases in severity until one reaches the green and approach side of the pond. Gentle slope turns to firm tilt or annoying micro-contour quickly, providing a subtle defense of the hole.
If one is more confident in playing a pitch or long chip shot to the green, they can choose to lay back left of or around the water to the approach that eventually extends to the green. This turf if flat and approaches the open front of the green, leaving the ground game as a viable option on the third shot. However, this angle is only available from 65 yards to the middle and in. And it is no bargain to get into this position, especially from the right rough.
Leave the second shot short or push it right and it will find the water. Hit it too hard or too far, and the ball will become entangled in the long rough on the steepest mounds of the course, assuming that it doesn’t end up in the large, nasty bunker at the foot of several of those mounds.
Whether one finds the rough or the sand beyond the green’s approach apron and the 3rd shot is back towards the green with the pond directly behind it: the perfect recipe to duff a chip or leave a pitch short.
As is the case with several holes at Kearney Hill, in diabolical fashion, this large green, guarded by a pond, actually slopes away from the water in several different places. There are three distinct, but subtle crowns, or humps, on the extremely deep putting surface.
These humps create so many different parts of the green that slope away from the green that one would be forgiven for feeling as if the entire green slopes away from the water in defiance of what their intellect says should be a law of physics (gravity). Reading the third green can feel counter-intuitive at best and down right infuriating for a player unfamiliar with it’s distinct contouring.
For longer hitters that can find the fairway, the hole yields legitimate eagle opportunities without extraordinary effort. Those players should expect to make a four and feel like they have lost a shot to the field with a par.
However, the third hole doesn’t prejudice shorter hitters from securing birdies with regularity, either. If a player can get to their comfortable wedge distance with their second shot, which is almost assured (unless a wild tee shot is lost in the long rough left of the cart path or slices into the lake on the right at the bottom of the slope), then they will have a good look at the green from the fairway.
The gentle descent from the tee box to the green continues through the end of the main fairway, the left approach, and even the front of the green itself. On this hole, the design intends for the golfer to see the trouble that could possibly befall them.
Other than the aforementioned trickery on the putting surface, the third hold is devoid of the common visual deceits that are so associated with Pete or P.B. Dye designed holes. One can see where they need to go with their shot, it is simply a matter of execution, save, perhaps, for the giant body of water that can’t help but draw a player’s eye and attention for a few moments.
Keep the ball in the fairway, and more times than not this Dyeabolical hole will reward such diligence. Get sideways into the uneven rough or attempt to cover too much water with a wayward approach, and the penalty to pay is steep. It’s a legitimate par 4.5.
*** All of this analysis assumes one does not play from the super-secret, mythical WAY BACK tee box. This addition to the original design stretches the hole to 525 yards and completely changes the angle and strategy of the tee shot. From these back tees, it’s 230+ yards just to reach the start of the fairway, and the first 120 yards of the fairway are blind from back there.
It’s a completely different hole from back there, a legitimate three-shotter unless one catches a jet stream with their drive (which is possible), leaving probably only the LONGEST hitters to attempt to reach the green in two shots. The principle that the ball must be played from the fairway continues to dominate any strategic decision.