This post is the fourth 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 scorecard says otherwise, but the fourth hole at Kearney Hill is one of the two most difficult holes on the property. At 450 yards from the back tees, the uphill par four plays into the prevailing wind to perhaps the most difficult green to hit, hold, or read on the course.
The hole is architecturally brilliant, combining classic strategic concepts with traditional Dye Design notions of visual intimidation, primarily from features that are not serious threats to the golfer realistic possibilities, all while crafting more subtle and hidden challenges that can and do wreak havoc on a scorecard.
It’s as complete a golf hole as will be found on the course, difficult for players of all skill levels regardless of how far one hits the golf ball, further hardened by a prevailing wind that plays against players faces and usually left to right. To score well, a golfer must be in substantial control of their golf ball, be mentally sharp enough to ignore the designed distractions, and be a bit fearless, to boot.
The fourth hole is the Kearney Hill version of the Switchback template, also sometimes referred to as the Reversing of the Shots hole design. To best navigate the challenges and take advantage of the ground contours on a hole where roll is going to be very important, a player is asked to hid a shot moving from left-to-right on the tee and right-to-left for the approach shot. The routing of the hole and the tilt and pitch of the fairway, approach, and green encourage precisely this strategy.
Granted, in the era of the Pro-V1 and the 460 centimeters cubed driver head, curving the ball laterally in order to stop it within a 40-yard wide fairway is less imperative than in years past. However, a drive moving laterally from left to right will move to find the flatter lie in the fairway and leave the player with the best look at the green complex.
This shot shape from the tee, if executed even only moderately well, will take right-side fairway bunker and enormous drainage basin below the fairway to the right out of play from the tee. This “P” shaped bunker lies only 185 yards from the very back of the tee box, so close it’s practically irrelevant when playing the fourth hole, except as a distraction, a bit of gamesmanship from the architects.
However, this bunker is strategically important when playing the fifth hole, as it lies squarely in the landing zone for a slightly wayward drive on that hole. It is reminiscent of the bunkers found in St. Andrews and elsewhere in Scotland, which are perfectly visible, high faced bunkers playing in one direction, and in play but almost completely hidden behind that same high-faced wall, when playing an adjacent hole in the opposite direction. The Loop at Forest Dunes also contains several wonderful examples of this style of fairway bunker.
More important than missing the short bunker, a left to right shot will likely take the drainage basin out of play, which is paramount to playing the hole successfully. If a drive ends up in the basin, the next shot becomes almost completely blind, as the immediate foreground of a bunker and the elevated fairway will prevent any look at the green.
Add to this complication the lush, long rough naturally found in an area collecting rain fall, and simply advancing the ball forward becomes a challenge, bringing the bunker at the end of the fairway and the one to the right of the approach, short of the green, very much into play.
Similarly, if a drive strays too far left in the fairway or into the left rough, mounding behind the left fairway bunker become a vertical hazard, making the long approach shot blind. What’s more is that the gigantic approach bunker, an 85-yard long monster that stretches from the back left corner of the green, all the way down to where the fairway begins to bottleneck into the approach, becomes hidden as well.
The left-side fairway bunker is the perfect aiming point from the tee, as it’s out of reach for almost all players, lying more than 300 yards from the back tees. The bunker’s existence is a visual trick, one that discourages taking the proper line for a great result from the drive.
Regardless of where a tee shot ends up, even a well struck drive will likely leave a shot to the green with a mid-iron at best, and a poorly struck drive will leave an approach of close to 200 yards or more to the green. The fairway narrows to approximately 25 yards wide at 90 yards from the front of the green, but there is a generous landing area in front of the green beginning 30 yards short of the front.
This leaves plenty of room for those longer approach shots to land short and bounce or roll onto the green, with the uphill slope to the green slowing the shots down so that they may stop on the putting surface.
This is why hitting an approach shot bending from right to left is such an integral part of the design of the hole. If one is approaching the green from a great distance, the shot need not fly all the way to the hole to have a chance to get close to the hole. Instead, a hybrid or long iron can bounce and feed toward the middle or back of the green.
The green slopes much like that of a traditional Redan green, sloping from the front right high point diagonally to the low spot the green in the back left area. There are small shelves that provide relatively flat surfaces along in each third of the green, but otherwise the slope of the green is drastic.
Any shot other than perhaps a well struck wedge that is played to the middle of the green will likely feed either to the closely mown area behind the green or remain on the surface but trickle to the back left corner.
Though more subtle than the containment mounds that encircle the green from the left, right, and rear sides, bumps and dips and tiny moguls in the approach area short of the green add a degree of difficulty for the short hitter hoping to get up and down. There is a false front element to the intersection of the green and the fairway approach, in that the green is actually a foot or two higher than the fairway.
The long flat bunker left of the green and the length of the approach is a particularly heinous feature of the hole because unless one is hole high near the green, it creates the possibility of perhaps the most feared, most troublesome shot in golf: the long bunker shot.
The bunker is shallow and flat and easily escapable, but it directs play to the right nonetheless. It’s partially blind from the left side of the fairway, but once one is aware of it, it is a massive deterrent to taking a very aggressive line to the center or left side of the green.
Mirroring the false front characteristic of the front of the green, there is a steep drop in the last few feet of the putting surface on the back of the green, giving way to the aforementioned closely mown collection area.
From which these low spots adjacent to the green, there are no good options, as the transition is almost too steep to putt with any speed control, too close to flop or high pitch shot, and a running chip might hung up on the slope if not perfectly executed.
The fourth hole is a hard hole that lacks the unfairness element that many difficult, long par four holes possess. Played from the appropriate set of tees, it is a green that good player should reach in two shots and even the shortest players should reach in three shots.
Once the strategy reveals itself, it becomes a simpler, if not easier hole. The hole is shaped in sort of an S-curve, so the aggressive strategy is to get as close to the drainage basin on the right without leaving the fairway, which is challenging enough without the pesky predominant wind pushing a shot towards the basin.
Anecdotally, experienced players claim that it is easier to make a four on the third hole (a par five) than it is to make a four on the fourth hole (a par four). On days when there is any wind at all out of the west, those assessments are likely correct.