This post is the sixth 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, challenging, and 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.
After enduring the punishing uphill slog of the fifth hole at Kearney Hill, the par four sixth gives every indication that it should yield birdies as often as it allows easy pars. Standing on the tee, even after taking stock of the ten bunkers that frame the 25-yards wide fairway, the hole looks like one on which birdie is a reasonable expectation.
The hole is borderline driveable for the elite player, maxing out at 350 yards from the back tees, scaling down to a mere 300 yards or so from the middle (#3) tees. Even if reaching the putting surface from the tee isn’t feasible, knocking one up there close, just below the green appears the easy, obvious play.
However, like most things Pete and P.B. Dye created, nothing is as easy it appears at first blush, and this hole is no different.
The predominant wind blows from left to right, and slightly against players, complicating the tee shot from the tee box that is elevated a few stories above the front of the fairway. While a column of bunkers guard the left side of the fairway, miss further left than the bunkers, and the risk of losing a ball is very real in the tall grass of one of Kearney Hill’s protected butterfly sanctuary areas. It should be noted, though, that losing one that far offline requires a pretty awful strike.
The fairway is on the narrow end of the spectrum at Kearney Hill, though it plays a fair bit wider than that for those hitting less than driver from the tee. While missing in the right side bunkers or into the rough separating the 6th and 7th holes is bad, one generally has a chance for the hero shot to get on the green, at best, or back into the fairway, at worst.
The truly terrifying miss on the sixth hole is to close to driving the green without actually driving the green. Yes, you read that right: get too close to the green and the next shot can be brutal. The sixth green sits high atop of the hill at the end of 140 yards of uphill fairway. The closer one gets to the green, the less of the putting surface is visible, adding uncertainty and difficulty to a shot that should otherwise represent a golden scoring opportunity.
Therein lies the rub: the layout of the hole draws golfers’ attention to the collection area below the green, which is 20 yards deep and 30 yards wide. Between that collection area and the green, in the approach area, is a huge mound that will repel shots to the sides and back down the hill to the collection area if one misjudges the shot on the short side, or tries to playing a bounding ball to a front pin location.
Visually and effectively, it’s like having a cattle guard on the front of an old steam locomotive placed directly between the ball resting on a tight lie and the green, swatting and deflecting errant shots that don’t carry all the way to the putting surface. It’s a semi-blind shot that will absolutely drive golfers mad if they fail to execute it well.
And, oh, what a green complex awaits beyond that protective mound! The green has a lower shelf and an upper shelf, with a steep, unpinnable transition between the two on the right side of the green, and a tiny mini-shelf tier on the left side. Distance control on the sixth green is the difference between a relatively simple birdie opportunity and grinding your brain numb to avoid a three-putt.
The front pin position creates an interesting challenge for players willing to try something creative, as the ramp between green plateaus will act like a backstop on all but the soggiest of days, allowing balls to trundle back down toward the hole on the lower shelf.
It’s sort of a pressure release valve for that front pin position, since missing short of the putting surface results in a steep penalty for the next shot, as most attempts left short will roll back down to the hole’s approach, on the wrong side of the aforementioned mound.
While the mini-shelf on the left side of the green between the upper and lower tier will help collect and slow shots moving between the two shelves, the steeper ramp between the two on the right side of the green offers no such safe harbor. Any ball that attempts to reach the middle or back right areas of the green without sufficient carry and force will inevitably bleed down to a closely mown collection area just right of the green.
Containment mounding forms a small horseshoe behind the green, creating a wonderful amphitheater for spectators on one of the highest points of the property, but playing a shot from behind the green, to a middle or front hole location is a terrifying, almost futile exercise: leave it short from the upper tier, and face a putt that will likely roll off of the front of the green, hit it too hard, and it will roll off of the green. Basically, playing to the flatter middle and rear areas of the green only provides safe harbor on days that the hole location is also in one of those sections of the green.
As mentioned above, the scorecard yardage indicates that the sixth hole should yield an easy par, with a higher than average birdie percentage. A bogey (or worse) there feels especially awful knowing that the most difficult hole on the course awaits at the next tee box.
The sixth hole is a good, but not necessarily great, hole at Kearney Hill. The entire strategy rests on setting up the most comfortable second shot, one that is going to allow a golfer to best control the distance of the approach to end up on the correct tier of the green.
Otherwise, one might as well start up the circus music in their head to cope with the Dye deviousness that will await them around the putting green.