The best hole I ever played: The intimidating 14th at Shinnecock Hills

A look at the fairway from the tee of the par-4 14th hole at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island.

Our knowledgeable crew of course raters have stuck pegs in the ground just about everywhere. But which holes stand out as the greatest they’ve ever played? We asked them, and they replied with love letters about their faves. This offering comes from Bob Ranum, who has been a GOLF Magazine rater since this year and has played 57 of the Top 100 Courses in the World.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a more compelling hole than the 14th at Shinnecock, a stunning and intimidating par-4. Named Thom’s Elbow, in honor of the late Charlie Thom, Shinnecock’s golf pro for more than 50 years, it has an aura of history to match its artistry.

As you cross the public road from the 13th green to the 14th tee, the vista of the entire golf course unfolds before you. The longest par-4 on the course, the 14th winds in and out to a beautiful, natural green set in the distance. Because its tee is elevated, the hole creates an optical illusion that makes it look even longer than it actually is. One might expect to strategize by following the bend in the fairway and targeting the ball to the right. In actuality, though, the fairway slopes to the left and creates a much smaller and challenging landing area. As a former greens chairman at Shinnecock once told me, “Thom’s Elbow has a healthy portion of trompe l’oeil hidden in its genes.” This French art term means “deceives the eye,” generating an illusion of depth. That’s the essence of the 14th hole.

A view of the green of the 14th hole at Shinnecock Hills.
A view of the green of the 14th hole at Shinnecock Hills.
Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

To further complicate your shot choice, William Flynn, in his 1931 redesign of the course, laid out masterful bunkering that requires you to carefully select your line.

From the fairway, the green appears to slope back to front, with a narrow approach that allows for a bump-and-run. In fact, half of the green slopes ever so slightly away from the front toward the back. It’s a difficult shot, made all the more challenging by the wind. Many balls wind up trickling off the back of the green into a chipping area. This architectural design captures the beauty and wisdom of Shinnecock. Throughout this entire venerable golf course the player has different options off the tees. There is no better example of that than the 14th.

History tells us that the Scottish-born Thom lived in a small cottage on this hole, and though his residential structure no longer exists, you can sense the presence of his spirit, nodding in approval.

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