The best hole I ever played: Why Mammoth Dunes’ 14th is the top short par-4 of the modern era

The 14th hole at Mammoth Dunes in Sand Valley.

A view of the downhill par-4 14th hole at Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, Wis.

Evan Schiller

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 Bill Hogan.

Many golfers find short par-4s to be the best holes in the game. The risk-reward calculation of “going for it” versus playing conservatively can flip a match with one swing of the club.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to play some of the finest short par-4s in the world, and include among my favorites the 5th at Royal Dornoch, the 4th at Spyglass Hill and the 16th at Bandon Dunes. I’ve witnessed dramatic eagles, tap-in birdies, disappointing pars and temper-tantrum double bogeys after tee shots that needed “just another foot” of carry.

A few years ago, I watched a friend drive the green on the famously testy 12th at the Old Course, in St. Andrews — a cause for celebration that he spoiled just moments later by putting off the two-tiered green and winding up with a maddening bogey. Of course, just prior to his tee shot, he offered the perfunctory, “I didn’t fly 5,000 miles to lay up!”

Perhaps he should have.

Another time, I witnessed a buddy slice his tee shot over the out-of-bounds fence on the 18th at North Berwick West Links, only to have his ball ricochet off a parked car and bounce back into play, allowing him to get up and down for birdie. No harm done to the parked car, and a nice little circle on my friend’s scorecard.

Luckily for anyone who appreciates a good strategic challenge, many of today’s top architects value short par-4s and incorporate them into their designs. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw do a great job of it. Tom Doak is another highly skilled practitioner of the genre. But perhaps my favorite short par-4 of the modern era was designed by David McLay Kidd. It’s the 14th at Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, Wis.

Part of the greatness of any golf hole hinges on its placement in the routing. Kidd sets this one up beautifully with the 13th hole, a par-3 of about 125 yards that is the shortest and probably easiest hole on the course. Most golfers walk off the green feeling emboldened and chomping at the bit for the next challenge. A short stroll over a ridge leads to the dramatic 14th tee.

The 14th at Mammoth Dunes is short, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy drive off the tee.

Christian Hafer

From here, the hole unfolds clearly before you, with all its possibilities and pitfalls. It’s decision time, a point underscored by your caddie, who will likely take a deep breath, exhale and say, “OK, let’s talk about the options.”

The hole plays downhill and can stretch to 325 yards, but most of us will play it from 260-290 yards. A perfectly positioned tee shot, landing just right of center, can carry the ridge to a downslope and onto the green. But precision is required. There are waste bunkers lining the right side, and the fairway slopes right to left. On the left side of the fairway is rough and a deep bunker positioned to grab a slightly tugged tee shot, a common miss when players are trying to squeeze a little extra out of their drive.

The safest play off the tee is iron to the middle of the fairway, leaving a wedge or less to the green. But what fun is that? You didn’t drive to Nekoosa to lay up.

So pick a line and rip it. That’s what I did. My tee shot flew over the hill, caught the downslope and rolled onto the green. True to form, I three-putted for par and considered breaking my putter over my knee. But that’s what a great par-4 can offer: a chance at glory or crushing disappointment, and countless other consequences in between.

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