Course Rater Confidential: What’s the most exciting or intimidating closing stretch in the world?
GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this GOLF.com series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. The goal is not only to entertain you but also to give you a better understanding of how to understand and appreciate golf course architecture. You can see GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World ranking here, and our Top 100 Courses in the U.S. here. Meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.
The Honda Classic is on tap this week at PGA National, a course widely recognized for an imposing three-hole stretch on the back nine known as The Bear Trap. In your globe-trotting golf adventures, what are the most exciting/artful/intimidating closing stretches you have encountered?
John Cornish (panelist since 2017; has played all of the World Top 100): No stretch stirs emotions like the finish at the Old Course at St. Andrews. From the 16th tee, the rooftops and chimneys loom large as you make your way into town. The Principal’s Nose bunkers at driving distance on the 16th must be avoided at all costs. The challenge of the green then emerges with its devilish false front and sloping rear, all the while avoiding the cavernous bunker on the front left. The 17th begins with a unique tee shot, played over an old railway shed and stone wall to a fairway pinched by out of bounds. The approach is notoriously treacherous, with the Road Hole bunker and the road and wall beyond the green. The 18th on the Old Course is not the longest — it’s hard to imagine a wider fairway and landing your ball on the green isn’t terribly challenging — but it’s the St. Andrews intangibles that make it one of the greatest finishing holes in the world.
For private courses, it’s the Old Town Club, home to the Wake Forest University golf team, former college home of Arnold Palmer and a Perry Maxwell classic. Old Town Club has a hard-to-rival pedigree. Over the past five years, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have restored this gem back to its glory days, and what a job they’ve done. The 16th is a medium-length par-4 with a distinct plateau halfway along the journey that throws balls left and right. The 17th is a long heavily bunkered par-5 with a multi-tiered fairway cambering to the right. The location of the flag dictates the preferred landing area for the second shot, as your third is to a shared green with multiple tiers and distinct preferred angles of approach. The final hole plays from an enormous tee box shared with the 9th, allowing for multiple teeing positions and creating interesting angles to the uphill fairway, cambering right to left. The second shot is also uphill to a well-protected green framed by the majestic clubhouse.
Noel Freeman (panelist since 2008; has played 82 of World Top 100): From the public perspective it is easy to highlight Pebble Beach. The finish at Pebble in my mind has always been subject to extravagant and excessive praise. Still, it’s tough not to marvel at the closing stretch. The 16th is sneakily one of the best holes on the course, requiring a deft tee shot over a cross bunker and wily bunker on the right further down the fairway. Big hitters may hit hybrid off the tee but with today’s technology one must be mindful of running out of fairway. The approach is over a sandy bunker that really is a barranca to a green that slopes right to left. The 17th is wonderful on TV and in old pictures of its iconic hourglass green and former bunker scheme, but in reality it’s flat and doesn’t look as marvelous from the tee. Still, the green site evokes drama (think Tom Watson or Gary Woodland). As for the 18th, the whole world of golf knows about it and we have Herbert Fowler to thank for it. Whilst the faux rocks and sea-wall are wholly unnatural, they protect a great par-5 finisher. Is there a better place to stand on a tee box?
For private, it’s Sand Hills in Nebraska. An inland sea vanished 70 million years ago and retreating glaciers from the last Ice Age transformed the land into rambunctious terrain. The 16th is one of the stellar par-5s in golf. It plays downhill but at an initial oblique angle with a large bunker guarding a speed slot that can make the hole reachable (even at 600 yards) in two. Mere mortals will contend with a bunker complex 150 to 200 yards before the green in the hopes of leaving a wee pitch to a bunker-less green. The 17th is a one-shot wonder, its green perched on a small dune and surrounded by a sea of sand. Finally, the 18th is a mighty finisher and a taskmaster at that. At a stout 465 yards and playing uphill, this long par-4 leaves a golfer feeling more like a spectator to nature’s grandeur than player of a game. With a windmill to gaze upon while teeing off, the golfer can’t help but see the yawning bunker complex that extends up the left side penalizing any drive that is unsuccessful in trying to shorten the hole. Making matters even more difficult is that great tee shots have to contend with an uphill approach similar to the 9th at Augusta where short shots will roll right off the green and down the base of a hill.
Steve Lapper (panelist since 2009; has played 84 of the World Top 100): My fellow panelist’s choice of the Old Course is an excellent one, and my pick is equally exciting and perhaps aesthetically unparalleled. Cabot Cliffs, in Inverness, Nova Scotia, has one of golf’s most dramatic and thrilling finishes, with a cliff-top stretch that Matt Kuchar said makes Cypress Point look small. The 16th here may just be the second-greatest water-hazard inspired par-3 in the world. The tee shot, played from 89 to 176 yards, crosses a deep chasm to a perpendicular semi-tiered tear-drop and well-bunkered green that looks like a mere pixel-sized emerald dot. In reality, it’s slightly bigger, yet still a tough target to find with a ball buffeted by the wind and suspended hundreds of feet over the beach. The 17th is easily one of the most unique, and yet polarizing, short par-4s on this planet. Exhilarating, yet ticklish at best, problematic at worst. Imagine trying to blindly drive a tee ball over another 200-plus feet of cliff onto a tilted pool table, hoping to avoid a pair of spider-eye bunkers in front of an amoeba-shaped green. Eminently drivable when the wind allows, one might be content to take buckets of balls and play it all day. Some might think the finishing hole would be some kind of letdown after this dramatic pair, but hardly. It’s a wonderful risk-reward par-5 that stares down the coast of the Gulf of Lawrence and just happens to have an intruding gully 50 yards short of the green. Walking off, the ardent golfer can only smile or laugh and start thinking about playing this trio all over again.
For private, I’ll avoid the usual suspects: Merion, Augusta National or Oakmont, and Sand Hills has already been mentioned. Instead, I’ll go with the intimidating finish at Shinnecock Hills, a William Flynn angular gem. It begins with a world-class par-5, a sidewinder of grass snaking through deep and gnarly fescue and strategically-placed bunkers. It teases once again revealing the magnificent Stanford White clubhouse perched high beyond the green. Usually played into the prevailing wind, it’s a three-shot hole for most mortals with a slightly raised and canted, well-bunkered green. Angling off 90 degrees from the 16th is the 180-yard par-3 17th. Crosswinds here flummox the best of ball-strikers and its devious green, fronted at an angle by deep bunkers, is one of the toughest on the course to read (just ask Phil Mickelson after his disastrous three-putt at the 2004 U.S. Open). The closing hole heads back uphill, into the usual stiff breeze. Trying to find a ribbon of strategically angled and canted fairway grass for your last drive is an exercise in concentration. No rest for the weary follows with a long uphill approach to a semi-vicious green severely pitched from back to front. Anything above most any pin runs the risk of becoming yet another approach shot from the fairway below. All of this after you’ve survived the first 15 holes, none of them pushovers or less than demanding.
Thomas Brown (panelist since 2015; has played 95 of the Top 100): On the private side, Blue Canyon Country Club in Phuket, Thailand is a favorite of mine with its intimidating close. In the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic at Blue Canyon, Tiger Woods finished nine under over 72 holes and then prevailed over Ernie Els in a playoff. Japanese golf architect Yoshikazu Kato built the closing stretch from the heroic school of golf design. The site is an old aluminum mine where distressed crevices and canyons have turned into tropical waterways for golfers as lateral and frontal penalty areas. The 17th hole is well-cited as one of the best long par-3 carry shots in the world. At 220 yards with the tropical waters in front and on the right, the play into a sharply left-to-right sloping green is to figure out how to remain dry for an uphill par putt below the hole. Blue Canyon recently reopened after an extensive renovation and regrassing project. Fortunately, the property had enough land to allow for the 18th hole to add a new tee to remain as a long finishing par-4 with water right and an approach to a steeply pitched back-to-front green.
On the public side, Hoiana Shores in Vietnam is designed by Robert Trent Jones II and has an inspired closing stretch. From a raw-land standpoint, the sandy dunes at Hoiana Shores is one of the best golf sites I have walked. The final three holes are influenced by Jones’ success at Chambers Bay and match this week’s PGA National with a 4-3-5 finish. The 16th is a par-4 along the beach, where my playing partner challenged me to a closest-to-the-pin approach from the beach for a beer. Special place — and I was happy to lose that bet. If you have the best land, why not put the 17th hole par-3 on the beach – the greensite has variety with its high-left hole location versus the low-right location adjoining the sand. One surprise with technology advancements in turfgrass is how the Zeon Zoysia grass fairways play. With tightly mown fairways, putting from off the green or bump-and-run chips are all in play. The final hole is a reachable-in-two par-5 with a centerline split fairway for the second shot from 200-plus yards. In the future, I hope to see a professional tournament with the best players in the world challenge the green for a winning eagle.
Tim Gallant (panelist since 2019; has played 64 of the World Top 100): Ooo! What a question! For public, I love the finish at Pinehurst No. 2. The 5-3-4 finish can ruin a scorecard, but I love it all the same. Just don’t get on the wrong side of the hole! For private, the best finish I’ve seen is at National Golf Links of America. The 16th and 17th might be two of the very best back-to-back par-4s in the world, followed by a wonderful risk/reward par-5 that finishes above Peconic Bay. Does life get better when finishing as the sun is setting? La bella vita!
Luke Reese (panelist since 2019; has played 85 of the World Top 100): We stood on the tee of the long par-3 16th hole at Carnoustie with the wind howling left to right and into us. A tiny flag flapped violently in the distance. Was there even a green up there? As I scanned the pock-marked battlefield, my opponent, a wily older Scot named Bondy, reminded me, “Your fellow American Tom Watson made bogey here four times on his way to winning the Open. I’m 1 up. I think I’ll play for bogey, too.” Needing something better, I took driver and aimed at the flag. A bogey would have been nice.
Next came the real terror. The Barry Burn weaved its way through the last two holes. On the 17th, it creates an island of a fairway and leaves you with a long second over water. The wind was aiding us. But a bit too much. Our approaches hit the middle of the green and rolled off the back into some gnarly lettuce. Somehow, I made par with a nice chip. Back to 1 down. On 18, the wind was back in our faces. The Barry Burn snaked around the right, augmented by cavernous fairway bunkers. The wind held up my drive, which somehow found fairway. There’s 180 to clear the burn short of the green. No option but to go for it. Savaged my three-wood but it got caught in the wind. Wet. Drop. Wedge. Two-putt. Double. Tied the hole. Lost the match.