Unless the topic is mountain climbing, gymnastic routines or platform diving, we don’t usually attach prestige to things simply because they are difficult. But in this home-run-hitter era of men’s professional golf, when the power game seems capable of overwhelming almost every PGA Tour venue, a little architectural pushback—and an occasional comeuppance—can help restore faith that all balance in the game of golf has not been lost.
The following 10 holes were the PGA Tour’s most difficult in relation to par during the 2019-’20 season, a campaign with no Masters, U.S. Open or Open Championship held due to COVID-19. Not surprising, no par 5s made the list, the true three-shot hole being all but extinct. But these par 3s and 4s all found ways to push back against the muscle of the world’s best players using a variety of tactics including, primarily, narrowness, length, water hazards, rough and wind. These may be the only weapons remaining. So, if you’re a fan of parity and of seeing pros look mortal, you might appreciate what these holes accomplished.
10. Ninth hole, Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course), 223 yards, par 3
Because of its position in the round and placement in the three-course tournament rotation, this hole is the list’s least known to television viewers. That’s a shame because it’s also the most beautiful, situated along 17 Mile Drive and the Pacific Ocean, featuring some of the tour’s most artistic bunkering.
The pros aren’t fooled by the beauty, but they are by the green complex. In 2020, the wind wasn’t even a factor—it was as calm as it ever is on this edge of land, and more than half the contestants found the putting surface with their long tee shots. But that’s where the trouble began. Depending on where the holes are cut, the large, skull-shaped green can be one of the most deceptive the players see all year, and the average putt-per-green was an incredible 2.15, including 23 three-putts in just three rounds of competition.
9. 16th hole, El Camaleón Golf Club, 515 yards, par 4
Other than the length of the hole and the intimidating trouble up the right side, it’s not obvious why the 16th at El Camaleón was so resistant to good scoring. Players can swing driver aggressively to a relatively ample landing area stretching out to the 310-yard mark, and 58 percent of the field found the fairway. Though the wind was against the players all four days, it was not notably intense (five to 15 miles per hour).
Though the green is quite large, about 8,500 square feet, only 32 percent of the players hit it in regulation, and the hole surrendered just 29 birdies against 24 double bogeys. The reason it played so tough might have to do with the grass on the fairways and greens, paspalum, which becomes sticky when grown in tropical settings like Mayakoba. Tee shots land and just stop. So at the 16th, already the longest par 4 on the course by nearly 50 yards, many of the players were hitting long iron and even hybrid second shots, not something they’re accustomed to doing.
8. Sixth hole, PGA National (Champions Course), 479 yards, par 4
The “Bear Trap” gets all the attention at PGA National, and for good reason: In any given year either the 15th, 16th or 17th holes—or some combination of them—could find a place on this list. But in 2020, the long par-4 sixth growled loudest.
A lagoon defends the entire left side of the hole and the green curls out into the water, with daunting approaches to back-left hole locations needing to cover water and a deep front-left bunker. The tendency to play drives away from the hazard coupled with a steady left-to-right wind resulted in 46 percent of all tee shots (197) ending up in the right rough or right fairway bunker, an effective half-shot penalty. Even winner Sungjae Im found this fairway just once, and he had to scramble to save par around the missed green in three of his four rounds (only 27 percent of the field hit the green in regulation during the week).
7. Ninth hole, TPC Harding Park, 515 yards, par 4
The ninth hole typified the old major championship setup model: Push the tees back as far as they can go, grow up the rough, pinch in the fairways (22 to 28 yards) and get the greens as firm as possible (admittedly a tall task even during a San Francisco summer). And this explains what made the ninth at TPC Harding Park one of the year’s hardest holes.
Players in the field found the fairway off the tee in less than half of their attempts. They experienced even less success hitting the green in regulation (42 percent). And those who did get home in two shots had difficulty getting the ball close, finding birdie putts that averaged more than 50 feet in length. That in turn explains why the ninth extracted more three-putts on the week (28) than any other hole on the course.
6. 12th hole, Pebble Beach Golf Links, 202 yards, par 3
At first glance, one wonders how the 12th at Pebble Beach, with no water or penalty areas and just two bunkers protecting its front (and two more off the green to the rear), could possibly be such a demanding hole for the world’s greatest players. Yet this seemingly simple hole frequently plays as the toughest or second-toughest at Pebble Beach.
Hitting the green is like throwing a marble in the mouth of a Coke bottle, and in 2020, only 73 of 223 players did so, resulting in a scant 15 birdies for the week. A Sunday hole location placed over the bunker on the left edge of the green was almost impossible to access—only 12 players found the green that day, and just 20 of 69 players were able to save par from out of the sand.
5. 18th hole, Bay Hill Club & Lodge, 458 yards, par 4
Arnold Palmer Invitational
It’s no surprise to see this hole here—Bay Hill’s 18th has long been famous for producing moments of extreme grief and glee, and it’s one of the most recognizable and demanding finishing holes on tour.
It has all the classical elements of a difficult hole: a tight landing area (less than 30 yards wide), deep Bermuda rough that extracts between +.5 and +.6 strokes from wayward drives, a water hazard that must be carried on the approach and a shallow green with bunkers catching approach shots that don’t bite. Throw in gusty afternoon conditions and the 18th becomes the most challenging hole on the tour’s most challenging course in 2020 (rounds at Bay Hill averaged 2.1 strokes over par last year).
4. Second hole, Waialae Country Club, 423 yards, par 4
Scoring at Waialae’s second hole typically hovers right around par in an average year. There’s a one-word answer why it played nearly a half-stroke more difficult in 2020: wind.
Four days of 20- to 30-mile-per-hour headwinds wreaked havoc—the average length of drives for the week was 248 yards. Compounding matters is the unique shape of the hole, where a lake on the left makes two large forays into the landing zone, the first exactly in the 240- to 260-yard range where most drives were landing. Needless to say, the water table was a little higher at the end of the week—nearly 50 balls were soaked—leading to a remarkable 168 scores of bogey, double bogey or worse.
3. 12th hole, Torrey Pines Golf Course (South Course), 505 yards, par 4
The true difficulty of a particular hole is occasionally buried in statistical data. No such investigative dissection is needed to understand the 12th on Torrey Pines’ South Course. The hole is a monster, playing straight ahead toward a far point of Torrey Pines State Preserve overlooking the ocean.
The length and uphill nature of the second shot means that power and strength are critical for success. Barely half the field found the 25-yard-wide fairway off the tee, and less than 34 percent hit the green in regulation despite its large size and the relatively calm conditions. The 12th also possessed some of the deepest rough on the course—errant tee shots were essentially half-shot penalties as drives missing the fairway to the right lost over half a stroke to par on average (+.56), and those missing left dropped just under a half-stroke (+.47).
2. 16th hole, Muirfield Village Golf Club, 201 yards, par 3
After Jack Nicklaus completely remodeled this hole prior to the 2011 Memorial Tournament (including the excavation of a pond pushing up against the front of a new, angled green), the 16th went from being a fairly benign par 3 to one of the course’s—and the tour’s—most difficult holes.
Though its length varied from 209 to just 171 yards in 2020, the firm green was the most challenging to hit. Surrounded by water and three deep bunkers, just 36 percent of the field found the putting surface. Those numbers dropped to a remarkable 15 percent during the first round and 27 percent on Sunday in 20 mile-per-hour winds blowing right to left across the hole. Front pins near the pond were increasingly treacherous, and shots that carried onto the putting surface often bounded into the rough or two rear bunkers. Even those who found the green safely three-putted at a higher percentage than at all but two other holes. Interestingly, when the course hosted the one-off Workday Charity Open the previous week, the 12th hole played to a scoring average of 3.102, ranking 194th hardest in 2019-’20.
1. 18th hole, The Golf Club of Houston, 488 yards, par 4
By virtue of the PGA Tour’s wrap-around schedule, the toughest hole of the 2019-’20 season comes from a tournament that was played in October 2019 and on a course that hosted the event for its final time (Memorial Park becoming the new home for the annual stop in Houston in 2020). The Golf Club of Houston’s 18th was regularly among the most difficult holes on tour—it’s played above par each year since 2006 when the course first hosted event (it was then known as Redstone Golf Club). The reason is because there’s no room to miss: Water runs tight down the entire left side of the hole, the fairway is less than 30 yards wide and deep bunkers guard the right landing area and right side of the green. Most players attempt a 270- to 300-yard controlled drive into a narrowing section of fairway, leaving uncomfortable mid-iron approaches to a tight target. Even then, more than half usually miss.
The 18th was never more challenging than in 2020, playing a record half stroke higher than par. Only 45 percent of the field found the green in regulation. Only 25 birdies were carded on the week versus 46 double bogeys (and eight “others”). Scoring on Friday was particularly brutal, yielding a 4.83 average as the field charged into 20 mile-per-hour gusts—and that was with the tee moved up 35 yards. The longest drive of the second round was just 287 yards. And the green was the most three-putted on the course. Suffice to say, few tears were shed when the tournament moved to Memorial Park, though that course may prove to be just as obstinate as this one.