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New World Order: Some closing holes mean drama ... or trauma

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Clearly, the term "memorable" is subject to many interpretations.

Sometimes, the difference is as thin as the gallery rope.

For instance, when trying to assess the most interesting finishing holes on the PGA Tour, opinions can very much vary. What represents an eyeful for the fans can be awful for players.

Graeme McDowell celebrates making par on the treacherous 18th hole at Pebble Beach to win the 2010 U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  
Graeme McDowell celebrates making par on the treacherous 18th hole at Pebble Beach to win the 2010 U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  
For instance, recall Phil Mickelson last year at Quail Hollow, when he actually putted away from an untended flagstick on the camel-backed 18th green, his not-so-silent way of saying the course had ridiculously overcooked its greens.

"For as beautifully designed as this golf course is tee to green," Mickelson said, "the greens are by far the worst-designed we play on tour."

We won't even get into the faux stream that meanders down the left side of the hole, also a source of occasional grousing.

In terms of pain and punishment, then there was the veteran who, having just completed a Honda Classic round at PGA National, where the so-called Bear Trap closing stretch has caused some nightmarish pileups, offered this snide aside about the designer, some guy who won 18 majors.

"I'd like to see Jack @#$&* Nicklaus play that @#$&* Bear Trap," the pro seethed.

For the record, Nicklaus' middle name is actually William.

In case you've missed the message, the best finishing holes ideally provide drama in addition to trauma and heroics with the histrionics, which is why tracks like PGA National and Quail Hollow, while boasting some of the most memorable homeward holes, will never top our subjective "best-of" list closing holes on tour.

Brutality and finality are a fine brew on the closing holes at the majors. But when it comes to regular tournaments, we prefer to see clutch play down the back-nine stretch, not just guys clutching throats, on their backs, on stretchers.

With a tip of the visor to TPC Scottsdale, where the Waste Management Phoenix Open finished up Monday afternoon over some of the most entertaining final holes in the game, here's the New World Order list of the week -- the best final-four flourish on tour.

Waste Management Phoenix Open

TPC Scottsdale

There's no more enervating run in the game. The stretch starts with the reachable par-5 15th, where there was plenty of controversy last year when rookie Rickie Fowler and Tim Clark laid up rather than challenge the island green.

Then there's the 16th, a 160-yard par-3 surrounded by grandstands and 20,000 well-lubed fans ready to give an earful to anybody who hits a sloppy shot.

But the best of the inward holes at TPC Scottsdale, co-designed by Tom Weiskopf, is the under-rated 17th, a drivable par-4 where anything from eagle to double-bogey can happen in a heartbeat. Last year, Y.E. Yang blew a chance to win when his tee shot on the 330-yard hole leaked into the greenside pond. Sunday, Mickelson's chances were derailed when he drove in the water and three-jacked for a double-bogey. Just for good measure, he spanked one in the water again on Monday.

The green is crimped, creating awkward pitch shots and ... decisions, decisions, decisions. It's the utter antithesis to the bomb-and-gouge mentality that pervades the contemporary game. Tommy Gainey, battling for his first tour title, chipped a ball in the water Monday to ruin his chances. It's become the most devilish, diabolical hole in the game.

The 18th isn't all that special, particularly in contrast to the three that precede it. But Nos. 15-17 offer the most combustible mix of birdies and bogeys, curtain calls or catcalls, on tour.

Pity that the final round in Phoenix is usually played during the Super Bowl. Because this TPC venue often provides one of the season's best final hours of TV viewing.

Players Championship

TPC Sawgrass

The last three holes at Sawgrass have become the most identifiable series in the game outside of Augusta National -- for darned good reason.

The term "risk-reward" has become an annoying cliché, but at Sawgrass, the tension ramps up dramatically over the three closing holes of Pete Dye's most famous design. On the 16th and 17th, for sure, there's a treasure trove of reward for players hoping for an 11th-hour Hail Mary. There's also the possibility of an embarrassing, watery grave.

At 510 yards, the par-5 16th is reachable for most players with a healthy drive, but the green is surrounded by sand, water and Dye's eye-jarring walls of railroad ties. Davis Love tore the hole to shreds with his victory in 2003, even from the tree line.

As for the fateful 17th, well, it's become the most copied hole in the game. For those who can tune out the noise -- if not ignore the occasional alligator and rippling water -- it's a simple wedge or 9-iron shot. Just ask Paul Goydos or Sean O'Hair, who both lost tournaments on the hole by sending tee shots on the surprisingly claustrophobic, 140-yard hole into the drink. Indeed, dinky can be daunting.

The 450-yard 18th, however, ensures that nobody walks away with the so-called fifth major without earning it. From Craig Perks to Adam Scott, who were bloodied by the hole yet managed to survive, the sliver of fairway between the monster lake on the left and increasingly thicker tree line on the right looked as narrow as the dotted center line on nearby Highway A1A.

As the ultimate testament to the theatrical elements of the course, at Sawgrass, nobody leaves early.

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Bay Hill Club & Lodge

The last three holes at Bay Hill would not have made this list last year, because, like Quail Hollow, they were memorable only for their difficulty.

Palmer, who continues to tinker with the par at his signature track -- Bay Hill has played to a par of 70, 71 and 72 over the years -- restored the 16th to a par-5 last year, much to the relief of players who found it needlessly punitive as a two-shot par 4.

The result is a mix of holes where player enjoy a last-ditch shot at birdie or eagle on the 16th -- where Mickelson famously drowned an all-or-nothing approach eight years ago -- then must hold on for the final two holes, a 220-yard par-3 and a 460-yard par-4 that has produced four of the most memorable endings in recent tour annals.

The 18th features a crescent-shaped green fronted by coquina rock and a large pond. Locked in a battle for the title with Kenny Perry in 2005, Vijay Singh hit a 7-iron shot into the rocks. It marked the unimagineable third time that Singh blew a chance to win at Bay Hill after making a mess on the last hole.

Tiger Woods has provided a very different serial ending, of course.

At his last three victories at Bay Hill, Woods has made incredible walk-off birdies with lengthy putts on No. 18 to win by a shot, sending his hometown crowd -- not to mention Palmer himself -- into a delirium.

AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pity they only play Pebble twice during the 72-hole event, because most of us can't get enough of the place.

If it were up to me, every closing hole on tour would be a reachable par-5 hole, strewn with danger, where an eagle was possible. Throw in crashing waves, barking sea lions, boats bobbing in the bay and an occasionally unplayable ocean breeze, and that's Pebble final trio defined.

The 16th is a cozy little dogleg hole where hitting the fairway is paramount, because the green is smaller than one of Bing Crosby's spilled adult libations. The 17th, which points directly toward Hawaii and was close to unplayable last summer during the U.S. Open, has produced some of the most unforgettable video moments (Nicklaus 1-iron, Tom Watson chip-in) in the history of the game.

The 540-yard 18th, quite simply, is beyond compare. For those in need of a miracle, there's a chance for an eagle -- Mickelson once hit driver off the fairway deck into the Pacific in an attempt to hit the hero shot. Whether it's eagles, birdies or squawking seagulls, the ending just doesn't get much better than Pebble, which hosts the tour later this week.

The Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links

If Pebble Beach provides the most astounding backdrop supplied by Mother Nature, then Harbour Town offers the most memorable man-made visual in the red-and-white lighthouse behind the 18th green.

The last three holes over the years have provided not only intrigue, but controversy, beginning when Stewart Cink used his finger to clear the coquina seashells from behind his balls while stationed in a waste bunker on the 16th during his win in 2004.

The short 17th, a 185-yard par-3, often plays into a stiff breeze and is surrounded by reeds, tulees and brackish swamp called the Calibiogue Sound, where revelers watch from their party boats. The body of water borders the left side of the 18th as well, and at high tide, comes within a few feet of the Sunday flag on the final green.

Last year, runner-up Brian Davis tried to hit a do-or-die greenside pitch shot from inside the Calibogue hazard and accidentally nicked some dying vegetation with his swing. He called a penalty on himself that ensured a victory for Jim Furyk.

Sure, the 18th has perhaps the widest fairway on tour, but it all funnels down to the green. As the years have proven over many visits to the cozy Dye venue, so does the drama.

Northern Trust Open

Riviera Country Club

Rivvy's 10th hole probably gets more attention than any other, since it was one of the first drivable, tactical par-4s in the game, and for good reason. But the last three holes on the back nine certainly measure up in any regard.

The par-3 16th is an underrated mid-iron hole, followed by the par-5 17th, which at 590 yards, has occasionally been reached in two monster bombs by contemporary long hitters looking for miraculous rallies.

The 475-yard 18th at Riviera is second only to Pebble Beach as far as indelible closing holes on the West Coast. One of the most memorable winning shots in tournament history came 10 years ago when Robert Allenby raked a 3-wood approach through a driving rainstorm to win a six-man playoff. Coupled with the natural amphitheater that surrounds the hole, it's a recipe for esophageal shutdown for even the most battle-tested players.

Extra points accrue because Hogan, Snead and Nelson once meandered among these same eucalyptus trees. Pity the site is considered too cramped to stage a major championship, because the track itself is certainly worthy.

Wells Fargo Championship

Quail Hollow Golf Club

A few years back, somebody dubbed the last three holes at the tour's Charlotte venue the Green Mile, which also happened to be the name of a popular Tom Hanks movie.

About a prison.

Maybe it was no coincidence, because the last three holes at Quail Hollow, which feature a fake stream at the 18th and a controversial green design at the 17th, are without a doubt the bloodiest in the game.

Fact: Each year, the PGA Tour compiles a list of the toughest holes on tour relative to par and in 2010, the closing trio at Quail each ranked in the top 24. Throw out the courses used at the four major championships, and the Quail holes ranked among the 13 most difficult in courses used annually.

Gulp. Small wonder David Toms once made an eight on the last hole and used all but one shot of his comfy lead en route to victory in 2003. Dead men walking? It feels that way at times. The three holes produced 110 birdies and 414 bogeys last year, a nearly 4-to-1 ratio.

Honda Classic

PGA National Champion Course

A plaque on the 15th tee box, meant to warn players of impending doom over the next three holes, reads, "It should be won or lost right here," a quote attributed to Nicklaus, who redesigned the course.

The strength of the three-hole stretch dubbed the Bear Trap are two brutally windblown and water-saturated par-3 holes that are, from an aesthetic standpoint, a bit too similar in our view. It's easy to make holes that are tough. That doesn't mean they're exciting.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the Champion Course ranked No. 1 in overall difficulty in 2010 among regular tour venues, averaging 1.64 shots over par for the week.

Because the course is buffeted by non-stop Atlantic breezes and dotted with water hazards, the tragedy outstrips heroics, especially on the closing stretch. Last year, the course generated a ridiculous 236 double bogeys -- more than any track outside of the U.S. Open. In fact, no other regular tour venue reached 200 doubles in a week.

The par-5 18th, technically not part of the Bear Trap, sounds like it should present the opportunity for a heroic ending. But the 600-yard, double-dogleg hole has proven virtually unreachable in two, so Honda winners of recent years -- like Ernie Els, who won in 2008 despite not making a birdie on his back nine -- have often been identified by their ability to merely tread water. If not just avoid it.

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