A great finishing hole might offer supreme challenge, dazzling aesthetics, myriad risk/reward options, or historical impact. The elite offer a combination. Merely because the hole is hard and drama-drenched, however—I’m winking at you, Carnoustie, Bay Hill, and the Blue Monster at Doral—or because it’s iconic in other ways—Hello, Olympic Club, Riviera, and Merion—doesn’t make it jump into everyone’s Top 10. Many acknowledge the subtle, strategic appeal of the 18th at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and at Royal Melbourne (East), but neither resonate strongly enough to warrant inclusion. Here are the 10 that do.
1. Pebble Beach (Pebble Beach, Calif.)—543 yards, par five
There may be tougher, or even more dramatic finishing holes in golf, but none get the pulse racing like Pebble’s. Arcing to the left along Carmel Bay, Pebble Beach’s 18th is a better hole today than it was for many decades, because modern equipment has allowed the majority of bold hitters to challenge the green in two. Tree trouble in the center of the landing area, giant bunkers, out-of-bounds stakes to the right, and the crashing waves of the Pacific are the main hurdles off the tee. The second shot offers similar dilemmas. While the beauty is overwhelming, the strategy is what elevates the hole, thanks to its simple risk/reward sensibility: How close to the water’s edge do you dare to play?
2. Old Course (St. Andrews, Scotland)—361 yards, par four
By most design textbooks, there is little to suggest anything approaching greatness on the hole known as “Tom Morris.” Drivable by many, it’s one of the easiest on the course, with a football field for a landing area, a green only slightly smaller and nary a bunker. For sheer atmosphere, however, there’s no greater finishing hole. From the Swilcan Bridge at the tee, the Royal & Ancient clubhouse in the background, and the vibrant Auld Grey Toon flush to the right, the setting crackles with the echoes of history. A public footpath that bisects the fairway 125 yards from the green, “Granny Clark’s Wynd,” is in play—no free drop. The front-left portion of the green complex, “the Valley of Sin,” can induce short-game psychoses. With tourists and townies watching your every move, the pressure of playing the 18th can shake the steadiest among us. Walking up the final hole of the most fabled course in existence? That’s greatness.
3. Kapalua, Plantation Course (Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii)—668 yards, par five
Despite its gargantuan length, the hole is generally reachable in two as it plays downhill and downwind. The gorgeous tee box panorama takes in an extra-wide, wildly sloping fairway that curves around a jungle-strewn canyon to the left. Beyond the green, the Pacific Ocean beckons. It seems impossible to miss the 50-yard-wide landing area, but an overly aggressive draw or hook will find the hazard. Complicating the second shot is an awkward stance on the severely tilted fairway. Short-left of the green, jungle jail awaits; short-right of the green offers its own peril, as any chip shot struck from that area will run almost uncontrollably swiftly from right to left. The genius of the design and the unique terrain means that each shot yields meaningful risks and rewards. Following a 2019 renovation by original architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Kapalua’s closer once again plays as firm and fast as intended, which elevates it to rarified air.
4. Shadow Creek (Las Vegas, Nev.)—564 yards, par five
Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn demonstrated that with sufficient money and imagination, there’s nothing that couldn’t be accomplished in golf course design. Hewn from poker table-flat, featureless desert, Shadow Creek emerged in 1989 as a true oasis. All of the imagination, drama and variety conjured up by the architects were fully realized at the home hole.
From an elevated tee, the ambitious player trying to reach in two will contend with a water carry on both shots via a series of three lakes separated by waterfalls. Choose the three-shot route and you must still fly your third over water from the proper angle to a long, narrow green surrounded by grassy hills, pine trees, and flowers. The transformation from barren desert to a Carolina mountain course is astonishing, as are the risks and rewards. Only in Vegas.
The 18th at Shadow Creek Golf Club. This hole, a risk/reward par-5, and the golf course as a whole, conjured from nothing but featureless desert, are apt metaphors for Las Vegas itself. Those who run hot at the tables could do far worse in Vegas than to spend it on a round here. pic.twitter.com/72iOlUINuS
— LinksGems Golf Photos (@LinksGems) March 14, 2018
5. Harbour Town (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)—472 yards, par four
Don’t let the flat, double-wide fairway fool you. With O.B. stakes, trees, and condos to the right and Calibogue Sound to the left, any wind at all turns this early Pete Dye design into a beautiful beast. A large, flat green is protected by a large, flat, fronting bunker. The safe miss is hole-high right, but it’s tough to summon the moxie to attack the pin from there, given that sea marsh lurks just beyond the putting surface.
Of course, as archetypal landmarks go, few can compare with the candy cane-striped lighthouse that backdrops the green, along with a yacht-filled marina. Following in the footsteps of past champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Davis Love III further hikes the must-play element. With a design that doesn’t overly favor one type of player, it is a formidable finisher.
6. Pine Valley (Pine Valley, N.J.)—483 yards, par four
The greatest golf course on earth should logically conclude with a wallop that will linger long in memory. Pine Valley succeeds admirably. The hole illuminates the virtues of the layout perfectly, as it demands forced carries over sand and scrub both from the elevated tee and into the elevated green. While the fairway landing area is roomier than it looks, there’s obvious pressure to keep the tee ball straight and also to smack it a long way, because the approach must soar over water and five bunkers cut into the slope that fronts the green. The hole is visually striking, emotionally draining due to its rigorous shot values, and unquestionably unforgettable.
7. Winged Foot, West Course (Mamaroneck, N.Y.)—460 yards, par four
It’s easy to overlook the merits of this hole if only because it’s been home to such a surplus of legendary lore. Bobby Jones drained a 12-footer here to earn a U.S. Open playoff in 1929. Fuzzy Zoeller waved the white flag at Greg Norman at the 1984 U.S. Open. Davis Love tipped his visor to a rainbow at the 1997 PGA. Phil Mickelson tempted fate and lost one of his best chances at the U.S. Open in 2006. The list goes on.
Yet, the hole’s setting and design traits are precisely what have precipitated such memorable moments. A crisp draw is preferred off the tee on this dogleg left, but anything too far left faces arboreal dread, as Mickelson discovered in ’06. A slightly elevated green demands a near-perfect approach thanks to its confounding contours—a huge false front, ledges front-left and back-left, and a pronounced slope from the back of the green to the center. All of this is backdropped by one of the most distinctive clubhouses in golf.
8. Oakmont (Oakmont, Pa.)—484 yards, par four
Host to nine U.S. Opens, the gold standard of tough championship golf may possess “all the charm of a sock to the head,” as Gene Sarazen put it, but Oakmont is endlessly fair and relentlessly interesting. The 18th embodies Oakmont’s best and most frightening attributes. A precise drive is required to avoid five staggered bunkers and dense rough, though a draw might be even more effective to hold the left-to-right sloping fairway. A boldly contoured green, perched on a small rise and sloped from back to front, makes the second shot—and the third and fourth—as challenging as the first. A diagonally placed cross-bunker well short of the green plays havoc with depth perception and also catches plenty of second shots after an errant drive.
Beyond the green sits the iconic green-and-white clubhouse, which sets any golfer to thinking not only about more than a century of impossibly firm, fast greens, but also memories of Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus over Palmer in ’62, Arnie’s emotional U.S. Open goodbye in ’94, and Dustin Johnson capturing his first major in 2016, among many others. Oakmont’s final stirs the soul like few others.
9. Diamante, Dunes Course (Cabo San Lucas, Mexico)—590 yards, par five
Not every great finishing hole dishes out major championship history. Some weren’t even created as finishing holes. Take Diamante’s current closer. When the Dunes course opened in 2010, this spectacular par five immediately made its mark as the favorite hole of its designer, Davis Love III—as the 17th hole. It was easy to see why. Directly behind the tee is the Pacific Ocean; to your immediate right sits a wide beach and more Pacific panoramas. Estate homes and new hotels have altered the coastline’s pristine nature, but straight ahead lies one of the game’s singularly spectacular holes. The tee shot calls for an exciting forced carry over a vast ravine. Now comes a choice: To reach the green in two, you’ll have to fly it over a 50-foot-tall dune. Lay up and the dune still confronts you. Looking back from the highly elevated green, an exhilarating ocean vista greets the golfer, with dolphins and whales frolicking in season. In 2017, a course redesign rerouted this hole from the 17th to the 18th—and it now takes its place as one of the greatest finishing holes in golf.
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10. The Club at McLemore (Rising Fawn, Ga.)—435 yards, par four
Some finishing holes are born great. Others have greatness thrust upon them—through redesign. Such is the case with McLemore’s unparalleled closer. In 2019, architects Bill Bergin and Rees Jones transformed the old Canyon Ridge Club in the mountains of northwest Georgia into McLemore and with it, established a benchmark for thrilling beauty with its 18th hole.
The new closer is perched on a rocky ledge, with a forested hillside to the right and a sheer, vertigo-inducing drop-off to the left. Amid the rocks and brambles, Bergin discovered a shelf below the old hole and somehow established a new green complex there. The slightly elevated putting surface slopes from right to left and back to front and is positioned on the horizon, fantasy calendar-style. From the left edge of the green, it’s a 1,200-foot plunge to the floor of McLemore Cove. If you crave living on the edge, McLemore will provide golf’s ultimate finishing hole.
What do you think are golf’s greatest finishing holes?