“I have known Charley Macdonald since the earliest days of golf in this country and for many years we have been rival course architects, and I really mean rivals for in many instances we widely disagreed. Our matter of designing courses never reconciled. I stubbornly insisted on following natural suggestions of terrain, creating new types of holes as suggested by Nature, even when resorting to artificial methods of construction. Charley, equally convinced that working strictly to models was best, turned out some famous courses. Throughout the years we argued good-naturedly about it.”
If you were to take A.W. Tillinghast’s word for it, the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture was broken into two camps: those using templates, and those going without. There’s a kernel of truth to this…and plenty untrue as well. Tillie, for all his hay about the “natural suggestions of terrain,” frequently turned to templates. Tillinghast went as far as developing his own portfolio of templates. There are four, and this series will shed some light on these “lesser templates,” typically ignored in today’s conversations on the subject of designed holes.
Today’s is perhaps the most legendary of Tillie’s templates, because it’s the toughest to find in the “ideal” state that the architect described during his writing. Most of us are familiar, at this point, with the Great Hazard, and many even know the “Tiny Tim,” Tillinghast’s more famous short hole template. He was no slouch for strategy, but Tillie enjoyed coupling such thought with a fair amount of brawn, including within Par 3s.
And so, today, we examine the last of Tillinghast’s templates, the “Reef.”
THE BIG IDEA
Tillinghast wrote a lengthy explanation of the Reef within The Course Beautiful, with logic that seemingly contradicted the value of his “Tiny Tim,” an earlier design. Oh well:
“It is the thought of some that the one shot hole needs only to provide a teeing-ground and a green with immediately surrounding hazards. But as a matter of fact the approach is of incalculable value to lend finesse to the play.”
One could argue that “the approach” simply describes shaping flight in the modern game, but it’s likely Tillinghast intended the potential for ground game within his plans. “Reef,” described as around 225 yards at the time (roughly 275 yards with modern equipment), would almost certainly require a roll-up to the green from the majority of players.
Tillinghast, as seen in the introduction, claimed an emphasis on following the land and—unlike the Great Hazard, which required significant construction—the Reef called for requisite natural features. Namely, a “ridge, graded naturally in diagonal meandering across the fairway,” which would create two basic lines of attack: The more aggressive would need to carry a large sand hazard ahead of the ridge; too weak of a shot would roll back into it, while those that carry the ridge would get a helpful kick down to the green. Those taking the safer line from the tee could attempt to shape toward the green, but such shaping would probably be disrupted toward a greenside bunker once it hit the ridge’s downslope. Therefore many may elect to lay up to the safe side and approach for a safe bogey. As a matchplay hole, the intent would be a Par 3.5, similar to the half-par philosophy behind something such as the Road Hole.
The name of the hole likely stems from the Tillinghast family’s background in nautical commerce; a “Reef” was a hidden killer of ships. At least in this case, the intended horror is laid out before the player. Indeed, Tillinghast’s own descriptions lend credence to that idea, but there’s an alternate theory to be mentioned in just a few seconds.
In the same citation listed above, Tillinghast specifically mentions Newport Country Club, from which we can assume he means No. 4…a Par 3 that currently plays to 242 yards from the back tees. Tucked along the south side of the property, the Atlantic coast lends credence to the hole’s marine namesake. It merits some wondering, however. That Tillie cited this hole in his description of the “Reef” certainly means something…and yet the illustration he submitted with that description features more pronounced, perhaps “idealistic,” features.
The “S”-shape is not so prevalent here, and the ridge less extreme, but distance and angles tell the correct tale. The ideal—and risky—play will carry the left bunker and ride down onto the green. The “safe” layup is much less well-defined than in the master’s sketch, as two sizable bunkers run the fairway along the right as well. Indeed, the safest play will probably be dead center. The green here features significant movement, although Tillinghast did not emphasize it in his writing. Many renditions feature different putting circumstances.
One worthwhile note on this hole is the semblance of length maintained for the times. Although perhaps not playing at quite a distance equal to 225 Golden Era yards, the wind off of the ocean will frequently add more than enough whiplash to maintain the hole’s intimidating purpose.
And the name? It should be considered that Thomas M. Davis, a copper magnate, built his estate, named “The Reef,” during 1885, eight years prior to the formation of Newport Country Club. Holes nos. 4 and 5 are adjacent to what is now Brenton Point State Park, formerly Davis’s property.
The difficulty in identifying “Reefs,” or what many would consider a true Reef, is the length. Even during his heyday, Tillinghast did not build many versions of the hole that lived up to his 225-yard prescription. Weigh that against the current advances of technology, and there are very few renditions playing within Tillie’s parameters. Understanding this, we’ll use a liberal brush when describing “Reefs.”
There is no better place to consider “pure” reefs than the championship course at Ridgewood, which arguably has two examples within two holes. No. 10, “Cobra,” is a touch longer at 230 yards. The line over a diagonal cross bunker will kick balls down onto the green. Although No. 8, “Brook,” is a touch shorter at 217 yards, and follows the exact same line from the tee, it demands more finesse packaged with that power, as the green runs away from players (whereas Cobra’s runs uphill). This front-to-back action punishes players who take too much club in seeking to cross the forward hazard.
Paramount Country Club’s closer has nowhere near enough distance to be the truest of Reefs (tipping out at 196 yards), but in terms of tee options it falls very much in line with Tillinghast’s demands. The best line will be over a huge bunker on the left and down to the green. The compact nature of this hole also adds a bit of suspense to the “safe” route off of the tee: Those who lay up will need to take a short wedge over a similarly-large bunker greenside right. Jim Urbina completed a renovation in the past decade, but didn’t have much room to lengthen the hole, due to the No. 8 tee box. Still, a heck of a match-determiner at 18.
As with the Double Dogleg, San Francisco Golf Club has a Reef that does not immediately appear to be, due to the club’s vast fairways. Tom Doak confirmed the identity of the hole, noting that during his restoration of the course, the club specifically requested an original restoration of Tillinghast’s rendition, prior to the 1931 aerials that Doak was largely working with. No. 4 also offers more options due to the excess of short grass. The most aggressive line is over the two bunkers a short way out from the right of the green, or the player can hit to the safer left side of the fairway. If the pin is at back-left, however, players may opt to play into a thinner portion of fairway along the forward bunkers, to give a better line. Is laying up on a Par 3 ever truly the wisest course of action? If you’re better with wedges than a putter, No. 4 certainly gives you the opportunity to prove so.
The most interesting example is the Reef at Bethpage Yellow, primarily because it’s a short Par 4, and not a long Par 3. It would be easy to disqualify the hole as a true Reef, but Tillinghast himself named the hole (and it’s the only titled hole at the Bethpage complex). As with many historic courses, Yellow No. 12 (formerly Blue No. 5), history has removed much of the bite and, accordingly, Reef-status from this hole. The original version featured large bunkers both left and right of where the fairway now tightens up, with short grass beyond the left trap for an additional kick down the fairway. It was always intended as a Par 4, but with the same strategic thought from the tee as the Par 3 version. An additional fairway extends beyond the mounding on the right of the primary landing area (this mounding is not the “Reef” ridge)…wider than the tightened fairway, but leading to a blind approach. This seems to be the only Par 4 version of the hole Tillinghast constructed, but we’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
There are many iterations of what a Reef hole can be, but there is one easy rule for what it cannot be: a Par 3 that is simply long. One example could be No. 5 at Berkshire Hills Country Club, a Par 3 that originated at 240 yards under Tillie’s watch. The bones of that hole, however, and its bunkering, don’t suggest “Reef” was the intent. For a non-Tillie non-example, we can look at Oakmont’s infamous No. 8, which nearly cracked 300 yards during the U.S. Open. Although this does require biting off some of the left “Sahara” bunker for the best line, the amount of room given to run out a driver onto the green is far too gracious for a Reef’s demands (never thought I’d call a 290-yard Par 3 “gracious).
As courses become longer and longer in the never ending battle against technology, longer Par 3s have become more commonplace as well. Pete Dye has twice broken 300 yards (at French Lick and Promontory Ranch), but he hasn’t attempted to emulate a “Reef.” One long short that passes a casual sniff test is No. 14 at Moonlight Basin, a mountain club Jack Nicklaus routed near Big Sky, MT. Playing nearly 290 from the tips, and much more even than the course’s other gravity-permitting holes, this Par 3 almost combines elements of a Reef and a Redan; the green and its fronting bunker require a strategy much like Macdonald’s most famous short template. The difference is a large cross bunker players leapfrog to receive a downward kick into the green. Again, a landing area sits safely to the left of the foremost bunker, for those who would rather pitch over the greenside bunker for their par attempt.
Was Tillinghast truly a template architect? Hardly. “Following natural suggestions of terrain” and “creating new types of holes as suggested by Nature” were how Tillie made his name and approached his terrain. But was he loath to repeat concepts across projects?
Hardly. A few great ideas made for dozens of grand holes across Tillinghast’s library of courses. Macdonald would offer kudos, and Tillinghast was rarely too proud to accept it.