THE ORIGINAL REDAN HOLE, NORTH BERWICK
If imitation is indeed the ultimate complement of excellence, then the Original Redan Hole, North Berwick, the par 3, fifteenth hole on the West Links, can probably lay claim to be the best hole in golf. No single hole in the history of golf course architecture has been more copied. The chances are you’ve played a ‘Redan hole’ albeit not everyone is aware of it. The only thing that probably prevents this hole being more internationally recognised is the fact that North Berwick isn’t long enough to host Major championships. If it were, then the Redan would be every bit as famous as the Postage Stamp.
So just what exactly is ‘a Redan’? Well it’s a mid range par 3 hole laid out to about 190yds, which was long in the days that it was conceived. The yardage is important, as its designed to be reachable with a longer club and hence a shallower angle of approach. This is because a Redan hole has a specific geometric and topographic fingerprint.
The green is set at an angle of forty five degrees to the approach, right to left. The first thing this does is reduce the available landing area. In effect a shot hit at identical yardage can be too short or too long dependent on just what portion of the green it is aimed at. The geometric alignment is only part of the challenge. There’s topographic headache to contend with too. A Redan green will normally sit on an elevated ridge line and make a traditional bump and run shot extremely hazardous. Elevated greens aren’t uniquely tricky though. A Redan is characterised more by the fact that it slopes downward and away from the point of entrance, typically the front right portion of the green towards the back. As you might imagine therefore, approach on a shallow angle, which 190yds almost guaranteed, will only see the ball roll away on the contours. You quickly run out of green as the forty five degree angle reduces the playing surface to the precise line of intersection. The final twist in the DNA concerns earthwork defences at the front, and on the left flank. In golf, this means bunkers. A typical Redan layout lies at a 45 degree angle to the tee, with bunkers on the direct line, and the use of mounding at the front to cause a runaway zone. The green is often defined by the contours of the slope. It kind of begs the question why anyone would even try to solve this puzzle by playing at pin?
The analogy with a hill fort isn’t just poetic license. A ‘Redan’ is salient strategic position, typically a V shape, which protrudes from a defensive wall. It permits defenders to engage an attack early and weaken it before it reaches it’s main objective. The reason the name ‘Redan’ came to rest on a Scottish golf course was a direct result of the Crimean War. A serving officer, John White-Melville was frequently thwarted by North Berwick’s 6th hole (now the 15th) on his return. Exasperated, by the holes formidable defences he compared it the fortress he had encountered at Sebastopol. It was conquered only after nearly a year of attrition, in which deaths totalled more than 20,000 British and 80,000 French soldiers.
Other’s who played the hole quickly came to sympathise with John White-Melville. Charles B MacDonald is the name most commonly associated with the Redan hole.
Macdonald’s oft-quoted description from Scotland’s Gift: Golf is as follows:
“Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.”
In truth the formula for a Redan is a little bit more complex. Outside of novelty courses which seek to replicate classic holes to their exact measurement (never successfully) the secret lies in taking the building blocks of the concept, and then applying them to the circumstances that the course architect has inherited. MacDonald built his Redan hole at the National Golf Links of America, Southampton, where the fourth is regarded by some of the best Redan in the world. The seventh at Shinnecock Hills is another famous Redan. It came to notoriety in the 2004 US Open. Players called it unfair, spectators gave it catcalls and golf writers termed it a travesty, such was it’s difficulty. We’ll invoke Ron Whitten to tell the story and speak in its defence;
“Hardly anybody in the Open played the Redan the way it’s supposed to be played…. I saw Phil Mickelson go for the flag, as did Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and many others. On Saturday, only 27 percent of the field hit the green. On Sunday, only 15 percent, but one of those was Tim Herron, paired with Tiger that day. Herron played it correctly, hitting short right of the green, bouncing it onto the surface and rolling it down to the hole, which was in the right center. Herron’s shot stopped 15 feet away and he made his putt for birdie…. Retief Goosen was one of only six players to par the Redan hole all four rounds. Not surprisingly, he won the championship. People attribute that to his deft putting, but I think it had a lot to do with game management, too. With four pars on Shinnecock’s tough Redan, Goosen obviously knows how to analyse and execute”.
Chris DiMarco was one of the victims and offered his solution to Shinnecock’s Redan to Golf World magazine. “They just need to redo that green,” he said. “The seventh hole had been sitting there for five years. There’s one hole out of control every year [for a U.S. Open]. It’s just unfair. It’s not golf.”
Whitten delivered the rebuke:
“With due respect to DiMarco, who is a top-flight player and a nice guy to boot, the game will be poorer if we start going around obliterating classic old Redan greens because modern players can’t play their usual game of darts on them.”
Modern designers still build Redan holes. Tom Doak is one such advocate, so too is Pete Dye, who introduced his own variant at the 13th at TPC Sawgrass. Not surprisingly he did away with sand and used water! As you will have realised by now, the signature of a Redan lies in the green complex. You don’t need to restrict it to a par 3. Fisher’s Island has two Redan holes, the par 3 second, and the par 5, eighth.
We’ve described a difficult hole for good reason, it’s tough! So how do you play a Redan hole? An intuitive links player will normally be at an advantage over a target parkland golfer. Links Magazine debating the point were dismissively prescient on the subject
“best of luck playing dart-board golf on a Redan”.
A Redan is often played in an indirect manner; that is, the player pitches away from the target and then allows the ball to discuss the issue with the contours of the green to determine its final resting point. A shorter hitter who is reduced to using a longer club is of course most in danger. Some Redan’s will incorporate a raised banking. Raynor and Macdonald generally designed their Redans with an exaggerated “kick-back” slope in the approach and front section of the green. This feature permitted players to risk a bump and into this embankment, and hope that banking absorbed most of the energy from the shot, whilst allowing it to retain just enough to skip forward and flop onto the deck.
The original Redan hole can still be found at the 15th on the west links of North Berwick, and is in no danger of being dug up to satisfy the whims of a new generation of target golfers. If you fancy pitting yourself against it, then it climaxes a little run of great links holes including the quirky 13th, with it’s stonewall traverse, and daring 14th where an over-hit puts you onto the beach.
North Berwick is on the Lothian coast and is used in conjunction with Muirfield on Faraway Fairways ‘best golf in the world’ suite. The course is also played on the Edinburgh with Muirfield tour
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