If you’ve been watching the Open on TV, you’ve undoubtedly heard the commentators refer to this or that hole as the “easiest” or “hardest” at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. They’re always wrong, and here’s why: there’s a difference between an easy hole and an easy par. A par 5 on which the scoring average is 4.5 is a harder hole than a par 3 on which the scoring average is 3.5, even though the par 5 is easier to birdie. The ease or difficulty of any golf hole is determined solely by the number of strokes taken to play it. Whether that number is higher or lower than “par” is immaterial.
A club near where I live recently shortened a par 5 by thirty yards and renamed it a par 4. The consensus among members is that this change made both the hole and the course “harder.” Actually, though, it made both of them easier, since the hole and the course are now thirty yards shorter than they were before—the same effect as adding thirty yards to everyone’s tee shot. The hole is now tougher to par than it used to be, but it’s nevertheless an easier hole, since the average number of strokes needed to play it has come down.
To see this more clearly, forget about par for a moment. Imagine that Tiger Woods has challenged you to a two-hole match, on the second and twelfth holes at Augusta National, and that he has offered to give you one handicap stroke, which you may use on either hole. Would that stroke be more useful to you on the second (a 575-yard par 5) or on the twelfth (a 155-yard par 3 where Tom Weiskopf scored a cumulative 20 during the first two rounds of the Masters in 1980)?
Conventional wisdom says that Augusta’s twelfth is a “harder” hole than the second — Jack Nicklaus once called the twelfth “the toughest tournament hole in golf” — but wouldn’t you rather have your stroke on the second, which is 400 yards longer? If you wouldn’t, you should. Tom Weiskopf notwithstanding, the second is a harder hole. Woods has a very good chance of reaching the green in two, while you’ll have to play well to get there in three.
*With apologies to Joe Pyne.