Golf Tip: What is a “Cape” Hole, and How Do You Play It?

You’ve probably stepped onto the tee of a par 4 or par 5 staring at a nearly 90° dogleg wrapped around a lake. You may have noticed that the more direct your line toward the green, the more water your drive had to carry, but that the safer route over less water would leave you with a longer approach shot.

If the scenario sounds familiar, you’ve done battle with a “Cape” hole.

Legendary architect Charles Blair “C.B.” Macdonald is generally credited with designing the first Cape hole, the 14th at National Golf Links on Long Island. Macdonald’s Cape hole at Bermuda’s Mid Ocean Club, the par-4 fifth, may be even more famous.

Purists argue that for a hole to be considered a true Cape, the green must stick out into a body of water or similarly treacherous area. For our purposes, any hole with a diagonal drive over a hazard will suffice. We’ll call it a Cape-style hole.

Obviously, the challenge is deciding how much risk you’re willing to take. More risk taken off the tee earns an easier shot to the green (provided you execute the drive). Alternatively, you can choose a less strenuous carry to the fairway in exchange for a more difficult second shot.

Another key component is fairway width. In general, by choosing the safer route over the hazard you risk hitting the ball through the fairway. A more direct angle toward the green deepens the effective landing area.

There are two major keys to handling a Cape hole: 1) Knowing the distance to carry the hazard; 2) Knowing how far your average drive flies.

Handling the first part requires a yardage book, a GPS unit or laser rangefinder, or a caddie. The second part must be figured out from experience or, ideally, with the aid of a launch monitor.

Now for the strategy:

1. Determine the spot on the opposite bank that’s closest to your maximum driving distance – not including roll. For example, the point that’s 220 yards from the tee.

2. Now take stock of the conditions (wind etc.), your current mental state (feeling aggressive/lacking confidence) and your score or standing in the match – anything that plays into the risk vs. reward equation.

3. Choose your line of attack.

4. Commit to the line 100%, take a deep breath and swing fearlessly.

A good Cape-style hole challenges your mind, your heart and your swing. And that’s what golf is all about.