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THE HOLE-IN-ONE – the facts, the myths, the odds...

Derek Brandon loves the game of golf and has a special fascination with holes-in-one. To such an extent that he has written about it and kindly offered the article to H1 Club.

Here’s his excellent hole-in-one essay.

So how likely is it, on a scale from one to impossible, that you will achieve a hole-in-one during your golfing lifetime? It helps if you have a state-controlled propaganda machine behind you – former North Korean President Kim Yong-Il once claimed eleven holes-in-one in just one round, according to stories circulating in the early 1990s. An urban myth probably, particularly as it was also reported that it was the Supreme Leader’s first round of golf, and the first round played on Pyongyang’s first golf course. It is said Kim signed his card for a round of 38 under par, witnessed by 17 of his bodyguards, all no doubt in fear of the consequences of disputing the veracity of the card.

For those of us who don’t have these Forrest Gump-like abilities, the odds are about 12,500 to 1 for an average golfer that he or she will score a hole-in-one on any given day. However, since on every course there are generally four short-hole opportunities to reach the green in one shot, the odds are effectively reduced to just over one in every 3,000 rounds. The odds suggest that, if playing twice a week, everyone should get a hole-in-one during a thirty year golfing lifetime. Yeah, right...

Currently the best golfer in the world, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy has just the one hole-in-one in tournament play to his name, scored at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in 2015.

McIlroy told The Guardian

“You hear of guys never having holes-in-one throughout their career. There’s obviously a bit of skill involved but a bit of luck as well. I have come close, I have holed second shots (from distance). It was nice to get one out there finally. I must have had about ten in my lifetime, bounce games and stuff, but the last one was in a pro-am a couple of years ago. Some of the previous ones haven’t actually been from very good shots, but this was different. It looked good from the moment it left the club. The beers are on me tonight.”

As McIlroy achieved the feat in alcohol-free Abu Dhabi, it was probably a cheaper round than he was expecting.

Not that it is impossible.  America’s National Hole-in-one Registry reports that between 1% and 2% of golfers get a hole-in-one in any given year. That equates to around 128,000 holes-in-one a year, some 350 a day, from the whopping 450 million rounds of golf played each year in America.   The UK’s H1 club says 12,000 holes-in-one are scored in an average year in the UK.

60% of hole-in-one achievers are over 50 -- although that might reflect the demographics of golfers generally — and have been playing for an average of 24 years. Only 14-16% are female. The average handicap for all golfers with a hole-in-one is an encouraging 14.

Some background for the non-golfer: golf courses everywhere are made up of a selection of par 3, par 4 and par 5 holes. Par is the assumed stroke target for that hole -- so a par 3 should be reached by a competent golfer in three strokes. Par 3 holes are up to 290 yards long, but are more typically around 160 yards. Par 4s are from 250 yards to 400 yards, and par 5s are 400 yards and longer. To all intents and purposes, holes-in-one are only scored on the par 3s. Purists might know that there have been a handful of occasions when a professional golfer has achieved a hole-in-one on a par 5, usually by cutting the corner on a dog-leg long hole by firing his tee shot blindly over some trees, and there have been a couple of occasions when a pro has holed out on a par 4. However, weekend golfers can really only aspire to a hole-in-one on a par 3 hole. Even the pros are not expecting to hole out on a par 3, they are merely aiming to get as close to the pin as possible.

One amateur golfer who could have gone for a lengthy attempt at a hole-in-one, or an ace as Americans like to call them, was Alan Shepard. He once hit his tee shot further than a mile. Admittedly, he was standing on the moon at the time.

Let’s look at those odds again. 12,500 to 1 applies to amateur golfers. That’s about the same as winning an Oscar, or finding a pearl in an oyster, or a little longer than the odds on being injured by a toilet (however, those odds shorten dramatically if you are named Elvis). If one hundred reasonably competent amateurs played a standard course on the same day, there is a 32 to 1 chance of a hole-in-one.

Although there is undoubtedly skill involved in hitting the ball the right distance in the right direction, there is also a major slice of luck involved in achieving a hole-in-one. Some pros will never achieve one, some beginners will get one early on. An American woman got one on her third visit to a golf course.

The professionals’ odds are shorter because of the level of skill acquired by the time they turn professional, and because they play golf several days a week. The odds on pros getting a hole-in-one in any round are currently 2,500 to 1. Because there is a field of around 144 competitors in a big professional tournament, the odds of there being a hole-in-one drop to about 4:1. But since there are four rounds in such a competition, the odds are nearer 1:1 that there will be a hole-in-one in any given major professional event, or “even money” in betting parlance. This was something a pair of gamblers once worked out before the bookies.

 

John Carter and Paul Simon’s book The Hole-in-One Gang, published in 1993, relates how they consistently won payouts in 1991 by betting on a hole-in-one being made at five of the bigger golf tournaments on the professional tours. The smaller bookmakers had not done their research and were pricing the bet far too highly. Some bookies were quoting 100 to 1 on a hole-in-one, whereas the correct odds are actually nearer 1 to 1. A total of £30,000 was wagered in person at various smaller betting shops around the country in a series of single, double and treble bets on there being holes-in-one at that year’s Benson & Hedges, Volvo PGA, The Open, the US Open and the European Open events.

In their book the professional punters write

“We already knew that holes-in-one were no rarity, but our research enabled us to estimate that at most European Tour events the odds were no bigger than even money. By early March.....we would begin criss-crossing Britain placing hole-in-one bets.

Out would go conventional weapons such as simply placing single bets on suitable golf tournaments. In came the ‘The Cluster Bomb Bet’, potentially lethal, and devised to inflict maximum casualties amongst the bookmaking fraternity.

“The Cluster Bomb bet consists of doubles and accumulators which allow cash to be staked against a first result. Those winnings are then risked upon the second result, and if successful, that money is staked on subsequent tournaments.

“A successful £10 hole-in-one treble landing odds of 10 to 1 on three golf tournaments would return a whopping £13,310.00.

“Staggering odds of 1330 to 1, considering a treble using hole-in-one bankers, in our view, should rate little more than 4 to 1.

Once accepted, each successful hole-in-one in turn would create a tidal wave of money running on to the year’s final tournament for a potential payday of all time.

Had we discovered the perfect bet, and would the bookies defy heavy odds?”

Yes they had, because the two punters ended up winning around half a million pounds when holes-in-one were duly recorded by Isao Aoki in the B&H,  Wraith Grant in the PGA, Brian Marchbank in The Open, Jay Don Blake at the US Open, and Migel Angel Jimenez at the European Open.

Most pros are good enough, and lucky enough, to hole out in one shot on a par 3 with a degree of regularity, although some big names never achieve the feat, including, it is said (although I haven’t been able to verify this) one of the greatest-ever golfers, Seve Ballesteros.

Bubba Watson played on the world circuit for a long time before getting a hole-in-one, knowing throughout this time that his amateur-playing wife had already scored one!

Tiger Woods has twenty to his name during his professional career, although mere mortal golfers will be pleased to learn that there was a twenty-year gap between his nineteenth and his twentieth. Woods only has three aces on the PGA tour though. Hal Sutton and Robert Allenby each have ten holes-in-one while playing on the PGA tour. Other veterans with significant numbers of holes-in-one during their careers are Jack Nicklaus with 20, Gary Player 19, and Arnold Palmer 18.

 Jack Nicklaus, aged 78 at the time, had the pleasure of seeing his 15-year-old grandson score a hole-in-one in the pre-Masters par 3 event at Augusta National in 2018. Afterwards Nicklaus, who won 18 major championships, rated his grandson Gary’s ace the number one moment in his career. He said

“What I did doesn’t make any difference to me, but watching your grandson do something special, I have a few tears. We talked about it three days ago and I said ‘Do you want to hit the ball on nine?’, and he said ‘Sure’. I said, well I think you’re going to make a hole-in-one. It’s his first.”

Three US Presidents have achieved the feat -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon said his was the biggest thrill of his life, “Even better than getting elected”. There isn’t space to report all of Donald Trump’s achievements on the golf course, but Kim Yong-Il’s 38 under par record must be in danger.

Numerous celebrities have carded holes-in-one, including Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Justin Timberlake, and former Australian cricketer Shane Warne, who got his at Augusta National, a difficult course where the pros have only managed 22 in 85 years.

In the world of amateur golf, a typical small town course such as the Blackburn Golf Club reports that fewer than ten holes-in-one are recorded there each year.

 

Sixteen miles down the road, three competitors holed out in one within an hour of each other at the Bury Golf Club in Greater Manchester in 2006, at the 180-yard 14th. The club usually records fewer than one a month.

 

Defying the odds, there were four holes-in-one in under two hours during the second round of the 1989 US Open at Oak Hill Country Club, all on the 167-yard 6th. The odds against four professionals doing this out of a field of 156 are said to be 1.89 quadrillion to 1! This largely meaningless number is defined in America as 1015 or 1,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 or, I would imagine, the number of parked double-decker buses it would take to cover a country the size of Wales! We are getting into wild statistical nonsense here, such as claiming that if one hundred professionals have unlimited buckets of golf balls at a 150-yard par 3, sooner or later one of them will write the Complete Works of Peter Alliss.

More prosaically, the European Tour gave Andy Sullivan, one of its professionals, 500 balls and filmed his attempts to deliver a hole-in-one to order.

Sullivan placed an amazing 217 of 230 attempts onto the green before getting his hole-in-one, proving beyond doubt the skill requirement. The video is worth seeing for Sullivan’s celebration when he finally gets his hole-in-one!

Ruth Day, a 67 year old amateur from Tynemouth, managed two holes-in-one in a single day at Whitley Bay Golf Club. She aced both the 3rd and 13th holes, and this was despite playing off a 35 handicap, which means she is normally a below average player.

 

In 2017 the BBC reported that two golfers defied astronomical odds by hitting back-to-back holes-in-one. Jayne Mattey and Clair Shine achieved the feat on the same hole, on the same day, in consecutive strokes, during a round with friends at the East Berkshire Golf Club in Crowthorne. The National Hole-In-One-Registry calculated the odds of two players from the same foursome acing the same hole as 17,000,000 to 1.

 

The New York Times reported that John Murphy made a hole in one in 1982 on the 175-yard 5th hole at the Wil-Mar Golf Club in Raleigh, North Carolina. Murphy was playing alone and no one witnessed the shot, so he knew his ace would forever be unofficial. When Murphy was done with his round, he went to the clubhouse and told a friend about his fate. The two went back out to the 5th hole so Murphy could better recount what happened. He teed another ball, swung and put that shot in the hole. That doesn’t count officially either. A hole in one must occur during a round of play, and in most cases, the round must be completed.

Age is no barrier to achieving the feat: 71-year-old Gene Sarazen scored one in the 1973 Open. Earl Dietering managed two in one round in Memphis as a 78-year-old. It is said that the oldest amateur men and woman holers-in-one were Harold Stilson who was 101, and Elise Mclean who was 102.

At the other end of the scale, a nine-year-old girl has done it, Kate Langley of Scotter, in North East Lincolnshire in 2006. Almost unbelievably, and also in 2006, an 11-year-old boy, Harry Clark, scored a hole-in-one at the Kirriemuir Golf Club near Dundee, the same hole as his father, Alan, aced when he was 14, 25 years previously. Tiger Woods demonstrated his precocious talent when he achieved his first hole-in-one aged six.

Nor is disability a barrier to achieving a hole-in-one. A one-eyed, one-armed golfer, Alan Perrin, a 45-year-old former Royal Marine who received his injuries when he was hit by shrapnel after an accidental explosion on Salisbury Plain, got his hole-in-one on the 160-yard 2nd hole at the Exminster Golf Club in 2009. Even a blind man has done it -- 42 year old Jon Bowles scored a hole-in-one at the National Star College’s course in Cheltenham in 2011. Mr Bowles, who lost his sight in a car crash twenty years before, hit his perfect shot 150 yards into the wind at the course’s 5th hole. Blind golfers are pointed in the right direction and have the hole described to them by their sighted partners, who then ring a bell over the hole when it comes to putting. Not that Mr Bowles needed his putter. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I’d hit the ball that well. My playing partner Bob Chitty told me it was heading straight towards the hole. Then he said, ‘Oh my God – it’s gone in!”’

The longest holes-in-one are said to be (in one sense) 517 yards, scored at the Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver. The clue to this outrageously long ace is in the location. Denver is in the Rocky Mountains, and the thin air at high altitude made the long drive possible. In another sense, the longest hole-in-one took one hour and four seconds on a course where the tee is in Sweden and the hole is in Finland, and there is a one hour time difference along the way! The longest hole-in-one scored by a woman is 393 yards, by Marie Robie in 1949.

Three American amateurs have scored holes-in-one playing tee shots both left-handed and right-handed. They are not being named here because we wouldn’t want to encourage this kind of showing off...

Patrick Wells scored three holes-in-one in one round at the Laurel Hill Golf Club in 2015. John Hudson is believed to be the only touring pro to have scored two holes-in-one in consecutive holes at a major professional tournament, the 1971 Martini International. The first one was, as you would expect, at a 195-yard par 3, the second one with a driver at the par four 311-yard next hole.

Only one hole-in-one from a par 4 has been recorded in (American) PGA history. Its unusual nature is worth recounting.

Andrew Magee did it at the 2001 Phoenix Open on the 332-yard par 4 17th hole at Scarsdale in Arizona.  With the group ahead already on the green, Magee decided to play his tee shot. The ball carried as far as the green, where it hit the putter of Tom Byrum and ricocheted into the hole. A legitimate if unlikely hole-in-one. Byrum’s caddy afterwards remarked that it was the first putt Byrum had made all day!

Amateur Danny Leake hit holes-in-one at the 6th hole at Rawls Course at Texas Tech University on two consecutive days in 2006, a feat said to have a probability of 67,000,000 to 1. Not to be outdone, Robert Taylor holed in one at the 189-yard 16th hole at Hunstanton Golf Club in Norfolk three days in a row.

These feats are small beer compared to American Curt Hocker, who worked in the El Paso Golf Club’s pro shop in Illinois. He chalked up five holes-in-one in a week, with two on the same day, in 2008. His club had hole-in-one insurance, which meant it was the club which bore the cost of the traditional drinks in the clubhouse after each hole-in-one, not the golfer.

“I think the golf club is getting mad at me for all the drinks“, said Hocker. “It’s hard to talk about, but it’s awesome to have it happen.”

The earliest recorded hole-in-one was by Tom Morris at the 1868 Open at Prestwick in Scotland, a mere 145-yards hole in those days. The first left-hander to score a hole-in-one at The Open was Peter Dawson, at Royal Birkdale in 1976.

The US professional tour sees about 23 aces a year, the three European Tours saw 34 players do it in 2017. There have been 22 at The Masters over the years, 45 at the US Open (including 2 from Tom Weiskopf, four years apart). There have been six at Ryder Cup matches, and five in the Olympics, the first one by Justin Rose in 2016 in Rio. LPGA golfer Shirley Spork has had seven in her career.

Tony Jacklin’s hole-in-one during his winning last round of the 1967 Dunlop Masters at Royal St. George’s has the distinction of being the first one captured live on television. Over the years, television companies have learned to place a camera on each of the short holes at major championship events in the hope of capturing holes-in-one, but having missed a few while the cameras were showing action elsewhere, it is now customary for these cameras to be recorded continuously so that viewers can see them replayed moments after they have happened. Sky Sports have, the European Tour, and the US tour have dozens in their archives.

So what exactly is the skill involved which goes with the luck assumed to also be required? Is there a science to hitting a hole-in-one?

American professional Mac O’Grady bamboozles with his observation “A hole-in-one is amazing when you think of the different universes this white mass of molecules has to pass through on its way to the hole”.

Another American pro, Phil Mickelson’s hole-in-one advice is worth keeping in mind: “Try hitting it closer to the hole!”.

Journeyman Mancil Davis, who carded the highest number of holes-in-one by a touring professional, 51 of them, told USA Today

"You ask any golfer, 'What are you aiming at?' and they'll say, 'Hitting over the bunker,' or 'Over the water’ or 'Getting on a safe spot on the green.’ Not one person says the hole, and I don't know if this makes sense. When you're hitting a 20-foot putt, you aim at the hole. Where's the magic distance where the mind doesn't aim at the hole? 

"For some reason I carried this as a young player to 150 to 200 yards. I'm aiming at the target. I'm not trying to hit it 40 feet from the hole, which is probably why I didn't make it on the tour."

The best amateur number recorded is 59, by Norman Manley, a resident of Long Beach, California. He managed four in just one year.

A hole-in-one is not necessarily a precursor to a good round. At the 2013 World Cup of Golf in Melbourne, Australia, Welsh professional golfer Stuart Manley followed a hole-in-one at the 3rd hole with a seven over par 11 at the 4th hole. David Terpoilli, a novice golfer at a corporate event, went round the Whitemarsh Country Club golf course in Norfolk not in the expected 72 shots, but in 193. But he still managed a hole-in-one in that enormous total!

At charity and Pro-Am events there is often a big prize on offer at a selected par 3 hole for anyone who gets a hole-in-one. The prize is often a car, or there can be a cash prize as high as four million dollars. Pro Andy Sullivan won a trip into space for his hole-in-one during the KLM Dutch Open, a prize which left him feeling over the moon.

Using the probability stats described in this article, the promoter will have taken out insurance with a specialist risk insurer to cover the prize (unlikely to be won, but it can happen). As a rule of thumb, using the length of the hole, the experience of the likely contestants and the size of the prize, the premium is said to be around £2,000 for a £1,000,000 prize, which represents odds of 500 to 1.

In 2014, the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club offered a $2.5M prize for the first player to get a hole-in-one at the 17th hole at its 25th anniversary event. The par 4 hole was shortened from its usual 359 yards to an achievable (for a pro) 325 yards. That prize money equalled the entire prize fund for the tournament, and many of the pros playing duly went for it. The defending champion Stephen Gallagher was quoted in The Guardian

“I think my caddie will leave me with the driver and run to the green because he is on 10%.... The hard thing is going to be getting the right line worked out for me; I have never seen him work so hard on one hole”.

Every year, Lamborghini hosts an event in Las Vegas where they offer the chance to win one of their cars if competitors hit a hole-in-one. No one has yet managed to buck the prodigious odds against winning the car.

 

But such miracles can happen, and did so in Ascot in Berkshire in 1998. The occasion was a Pro-Am for England’s footballers, and a few journalists were invited along. Two football writers for the Sunday Telegraph couldn’t make it, and so the golf correspondent, Derek Lawrenson, showed up. When he got to the 200-yard par-three 15th he discovered a £189,000 Lamborghini supercar parked behind the tee and that it was on offer for a hole-in-one. Lawrenson told The Daily Mail

 

“Now I’d love to tell you I took dead aim but truthfully, with quite a crowd watching, I was just thankful to strike the ball properly. Then it landed on the green and I thought: thank goodness for that. Then it started to move towards the hole and you could hear the murmurs in the crowd. Then it fell in and, well, cue bedlam.

 

“The National Hole-in-one Association called it the most famous ace in UK golf history. When I turned up at Wentworth the next day for a press conference, Colin Montgomerie was in his element. ‘Wouldn’t we all rather hear from Derek?’ he said, smiling broadly.

“Accepting the prize meant a five-year loss of my amateur status that came and went without making a jot of difference.

“With the proceeds, we upgraded from the house we were thinking of buying and now live beside the sea on the beautiful Wirral Peninsula. It was the shot of a lifetime that keeps on giving.

“And so, to those Las Vegas dreamers who turn up each year and swoon when they see a Lamborghini parked behind the tee, I say: dream on. It can be done.”

The hole-in-one at the BMW International Open scored by Gaganjeet Bhullar in 2019 won him a £173,000 BMW M8 coupe sports car, easily outpacing his earnings from playing golf in that event. Bhullar was the fifteenth professional to win a BMW at a European Tour event.

You can find a guide to the etiquette of scoring a hole-in-one online. In a nutshell, it says celebrate with dignity and decorum -- something American professional golfer Tony Finau, then ranked number 34 in the world, should have remembered when he holed out during a pre-Masters par 3 contest on the Augusta National course in 2018. Finau, celebrating wildly, slipped and dislocated his ankle. Not that that meant that he missed the Masters as a result, he played and tied for 10th!

It is traditional for the hole-in-one achiever to buy a drink for everyone in the bar when the golfer gets back to the clubhouse. Since I have never been known to buy a round of drinks, I have insured against the risk of getting a hole-in-one. Just in case.

To conclude this survey of the wonders of the hole-in-one, there is the story of the inept amateur golfer who sliced his tee shot on the 1st hole so badly it flew onto the almost adjacent 18th green. And then rolled into the hole. This would be the only example, were the story to be authenticated, of a round-in-one!

But the very last word here should go to an amateur golfer who reckons holes-in-one are overrated: “They’re nice...but you still have to head to the next tee!”.

COPYRIGHT DEREK BRANDON

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