Fairway Contours as Strategic Hazards

Columns - Design Concepts


While watching the Masters on TV this year, I noticed there was ample architectural comment. Before the tournament, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley commented on the 13th hole, which is one of the most iconic holes on the course, and indeed, in all of golf. Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie touted 13 (and 15) as requiring “momentous decisions” to go for the green in two shots. Ridley admitted that approaching those greens with mid and even short irons isn’t particularly “momentous” now. The holes seemed to take offense, gobbling up more shots than usual. No. 15 embarrassed defending champion Sergio Garcia, and No. 13 saw Reed come up short without going in the creek and Rory going long, helping the groundskeepers trim a few Azaleas.

Better than the (yawn) length discussion was hearing Ben Crenshaw provide insights on shot shapes required for certain holes at Augusta, and how contours affected shots. Later, an announcer’s comment caught my attention: when one golfer hit a hook around the corner on 13, close to the creek, it gave him a shorter approach, more green depth to work with and a flatter lie, while those playing conservatively to the right, were left with longer approach shots from more difficult sidehill lies.

That comment reminded me that fairway contours can be a strategic feature. Tom Watson once wrote that playing your tee shot to a flat lie is smart. Lee Trevino once opined that landing zones should have flat areas at varying distances, creating the need for distance control and target precision on tee shots vs. just hitting it as far as possible. Fairway contours have, in fact, influenced golf from the earliest courses in Scotland, often because not much could be done to change them.

Those nuanced fairway contours declined in post WWII American architecture. Bigger earthmoving equipment removed subtlety, and architects strove for “What you see is what you get” design. Subtle fairway contours were viewed as “invisible” (and thus “unfair”) hazards by many. New irrigation systems dampened fairways and reduced roll, and architects decided that their hazards would largely be visible and attractive sand hazards and trees.

Fortunately, fairway contouring is making a comeback as a strategic element, in part due to better grasses and an emphasis on less irrigation, allowing fairways to roll firm and fast again. Firm and fast makes recreating fairway slopes like those on Augusta National 13 a tricky proposition. As fairways approach former Stimpmeter readings for greens, their cross slopes must be softened, too. On slopes over about 10 percent, balls on the high side will roll to the bottom. Depending on fairway roll, maximum slopes as low as 5 to 6 percent are required, which isn’t as scary a sidehill lie. A solution might be adding a small ridge to keep balls from rolling down the hill.

There are many ways to use contours to affect the outcome of a tee shot, by creating:

  • Flat preferred target zones, about 20-25 yards wide and 30-40 yards long, as espoused by Trevino, with more severe slopes elsewhere.
  • Irregular surfaces throughout, giving unpredictable and different lies on every approach shot. Grading fairways at 4 to 6 percent, rather than the typical 2 to 3 percent improves shot variety (and drainage).
  • Increased fairway irregularity starting 280-300 yards off the tee. Only 1 percent of players hit this far, so it isn’t cost effective to invest in sand bunkers to rein in excessive length, while increasing fairway “wobble” is relatively inexpensive, and can/should vary from hole to hole.
  • Creating visual deception with natural or naturalistic earth forms.
  • Crowned fairways, rarely seen now, but used by Charles Blair Macdonald at the National Golf Links and Donald Ross at Mid Pines and requiring shots to land on the correct side drop off right at the fairway edge.
  • Collection slopes within a fairway, directing shots hitting these fairway areas into fairway bunkers or rough up to 30-40 yards from where the ball lands.
  • Combine a green that accepts, for example, a fade, but contour the fairway with a draw lie.
  • Speed slots, where hitting a specific narrow area propels the ball downhill and forward for extra length, while most of the fairway offers no distance advantage.

There are numerous variations on these themes, which should be inspired by the ground. Designing these types of holes with the natural contours provides endless, “let’s play again” variety, and returns some ground game to golf.

Jeffrey D. Brauer is a veteran golf course architect responsible for more than 50 new courses and more than 100 renovations. A member and past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, he is president of Jeffrey D. Brauer/GolfScapes in Arlington, Texas. Reach him at jeff@jeffreydbrauer.com.