What makes a golf course “fair”?

When the flag is on the front, lowest tier of the green at No. 14 at the Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome, the hole is borderline unfair.

When the flag is on the front, lowest tier of the green at No. 14 at the Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome, the hole is borderline unfair.

Yesterday, a fellow Golf Kentucky Links devotee posed a couple of interesting questions to me concerning a few of my recent course review write-ups.  He noticed that I had commented that both Old Silo and Heritage Hill were very fair golf courses.

To his credit, Jason called me on my borderline overuse of the term “fair” and politely pressed me on what I meant by describing any golf course as fair.

To me, fairness is an important concept in designing, maintaining, and playing a golf course. Fairness not about narrowing the difficulty gap between holes, necessarily.

Instead, fairness is about the difficulty of the challenge of the shot.  How good is the reward if I execute it my plan? And, simultaneously, how bad is the penalty if I don’t execute what I’m intending to do?

I believe difficult does not necessarily mean unfair.  All of a golf courses’ holes shouldn’t be the same, in routing, layout, length, or difficulty.  That would be incredibly boring and, I think, a very poor golf experience.

I have no problem with particular holes being very difficult, or even strings of difficult stretches of holes. I think they can memorable. If you are aware of them ahead of time, I think that they might get in your head is a great part of the golf mental game.

This sort of instant anguish ought to be reserved for the results of terrible shots or terrible ideas.

This sort of instant anguish ought to be reserved for the results of terrible shots or terrible ideas.

However, I don’t need to be beat over the head repeatedly on the golf course, either. Difficult for difficulty’s sake isn’t fun to me. I hold it in the same low regard as length for length’s sake. It’s lazy, it lacks creativity, and it offends my Protestant sense of fairness.

For example, playing Cog Hill’s Dubsdread in Chicago was one of the least enjoyable rounds of golf I’ve ever played because it felt more like a four-hour slog rather than a game that I had any chance of competing in.

As I was struggling to articulate just exactly what I meant by a “fair” golf course, I turned to the great Google machine for assistance.  Very quickly, I stumbled across an online opinion piece that encapsulated my sentiment pretty perfectly, and much more succinctly than I could scribble.

I prefer to judge a shot, or a hole, on whether or not it offers reasonable options to devise and execute strategy. If it does, everything else that may happen when playing that hole is “fair game.” Period. Tripp Davis of Tripp Davis & Associates Golf Architecture, in Is a Course Fair or Reasonable?

Mr. Davis’ quote really frames the issue of fairness to me on the golf course.  I think it takes some intelligent, but incredibly simple, design values for a golf course to feel fair to me.

At 264 yards, with 8 bunkers guarding the approach and the green, the Gold Course's par 4 6th hole is the ultimate risk/reward hole.

At 264 yards, with 8 bunkers guarding the approach and the green, the Gold Course’s par 4 6th hole is the ultimate risk/reward hole.

Anecdotally, I love short par 4’s, especially if they are borderline driveable. If a short par 4 has an impossibly well guarded green or lacks an accessible approach that penalizes a marginally errant approach shot, okay. It brings the risk/reward decision to the forefront of the golfer’s mind.

If I attempt to drive the green and miss, either with a well struck ball or otherwise, I would expect to be penalized and struggle to score par on the hole, be that a product of a hazard, bunkers, slope of the green, or some other design feature.

However, if I pull the shot off, I expect to be disappointed with anything less than birdie.  Thus, in this example, there is an inherent fairness or equity in expected result.

But, if on this same hypothetical hole, there really isn’t place to lay-up that gives the golfer a reasonable opportunity to par the hole, then I think that tips the fairness calculus towards the hole being unfair.

Also, if you stuck that same trouble-laden green at the end of an uphill dogleg par 4 that plays blind and really long, what has the architect accomplished other than satisfy his inner sadist?

I think a good, fair golf course gives a player an opportunity to score well if he or she executes his shots correctly.  I am of the belief there ought to be some holes that are obvious birdie opportunities, and other holes upon which par is an excellent, if unlikely, score.

Per his book, Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, Pete Dye openly designs golf courses to screw with golfers’ heads.  I think that’s fine, and even admirable, on several levels. There’s a time and place for everything, and I enjoy a really hard golf course now and then. But I don’t want that experience, that feeling of having no margin for error, every time out or on every single shot.

Of course, I realize this is MY personal preference.  Because I am an authority on absolutely nothing, but willing to opine on damn near everything, please, Dear Readers, please keep this subjective definition of “fairness” in mind as you read course reviews on this blog in the future.

On the other hand, if I was a better golfer, perhaps I’d have a completely different opinion of what constitutes a fair golf course or how important it is to the golfer’s experience.

As always, Dear Readers, I will be interested to learn your thoughts on golf course “fairness.”

4 thoughts on “What makes a golf course “fair”?

  1. David

    Great post! The concept of fair or fairness is completely relative. It is perceived by the reader / golfer and this rightly or wrongly is their reality. I think that your posts about the courses in Kentucky are objective and provide a unique few of golf. That is one of the reasons I am a regular reader.

    Fairness of a golf hole is very simple for me. If I hit a perfect shot and am penalized by a tree in the middle of the fairway or the green is not accessible from 100 yards or the blind shot where hazards coat the landing area….these holes are unfair. Difficult I can handle, but unfair…is well unfair.

    On my home course, the 20 year old trees are starting to over grow. This does add a level of difficulty and I can live with that. However on the 15 hole, par 5, 525 yards. There is huge tree in the middle of the fair way sitting at about 100 yards. This tree is about 70 feet high, has two trunks ( I guess it is two trees) and it covers the entire fairway. There is no approach shot unless you to over or under the tree! From 150 yards from the tree and 250 yards from the green, this tree makes your second shot unfair!

    As you can see I too feel strongly about fairness of the course. You are doing a great job. I look forward to your next review!


    • Thanks Jim, you’re always too kind.

      Sounds like you need a good wind or lightning storm in your area to clean you’re home course up! We had so much ice and snow, and such a long winter (what I imagine you equate to “spring”), that a lot of courses in our area have had a lot of trees pruned naturally, which is good.

      Unfortunately, we are sort of the northern outpost for using Bermuda grass fairways, and all those courses are suffering as a result of the harsh winter. The Bermuda grass was killed off entirely in a lot of low spots, and has been slow to come back in general.


      • Dave

        We did have a huge storm about 2 weeks ago. Worked on other areas, but not number 15. We also had some winter kill, but the excessive rain is our challenge! Well hit them long and putt them true this weekend!


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