Fairway Angles

Edited Version for THE CUT. Oct 2007

The second hole at Cypress Point Golf Club in California is a long hole. From the elevated tee, the green is barely visible far off to the left. Straight in front, there is a forced carry of some 180 yards to reach the fairway at the first landing area which is raised maybe 3m from the ground around it, but about level with the tee. What is immediately apparent is that the fairway runs at a diagonal from right to left and away from the line of play. With nothing but rough in between, the challenge from the tee is trying to gauge where at on the fairway to aim? The further left, the longer the carry. The only visual guide to judging the distance is a large bunker on the far side of the fairway. Standing on the tee, thoughts whizzed through my mind. ‘Can I make the carry to the fairway?’ ‘If I aim a little further left, say at the bunker, can I get to the green in two shots?’ ‘Trust your swing.’ ‘Don’t bite off more than you can chew’. ‘Shall I just lay up to the right of the bunker?’ ‘Can you believe you are playing at Cypress Point!’ The diagonal line of the fairway and the hazard in front of it, had started a landslide of thoughts (many less than helpful I might add), that a fairway running directly away from the tee never does. It was obvious that here was a design strategy that has great merit.

Cypress Point Golf Club is not the only course to have the diagonal fairway. Royal Melbourne. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, and Titirangi Golf Club (15th hole) all have at least one, and in the last 30 years lots more have been built on modern courses. Just watch the European or US PGA tours and you will see the professionals having to hit across water to get to the fairway. But most fairways are less of a diagonal, and more of a ‘sweep’ from left to right or right to left. E.g  the 18th hole at Pebble Beach- which I think is one of the great finishing holes in golf, requires less of a carry over the Pacific Ocean, and more of a shot that follows the curving nature of the fairway.

Fairways that run on a diagonal offer a unique challenge, but designing them requires some planning. The distance from the tee to the fairway is one consideration, as is the elevation of the two points. But the prevailing wind direction, and the angle of the sun must also be taken into account. All the hens in NZ could not produce enough eggs to throw at the architect who, say, asked golfers to hit the ball 200m over water into the Wellington southerly while looking into the setting sun on the final hole.

Hundreds of books, and millions of words have been written on the various types of design available to golf course architects. Terms such as ‘heroic’, ‘penal’ and ‘strategic’, lace these texts… and send all but the most ardent design fanatic to sleep. But for the record, diagonal fairways come from the smaller and less practised ‘heroic’ school of design. And while it is true that holes that employ this design often require larger tracts of land, existing courses can often find the space to create at least one diagonal fairway somewhere. Even tree-lined courses with parallel holes can usually find the space to re-orientate a fairway to a more interesting position.

For those readers of this article in charge of existing courses, and lamenting the lack of ‘heroic’ holes on your course, you may have the chance to offer considerably more interest to your members by doing little more than changing the mowing lines. Fairways, much like the tails of comets, spring from the greens, but can be moved! A quick litmus test to know if you need to consider changing your mowing lines could be if, when you stand on the tee, you think that Tiger Woods could land his jet on it, then you are in possession of runways and not fairways. To look more like a golf course and less like an aerodrome, mow the fairways with soft sweeping lines and twist the end of the fairway closest to the tee off to the side – preferably the side where the forward tees are. Now you have created some interest.

I believe it to be true that fairways running at a diagonal to the line of play, and that require a heroic carry, are partly of greater interest because they are rarely employed. Their scarcity has not allowed golfers to breed familiarity to the challenge. But they are of greater interest because, even for members of courses lucky enough to have such holes, the varying weather conditions and tee positions make the hole interesting and exciting every time it is played. I learnt some lessons that day at Cypress Point. Not only was the diagonal fairway a great design strategy, but a small pull on a bold line put me in golfing jail. But while I may have bitten off more than I could chew, I am still relishing the taste of the experience. Now I just want to have another chance to redeem myself….

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The Evolution of the Old Course St Andrews
The Evolution of the Old Course
by Scott Macpherson

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Golf's Royal Clubs Golf's Royal Clubs
by Scott Macpherson

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