The Shrinking Fairway


Dunlop White III

The classic architects (between the World Wars) employed ultra wide fairways often in excess of 70 yards to offer numerous avenues en route to each hole. Such ‘spaciousness provided unrivaled variety’. A golfer was presented with many options to arrive at the hole. Depending upon factors, such as one’s playing ability, wind direction, and hole location, there were preferred lines of play; however, these lines may differ between golfers or differ for golfers on different days. These ‘wide, open fairways provided golfers with strategic choices and options’. There was room to play and decisions to be made on every shot. Strategy was both the essential ingredient and the common denominator.

Yet, today, very few Classic Age golf courses are left with their original fairway widths intact. According to Bruce Hepner, Vice President of Tom Doaks’ Renaissance Golf Design in Traverse City, Michigan, ‘nothing has negated strategy more than substantial loss of fairway acreage’. Hepner and Doak have consulted with numerous clubs interested in ‘restoring’ the original strategic character of their respective Classic Age courses. They find the same problematic issues at each: narrowed fairways, shrunken greens and strategically improper trees. Thus, many old designs have been transformed over time into ‘bow and arrow courses – where a good shot is restricted to the center of the fairway’. Today, the center of the fairway is not one of many alternative routes to the hole. Unfortunately, it is the only route. It is a forced consideration! No options or choices are available. The golfer must hit it straight…. a precise distance…. using a required club. This transformation has destroyed the character of many classic designs. With typical fairways between 30 and 35 yards today, successful golfers must become target golfers.

Why has this transgression occurred? According to Brad Klein (golf historian, architect consultant, author and editor of Golfweek) in the 1950’s, fairway-grooming came with an expensive per-acre price tag. In order to lower maintenance budgets, clubs sacrificed total fairway acreage. Then in the 1960’s, complete irrigation systems were becoming widespread. These systems were single-row, down the center of the fairway. Fairway widths narrowed even more to the outer extent of the water’s throw. The problem was that these irrigation systems were installed without regard to design intent. Then in the 1970’s, aesthetics became the growing rage. Consequently, well-intentioned greens committees throughout the country began beautification projects. Chief among these were the wholesale planting of trees along these even smaller landing areas. Because these trees are ever-growing, and because turfgrass and trees simply don’t mix, fairways today are smaller than ever. Furthermore, ‘the average golf course loses several square feet of fairway area per year just through normal mowing patterns’, according to Hepner. ‘That’s difficult to notice at the time, but over 70 years or so, it can amount to acres’. Also, today many hybrid grasses, such as Tifway and Tifsport, are replacing older fairway grasses, such as common Bermuda. These grasses are more expensive and without an eye toward design intent, fairway widths will continue to diminish when it is time to sprig. Klein states, the problem is that all too many people presently accept today’s fairway widths to be the norm.

With the United States Open, in 1951, narrow fairways became popular.. It was championed by architect, Robert Trent Jones, who was hired to re-design Oakland Hills for this tournament. Jones narrowed Ross’ fairways dramatically to demand more precise driving from the worlds best players. Clubs nationwide began narrowing fairways in emulation of Oakland Hills. According to Klein, perceptions have been fined tuned by the USGA’s work with Open venues.

The Modern Age architects believe that par needs to be defended from the tee, hence narrow fairways and landing areas. On the other hand, Classic Age architects attempted to create choices and thought-provoking scenarios from the tee. The challenge was primarily offered at the greens and the approaches thereto. The often severe angles, contours and slopes of classic greens prompted golfers to strategically play from different lateral positions to get the ball close to or to a particular side of a pin. Thus, the need for wide fairways.

With wider fairways, the classic architect utilized bunkers in a much different fashion as well. The classic architect often constructed obstacles, such as bunkers, in the center of their wide fairways. (See; the original design of Hole 11 at Augusta National or the restored Hole 7 at Holston Hills) Consequently, golfers faced the strategical choice of playing to the right side, the left side, or even over these centrally located obstacles. The golf hole simply had much more lateral movement. Due to the evolution of narrow fairways, many of these centrally located bunkers have been covered-up, abandoned and rebuilt on either side or both sides of the fairway. Thus, straight shots are too often your only alternative. Today, the golf hole consequently moves much more vertically from tee to green.

Old aerial photographs often reveal that many classic designs contained merging fairways as well. That is certainly the case with my home course, Old Town Club, which was designed by Perry Maxwell. Consider the possible angles of approach from a merging fairway essentially one hundred and fifty (150) yards wide. With a much greater concern toward issues of liability, high rough and tree plantings have been implemented through the years as buffers to separate holes. As a result, both fairways inevitably were reduced in size. Therefore, liability concerns have also played an integral part in the evolving shrinking fairway dilemma.

Earthmoving equipment and maintenance and construction technology have also contributed toward narrower fairways. The classic architect utilized the natural contours of the land in designing a course. They did not have the earthmoving equipment necessary to level steep inclines or fill-in ravines. The golf course was designed over the natural elements of the terrain. Consequently, many landing areas maintained severe slopes whereby the ball could run laterally hundreds of feet. The absence of irrigation promoted firm conditions which essentially magnified these severe slopes. Ultra-wide fairways were therefore necessary. Unfortunately, the modern architect utilizes his ability to level such awkward slopes with earthmoving equipment. Coupled with full-scale irrigation, the ball tends to roll very little in a lateral fashion on a typical modern design. Hence the philosophy that ultra wide fairways are not needed.

Geoff Shackelford, noted author, editor, and design consultant, reiterates that classic architects built holes ‘where there was no right way or clear way to play them’. If there was a ‘right way’, certainly there was never an agreement of opinion. Many restorationists claim that there are two necessary ingredients to recapture original designs, undulating green complexes and extreme fairway widths, the latter of which is most essential. Wide fairways create ‘mystery, variety, strategy, options, and choices and further encourage thought, decision-making, shoemaking, and recovery play’. These elements have all but diminished today with much narrower fairway widths. Tee shots are forced to the center, and any lateral alternatives are too penal for its reward. The only right way to play the hole is straight. How uninteresting and monotonous, claims Skackelford.

Hepner states, ‘Many golfers believe that widening a course will make it easier. This may be true for high handicappers, but wide angles can make the course more difficult for better players. Less skilled players are afforded room to enjoy their round and better golfers are provided strategic options that induce thought and, in turn, make for a more sporting game. The weak players may shoot 98 instead of 103. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

Tim Liddy, an architect, claims that because of today’s equipment and the souped-up golf ball, restoration can still be achieved by adding length to a classic design. Classic architects were not pushovers, according to Liddy. Additional length, where appropriate, would compliment the classical elements (i.e.: wide fairways, firm surfaces). However, the classical elements (i.e.: wide fairways, firm surfaces) should never be compromised due to your lack of length. Thus, length is a variable which can help the classic design, while width is a constant which is necessary to the classic design.

Doak claims that super-wide fairways are not simply the product of the ‘restoration business’, but more importantly, they are presently being incorporated into today’s new designs. Presently, we are seeing ‘a resurgence in Golden Age architecture’. Doak’s new designs, Lost Dunes and High Pointe in Michigan, are ‘known for their 80+ yard wide fairways’. Likewise, Coore and Crenshaw use ultra wide fairways in their new designs. (See: Talking Stick and Kapalua)

In conclusion, we all know and understand the importance of preserving and reviving ultra-wide fairways, especially to enhance strategy as the occasional hole may demand, but it is like most every other issue discussed, how can we reverse today’s public perception that narrow fairways are always a desirable norm?

The End