Hazards on golf courses exist in two ‘dimensions’–physically on the ground, and in the player’s mind.  Of the two, the latter probably has far more effect on the play of the average golfer, but make no mistake, a variety of hazards used wisely and placed correctly, can and will influence play of all golfers.  Take for example a small simple pond or stream immediately in front of a tee.  How often would we top the ball if the hazard were not there?

The example of a pond or perhaps a deep penal cross bunker in front of a green proposes a challenge that is obvious and demands that all player’s must execute a one dimensional shot to succeed or face the consequences.  However, the objective of golf course design is to make the course difficult and interesting for the better golfer without making it too difficult and overwhelming for the average weekend player.  Therefore, the ideal hazard would be one that scares and causes indecision of the knowing, but of which the average golfer is not aware and could safely manage their round.  Imagine, for example, a hole guarded by several randomly placed land mines.  The first-time visitor would walk blindly through the hole and, thanks to the laws of chance, would probably not encounter danger one out of ten tries; but the wise and skilled would have a hard time taking one step for fear of their lives.

In golf architecture, tightly mowed grass is the nearest tool designers have to create a similar effect in the minds of golfers.  The average golfer sees acres of manicured grass and is encouraged to swing away without any preconceived sensation of fear.  To them, the obvious potential for penalty doesn’t exist.   In the hands of the clever architect, he or she can utilize short grass in several ways to increase the actual and perceived difficulty of the course.  To the better player, short grass immediately suggests that the rub of the green could significantly influence their shot unless it is perfectly executed.  What was previously an ‘easy’ up-and-down recovery shot from the surrounding rough has quickly evolved into a challenging option filled with indecision laced with the potential for a big number.

So let’s consider this interesting feature and think about how it crosses the line from player’s aid to a real hazard.  There are several forms short grass—all of which can be subtly used and result in not so subtle consequences. Consider this list created by Tom Doak in his essay Short Grass As A Golf Hazard:

“1.       The steep shaved slopes surrounding a green site—epitomized by countless courses in the U.K. and in the U.S at classic venues like Augusta, Oakmont, Pinehurst and Shinnecock and at many modern layouts we see on the PGA Tour.  With creative contour and faster greens speeds, players don’t want to be on the wrong side of the pin raising the possibility for three putts.  Good players are compelled to try and play their approach shots “below the hole” bringing slippery front and side slopes surrounding the greens more into play.  If they miss, a three putt may be inevitable, or their ball may bounce and roll far away from the green surface like we so often see at the front of the 9th hole at Augusta, or all around the plateau greens at Pinehurst.

2.       The ‘simple’ open approach to a green–a steady feature on many British links and also found more often on the newer destination courses like Pacific Dunes, Sand Hills and Friars Head.  The open approach allows the average player to run their ball in or to try and reach the green from their maximum range, but sometimes, depending on the random contour and slope of the approach, it creates indecision for the good player on whether to approach from the air or on the ground…whether to play a full approach, or consider chipping from just short.  In some cases, players are tempted into playing difficult running shots in order to get close, which they haven’t practiced and which can easily take an odd bounce.  These players would be better off taking their medicine and playing their standard shot to the back of the green and eliminate the potential for disaster.

3.       Gentle, but random contours in fairways, again as we find on many courses through the U.K. and on many of the long admired classic layouts in the U.S.  Many of these ‘random’ slopes are not so random at all and are created to intentionally gather and “collect” balls into bunkers or come to rest in unlevel lies away from the ideal landing area.  For better players looking for an advantage and the best angle to attack the green, these contours have the uncanny ability to increase the sphere of influence.  Consequently, they ask the player to risk the best line for the optimum shot.

4.       Steep angular slopes in fairways.  From the tee, the wide fairways appear to be an expansive target free for attack, yet these features can redirect a ball not played to the correct spot and carry it away by quick slopes to a less desirable location that could leave a blind approach, or even to a bunker which didn’t appear to be within reach from the tee.

5.       Wide-open fairways that tempt the better players to cut corners and skirt the edges of ‘known’ hazards to strategically improve their angle of attack.  This width creates choices and not always good ones for all players, and it enhances opportunities for the average player to maximize length.  The increased width requires the better players think and asks them to ‘place’ their tee shot for the best angle to the green and as a result, increases their interest and the challenge they face.  The expansive width may also lull the player into a false sense of security by not concentrating on placement, or fools them into not playing for a hidden advantage of position for the next shot.

6.       Banks on approaches to greens, which allow shots from some positions to roll and bounce straight along the best line onto the green, while turning shots from other positions towards trouble and limited recovery options.  At first glance the approach may ‘appear’ to be open, but only the correctly played shot to the right spot will be rewarded.  This feature asks all players to consider their options and chose the best technique that best suits their skills.”

The possibilities and potential for short grass to be a subtle, but very effective hazard is endless.  For lower budget courses, expansive fairways are probably not an option due to the cost of maintenance, but they could take advantage of introducing a few shaved slopes around putting surfaces to create interest and challenge.  For newer designs, short grass should become a much larger component of play to create as many options and choices for golfers to enjoy the true spirit of the game.

Not all hazards are meant to be obvious–telling players where to go and where not to go.  The subtle hazards are typically those that must be experienced through repeat play and self-discovery.  These hazards are also often the most interesting and effective in influencing play amongst all golfers and as a result, players find them and their round of golf engaging and more memorable.

Scott A. Witter, Golf Course Architect