Fairway width

FineGolf is pleased to host a golf course design article by Paul Gray who notes:

” For me, ever since I first played the game at Hayling as a child, it’s always been about the golf courses themselves. I spent a lot of time as a child in the late 80’s and early 90’s playing in junior events at much hyped new courses. I just didn’t ‘get it.’ I remember thinking, even as a thirteen year old, that I’d probably give the game up if that was where it was heading. Anyway, years later, after barely picking up a club in my twenties, I rediscovered my love for the game, discovered golfclubatlas.com and that the worm was at least just beginning to turn”.

The Importance of fairway width in Fine ‘Running-Golf’


Why is fairway width so important? Doesn’t width just mean a course is easy? Well, not quite. Imagine halving the width of a tennis court. Yes, it would make it far harder for the novice to keep the ball in play but it would also kill the tactics of the game which are made by the angles of play. Golf is similar.


Paul Gray

When width is used correctly, the player can make choices between dangerous, less dangerous and out and out safe, with rewards or punishments comparable with the amount of risk taken. When we remove these options by narrowing fairways we leave just two possibilities: hit or miss.

In an age when some golf clubs have, quite wrongly, become obsessed with difficulty, (with some, for example, choosing to believe that being called a ‘championship’ course will hoodwink people and help their marketing) many fairways have become narrower. Consequently, remembering the tennis court example, they have reduced the game to one that resembles simply hitting balls at a driving range, which certainly doesn’t involve the

creativity which is so central to the playing of fine running-golf.

Anyone whose primary enjoyment comes from slogging the ball as far as possible along soft receptive ‘target-golf’ courses, need read no further as for them the narrowness of fairways is a necessary aspect of their golf challenge.

But, it should be emphasised, history is not with them as the majority of major courses built in GB&I since the new millennium are ‘running-golf’ courses relying on the need for strategy to challenge both experts and the high handicapper. The older courses are also starting to recognise they need to return to firm, true, all-year-round greens and fast-running fairways.

These aspects hark back to the Golden Era of golf course design from around 1900 to late 1930s and are vital if they wish to position themselves towards the finest end of the market.

It was the likes of Dr. Alister Mackenzie, Harry Colt, Tom Simpson, Herbert Fowler and Donald Ross, to name but a few, who for the first time were authentic designers and not professional golfers, who created the ‘Strategic School’. These famous names roll off the tongues of golf course aficionados the world over and all of these figures have gone down in history as indisputable geniuses of their art.

These architects were exponents of a type of course-design which took the view that the course should not simply ask the best players to hit or miss soft lush greens and fairways but ask them to consider how they intended to manoeuvre and stop their ball on those firm, bouncy greens and select the best fairway position for their next shot.

For example, if bunkers are placed front left of the putting surface and the flag is also on the left, the player might wish to approach the green from the right side of the fairway to avoid taking on those bunkers. Indeed if the green is firm, even a well struck shot with back-spin flown over the bunker may not stop sufficiently quickly to stay on the green or at least near the flag.

In addition, the architect then might well decide to place a bunker on the right hand side of the fairway in order for the best position in the fairway to come with an added risk.

Before 1900, hazards on inland courses were built to catch the bad shot, the hazards of the Golden Era designers caught the ‘not quite perfect’ shot of the expert, and left the high handicapper an easier, if longer, route to avoid the hazards.

All of this philosophy requires width as any narrowed fairway will simply mean the only sensible place to aim is straight down the middle, with strategy removed in favour of one-dimensional restriction.

The creative thought processes induced by strategic design are exactly what the great designers wanted to give us golfers to mull over. In essence, rather than simply firing straight at a target as if practicing archery, the golfer is asked to continually think about position, making the course play like one giant chessboard.

But of course such strategic design works best only if the course is firm and running.

Despite the fact that the courses designed during The Golden Age remain the most revered, somewhere along the way the message, the knowledge if you like, got lost. Greens committees, almost always made up of club golfers with little to no formal training in golf course architecture or agronomy, hit upon the idea that ‘wide’ equalled ‘easy’ and ‘easy’ equalled ‘bad’.

Trees went up and fairway perimeters moved inwards. Bunkers were left stranded in the rough and for ease of ride-on equipment maintenance, were surrounded by a collar of semi-rough that holds up the ball from running into the bunker. Then more trees went up because, having seen their predecessors start the process, new committee members decided they also needed to leave their own mark on the course. As the trees grew, the fairways not only became narrower and narrower but also received less and less light, meaning the fine turf suffered as a consequence. So, during the 1980/90s when clubs were chasing the fashion for ‘target-golf’ with over-watered, lush green, striped fairways and the turf changing from fine fescue/bent turf to weed grass annual meadow grass (Poa annua), course design inevitably returned to penal, difficult set-ups to give the challenge.

And as if this whole process wasn’t bad enough, the notion arose that golf becomes easier when fairways become wider, but this idea was sadly mistaken, never mind the fact that golf courses exist to provide enjoyment rather than pain! Just ask any professional golfer if he or she finds it harder to score well on lush narrow fairways where anything slightly off target plugs and stops or is held up by marginal rough or whether in fact a sterner test can be presented by creating firm, tight, fast-running fairways where the miss-struck shot just keeps on running away from the target line. The unequivocal answer will be that it is on the firm fast-running fairways where greater trouble lies.

But such has been the extent of golf clubs panicking at the onslaught of an uncontrolled ball and ever-improving equipment technology, and such has been the lack of design education, that time and time again we have seen fairways shrink.

Nonetheless, the seeds of change are all around us. Despite it being readily available, it is unlikely that the average club committee member is going to suddenly start reading the written work of the old masters. But it is reassuring to see how the likes of Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Mark Parsinen (of Kingsbarns/Castle Stuart) and many others have become the most sought after names in architecture with their uncompromising appreciation of timelessly sound principles which place fairway width at the heart of any design.

These trends tend to take time to filter down from the highest echelons of the game to the average local golf club. The 2014 US Open at Pinehurst was heralded in architectural circles as the moment that ‘proper golf’ was thrust back into the mainstream. Until then, firm and fast conditions on fine grass were associated solely with links golf and many considered it simply a quirk from the past. The US Open in 2015 is being played on another ‘running-golf’ course with fescue grass at Chambers Bay, Washington State.

It may still take a further ten years to see real change at the average club. It may even take twenty. Nonetheless, the more that people see top end clubs restoring their courses, the more they will want to follow suit. It seems at present as if half of the finest clubs in Surrey are falling over themselves to cut back the trees, widen the fairways, remove the rough which once consumed golf balls and generally restore strategy to the course as a precursor to a return to firm fescue/bent turf. Just for now, it may be limited to the finest of the fine.

Tomorrow, however, the next echelon of courses may start learning from the principles of width and firmness typified in the Golden Era.



Reader Comments

On June 3rd, 2015 Melvyn Hunter Morrow said:

Again there seems some debate about the width of a course – should we narrow or should it remain open and wide. –

First look to the design. If it is believed it needs to be narrowed and that’s the majority verdict then my suggestion is redesign the course because there is a terminal fault in your design.

Wide fairways are the best option if you wish to have the full spectrum of players and golfers using your course and the subtleties that brings must be on the back of a good design. That is to say ‘scratch’ golfers will not worry re the width of the course as their focus is their game, while the ‘duffers’, learners need the full width and more for their game. To segregate them is destructive and expensive and in truth not necessary, as sooner or later duffers may develop down the ‘handicap’ system.

Wide course DO require subtle design, use of contours, hidden traps and hazards, but do we have the mental capacity to embrace that type of game anymore or are we just resolved to play easy courses that look more difficult by narrowing – is it a useful optical illusion once you as a player start to produce straight shots – does it make you look good?

Golf is about playing the course, addressing the issues facing you and nothing else. That is approached by different players/golfers in many different ways, more so the less skilled.

The low handicap player seems to seek easier and easier options for their drive – is that to keep the handicap or just prove how good we think we are – when in fact its the weak course and modern technology that does most of the work for us.

Keep wide courses and discourage narrow, as vanity in a golfer is not a pretty sight – certainly not on a golf course where many players insist on using all the latest aids, clubs and technologies”.

Re-embrace the game of golf and forget the self glory of chasing ones scores. As that will follow in time but with a greater degree of satisfaction as achieved through your own mind and body while safely nurturing the game.

Lets not forget that width is what made The Old Course St Andrews the course it was and is still – this dates back to the 1860-70 when the course nearly doubled in size under the Keeper of The Green Old Tom Morris.

Narrow defines the inner imagination of a Designer as well as the closed mind of the scratch player and does little for the game of golf.

Leave us a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

FREE, every 2 months
The FineGolf Newsletter

It will keep you up to date with what new course reviews and articles have been published