Bringing Risk and Reward Back to the PGA Tour

A clever design tactic that creates strategic balance in modern professional golf


What are the key ingredients of a strategic golf hole?

It’s a question that elicits a diversity of responses and arguments, but one ingredient cannot be refuted: a proper strategic test presents a fundamental trade-off between risk and reward. When golfers take on risk with a shot, they should reap an appropriate reward in their scoring expectation if the shot is executed properly. Without an appropriate reward, why take on risk?

Traditionally, golf course architecture conversations focus on holes’ risk-reward proposition through the lens of angles. Many architecturally-lauded golf holes follow a similar formula: take on more risk off the tee, reap the reward of a better angle from which you can attack the hole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the PGA Tour, this design principle works better in theory than in implementation. Aided and abetted by technological advancements, modern professional golfers launch shots at such a height and with so much spin that angles make little impact on scoring outcomes on tour. Even into firm greens with severe contouring, elite modern golfers can stop their approach shots quickly, reducing the ability of the design to reward good angles.

Fortunately, one savvy architectural tactic rewards precision and shot-making off the tee without relying on the value of angles. When the design offers an opportunity for a player to shorten the length of a hole by taking on risk or by hitting a particular shot shape off the tee, skillful ball-strikers gain an advantage on the field.

Take No. 10 at Augusta National, for example.

Behind the 10th hole at Augusta National

Hole 10 sharply doglegs to the left, with trees lining the left-hand side of the fairway. The left portion of the fairway features a downslope that propels shots farther down the fairway. To find this downslope, players must curve their tee shots from right to left. Those who can’t hit this shot will not get the distance bonus.

The hole continues doglegging left until it arrives at the green. So in addition to gaining more distance, shots hit down the left side of the fairway reap the secondary reward of being closer to the hole than shots hit an identical distance to the right.

Zach Johnson, winner of the 2007 Masters, is one of the few golfers on the PGA Tour who curves the driver from right to left. In round two of the 2022 Masters, Johnson hit a 310-yard draw down the left side of the fairway, catching the fairway downslope and leaving himself 179 yards to the pin.

Courtesy of the Masters Tournament

On the same day, Collin Morikawa, a fader of the golf ball who generally outdrives Zach Johnson, hit his stock cut down the right side of the fairway. Despite outdriving Johnson by five yards, Morikawa had a longer approach into the green by 12 yards.

Courtesy of the Masters Tournament

So the 10th hole at Augusta National uniquely rewards tee shots not by offering advantageous angles into the green but instead by rewarding a player’s ability to shape the golf ball.

Let me play armchair architect for minute. Using the principles illustrated by No. 10 at Augusta National, I have a suggestion for improving the strategy of a different hole on the PGA Tour: No. 5 at the Kapalua Plantation Course, annual host of the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Hole 5 is a short par 5 featuring a center-line bunker that was installed two years ago. The second half of the hole bends significantly to the right, so tee shots that find the right side of the fairway shorten the hole.

In the final round of the 2022 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Cam Smith hit his drive 312 yards down the right side of the fairway, leaving himself 169 yards to the pin:

Courtesy of the PGA Tour

His playing partner, Jon Rahm, hit his drive 311 yards down the left side of the fairway, leaving himself 195 yards in. Despite hitting his tee shot nearly an identical distance, Rahm had 26 more yards to cover on his approach than Smith:

Courtesy of the PGA Tour

No. 5 almost offers a strategic test for the pros off the tee, but the problem is that it’s too easy for them to challenge the right portion of the fairway. Theoretically, the canyon to the right should deter them from firing driver down the right side. But in practice, that side of the hole is so wide that the pros fire tee shots right without hesitation. In fact, over 90% of tee shots end up right of the center-line bunker.

To improve this hole for PGA Tour competition, we could move the center-line bunker to the right. Increase the risk associated with seeking a shorter distance into the hole. Intimidate players. Enable the sport’s straightest drivers to separate themselves from the field by forcing inaccurate drivers to bail out to the now-wider left side of the fairway.

While the fifth hole at the Plantation Course looks nothing like No. 10 at Augusta National, both have the bones to challenge tour players strategically. 10 at Augusta is already achieving this goal; 5 at Kapalua is close!

Holes that rely on the value of angles consistently fall victim to high, 195-yard 7-irons, especially when the course is damp and soft. On the other hand, holes that allow players to seek shorter approaches through daring, accurate tee shots provide a reliable advantage to skillful ball-strikers. Plus, this type of test can withstand the misfortune of a rainy day. I’d like to see more holes on the PGA Tour employ this formula.

The high-spin, aerial nature of modern professional golf imposes a tall task on architects who strive to challenge the sport’s elite talents. But this is a solvable problem. We just might have to attack it from another angle.