Part 3: Hazards

The third installment in our Golf Course Architecture 101 series


“Without hazards golf would be but a dull sport, with the life and soul gone out of it.” – Robert Hunter

Hazards come in many shapes, sizes and forms, providing golfers with thrills and lasting memories. They are a tool at an architect’s disposal, which when used properly infuse strategy and interest into their design. The use of hazards is one of the most important aspects of design. When done well, they create a course that golfers will want to play over and over. When poorly executed, hazards can create a golf course that makes players want to quit the game.

The purpose of hazards

“The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second; yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies, or fails under the test.” – George Thomas

Hazards can be used in many different ways but they should always have a purpose. Architects use hazards to enhance a hole’s strategy, add a layer of deception and provide thrills. Let’s take a look at some examples of each.

Strategy – Riviera C.C. – 7th

The diagonal bunker wrecks havoc on tee shots - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

The approach to the par-4 7th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

While many focus on the short par-4 10th at Riviera as the king of strategy, I feel the seventh offers far more at one of the best bunkered courses in the world. Here George Thomas uses a magnificent fairway bunker to put great players in a pickle while leaving beginners and mid-handicappers relatively unobstructed. Off the tee, a player is forced to decide how aggressively they want to play.

The different options off the tee at the great par-4 7th at Riviera

Option A: Safe – Laying back with an iron to the wide part of the fairway is the safest play but it leaves a challenging mid-iron approach shot to the tiny and heavily sloped green.

Option B: Medium risk – Threading a hybrid or fairway metal into the narrowing fairway can yield a short-iron or wedge approach but every additional yard that a player attempts to gain is met with a tighter landing zone.

Option C: Risky business – Pull the big dog and attempt to either fly the bunker (about 320 yards) or thread it into the narrowest part of the fairway. While this is by far the riskiest play, the reward is high: a short wedge shot from a perfect angle.

Deception – Riviera C.C. – 10th

From the tee it looks like the right side is the proper line - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

The 10th at Riviera C.C. is talked about regularly for its strategy, but it is also admirable for how its bunkering creates deception for the first-time player. The bunker short-right makes players think that the proper line of play is down the right side, which is hardly true.

Thrills – Cypress Point Club – 16th

When Alister Mackenzie drew up the plans for the great par three, he worried that the hole would be chastised for being far too penal. When the hole opened it was revered for its beauty and the thrill it provided players who tried to pull off  the heroic carry over the Pacific Ocean.

The implementation of hazards

“Hazards should be placed with an object in mind, and not one should be made which has not some influence of the line of play.” – Alister Mackenzie

As Mackenzie said, the most important aspect of a hazard is its placement, and often less is more. When deploying hazards an architect must weigh how it will affect play and what a player’s reaction to it will be. A bunker on the inside of a dogleg will make most players miss to the opposite side, leaving a longer approach in. A bunker short of the green will make a player club up and miss long. A well-used hazard will create a dilemma for players: Take on the risk and reap a significant advantage or take the safer route which yields a more difficult next shot.

Another thing that an architect ought to keep in mind with hazards is providing the beginner a safe route to avoid them. As we saw in the last section, forced carries such as the 16th at Cypress or the 17th at TPC Sawgrass can provide great thrills for golfers but should be exercised in moderation, as a course filled with forced carries will be a painful and miserable experience for the average player. As we learned in Part II, great architects are able to suit their manmade hazards and features to the natural terrain, making it appear as if they have been there forever.

In the previous section we highlighted some spectacular uses of hazards, let’s now look at one that leaves a lot to be desired.

RTJ Trail – Capitol Hill – Senator Course – 1st Hole – 427 yards

Where to start with this hole…The bunkers are plentiful and the vast majority are unnecessary. The play for the skilled player is to cut the corner and it makes sense to protect the dogleg with bunkers, but they do a very poor job of that. The first three bunkers from the tee are only in play for the average and beginning golfer, who shouldn’t be obstructed. A larger bunker along the right side spanning the distance of the two bunkers and the removal of all the bunkers on the left side that wipe away any strategic interest that the hole could have. When we get to the green we see two bunkers that for the most part only obstruct the average to beginning golfer, most of whom miss short when they miss. For the expert player who typically miss right and left these bunkers cause little to no concern. To make matters worse, all these bunkers have nearly an identical look and shape to them and have little to no artistic nature to them. They stick out like sore thumbs at a course which is trying to be “a Scottish-Links style” golf course on a flat, mud-based site in Alabama.

Types of Hazards

There are many different types of hazards, some of which are more subtle than others. It’s very important for an architect to use a variety of hazards to avoid a course becoming redundant and boring.

Water hazards – The most recognizable and intimidating hazard is the water hazard. A well-executed water hazard provides an unmatched thrill factor but with their great potential also carries great risk as a poorly used water hazard can ruin a golf hole. Water hazards can be in the form of tiny meandering streams or a great ocean, typically the best ones are natural to their setting.

Bunkers – No hazard is used more frequently than bunkers, and they come in many different forms (a topic for later discussion). Bunkers can be used to create strategy on every shot around a golf course. The most important aspect in using them is exercising restraint as bunkers cost a great deal of money to build and maintain. Around the green it’s important for an architect to understand that the better player often prefers a bunker to rough while a beginner and mid-handicapper typically struggle greatly from the sand.

Natural landforms – Certain golf courses are blessed with natural landforms which architects can use as hazards. They come in the form of ravines, swales, canyons, quarries, etc. These hazards can provide strategic interest when utilized well as part of the natural landscape.

Grass bunkers – A form of hazard that is extremely underutilized is the grass bunker, which offers many benefits to an architect. They provide a great challenge to the expert player while being much more playable for the beginner. Another added benefit is that grass bunkers are much cheaper to maintain and build when compared to sand bunkers.

Contours – The most subtle tool an architect can use is contouring to create hazard. These can be both natural and man-made and can be used from the tee to the green. Some examples include uneven lies in the fairway, false fronts on the green and runoff areas around the green. These contours typically are a great way to blend challenge with playability. To accentuate contours, a trend in today’s architecture is the use of tightly-mown areas around the greens. These areas create the option of putting or using the ground game, which helps the beginning player tremendously.

Trees – When used sparingly, single or clustered trees can serve as a terrific strategic hazard on a hole. However, the use of tight tree-lined fairways hole after hole should never be considered a good hazard. For the most part, trees provide minimal difficulty for the expert player and a lot of difficulty for the average to below average player. Great players for the most part drive it straight, while the average and beginning golfer hits it crooked and will spend their days in the trees.

Long grasses – Much like trees, long grasses can be used as a hazard but should be used with restraint. A good deal of thought needs to be put into how they are going to be maintained. Often times, these areas are overwatered and become so thick that it’s nearly impossible to play from them or find the ball. This slows down play and the enjoyment of a round. Nobody enjoys looking for their ball.