What Makes a Golf Course Fair?

Let’s Be Fair

Ask a golfer to describe a course, and you’re very likely to hear the word “fair” come up.  Or perhaps you’ll hear “unfair.”  Either way, the concept of fairness seems critical a golfer’s enjoyment of a course.  And why shouldn’t it?  Fairness seems like a very reasonable request.

The question that I’m writing about today is, “What is fair?”  Are there any universal principles of fairness in golf or is it all subjective?

I’m writing this with a lot of questions and no concrete answers.  Please feel free to answer my questions, pose your own, or just throw in your two cents in the comments below.

“It’s Right There In Front of You”

Let’s start our discussion of fairness with the visual: what you can see, what’s hidden, what’s obvious, what’s distorted.

We know that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tricks that golf course architects can use to confuse our eyes.  They run the gamut from hiding hazards completely to tinkering with scale (making distant bunkers large and near ones small, for example).  Designers can also distract us by putting something eye-catching to the left so we ignore the peril on the right.

I think that the essence of the “visual fairness” question comes down to how much advantage a first time player cedes to the one who has played the course before.  If there are things that an astute player can’t know without having played the hole previously, this tilts toward unfairness, in my opinion.  What do you think?

Blind Shots

Blind shots are so divisive that I thought they deserved their own section.  I’ve already tipped my hand with my comments above – I don’t understand the charm of blind shots nor do I find them particularly fair.

My thoughts did change somewhat after reading Tom Doak’s Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture.  In it he describes designing holes that had blind approaches, but the blindness could be avoided with the right play from the tee.  This struck me as reasonable.

What’s your opinion of blind shots?  Are they inherently unfair?  If you like them, why?

Course Set Up

Another element that affects a course’s fairness is the set up.  Does a course need to have an equal number of pins on the front and back, left and right, to be fair?

Is it OK for the tee markers to “aim” somewhere other than the middle of the fairway?

Can the course set up make a course fair one day and unfair the next?


I think a lot of players walk off tough courses feeling like they were unfair, but I think difficulty and fairness are two different things.

Imagine a hole with a fairway that’s 15 yards wide, straight and flat, without any bunkers, and flanked by rough five inches deep.  That hole will be tough, but it’s the same for everyone and there are no tricks.

I think a tough course can be fair or unfair just like an easy course, but they’re not necessarily related.  Agree or disagree?

What’s a Good Shot?

High on the list of things that make golfers scream, “No fair!” is when a good shot gets a poor result.  Before we get into what a good shot deserves, we ought to take a second to consider what a good shot is.

I believe most players think it’s a good shot if it’s hit solidly and goes where they think they were aiming.  You can often exclude the first part since many golfers can’t tell the difference between flush and fat, but I digress.

To me, a good shot requires more than that.  I think that for a shot to be good, it requires some strategic competence and realism about your ability.  If you fire directly at a pin that’s two yards from a hazard, ending up in the hazard isn’t unfair.  If you try to carry a ball over 200 yards of water with a 9 iron, you don’t deserve a good result even if you hit the shot of your life.

What do you think?  What defines a “good shot”?

What Does a Good Shot Deserve?

Regardless of how you define a good shot, the next question is what are you entitled to for hitting one?  If your ball lands in the fairway, should it stay there?  And if you’re on the fairway, should you be guaranteed a clear look at the green from a flat, even lie?  If your ball lands on the green, should your next shot be a putt?

There are two things in Tom Doak’s aforementioned Little Red Book that stick out to me when thinking about these questions.  The first is a passage where he refers to the boundaries on the course as “arbitrary.”  He says, “Every hazard has an edge, and every mowing line changes the difficulty of the next shot.”

The other passage recounts a story about Pete Dye talking to some PGA Tour players at TPC Sawgrass during The Players Championship.  In essence, the pros complained that their two shots landed within a foot of each other but one got a good bounce, the other a bad bounce.  They felt this was unfair.  Mr. Dye countered that if you’re playing for a good bounce, you can’t complain about a bad one.  This seems right to me.

My opinion is that a good shot should give you the best chance for a good result, but not guarantee of anything.  What are your thoughts?


This final topic may render all the others moot.  Golf is a game played in the elements.  No course is exactly the same as it was the day before.  Does this make golf inherently unfair?

There’s no doubt that we can all recount hitting a perfect shot straight at the pin only to watch a gust of wind direct it to a bunker or pond.  And though not as memorable, we’ve all had gusts of wind push weak shots that extra few feet that we need.

If the weather can’t be controlled, it has to be accepted for what it is.  Should we have the same feelings towards the course? 

Thank You

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for joining me in this thought exercise.  I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope it spurred you to think about some new questions.  Most of all I hope you’ll share your thoughts on golf and fairness in the comments section below.  Thanks.

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Matt Saternus

Co-Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is a golf instructor, club fitter, and writer living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Matt's work has been published in Mulligan Magazine, Chicagoland Golf, South Florida Golf, and other golf media outlets. He's also been a featured speaker in the Online Golf Summit and is a member of Ultimate Golf Advantage's Faculty of Experts.

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  1. Brian Weaver

    The largest factor in fairness is hidden hazards. Golf is hard enough without hiding pot bunkers behind a fairway bunker or building a greenside bunker’s back edge up to hide a stream. Make a golf course a good risk/reward tract…and let the player determine the shot suited for their game and how they are playing. Golf is hard, scoring well is very difficult and making a course deceptive doesn’t improve the player experience..particularly for someone playing a course for the first time….those things ensure it’ll probably be a player’s last time on that course.

  2. I think this should really be two separate discussions, “fair” for casual play and “fair” for tournament play.

    Casual play:
    “Fair” is understanding your limitations and picking tees To make it enjoyable. It’s your choice.

    Tournament play:
    Point 1 – is the typical USGA course setup “fair” for ALL players in the field…of course not. I’m 48 years old, a shorter hitter, and work for a living. So if I happen to get hot and successfully qualify for the US Amateur, will the course setup on a 7500 yard par 70 with lengthy forced carries be “fair” for me compared to the 20 year old college kid who bombs it 330 off the tee? Of course not, because the USGA has gone away from the shorter, tighter golf course that reward accuracy and shot making in favor of the more open ” how high can we get trackman numbers” courses. The USGA would never admit this, but the US Amateur is no longer intended for the “career amateur” to play in…it’s a stepping stone for the PGA Tour, and those are the players they cater to.

  3. Full disclosure, in my mind fair and challenging merge where our good scores occur — not always, but often enough to gauge “potential” as the USGA Index should indicate. Good scores can only occur when playing from the correct tee box for one’s abilities, particularly the abilities to hit a certain length off the tee and to hit most shots accurately. I have been playing this game for 60 years and am a reasonably decent amateur, meaning I suppose that I can “call” my shot and often get a somewhat matching result, without perfection entering the equation. All of the architects’ subtleties fall into two categories which have their own relative degree of “fairness.” First are the visible, such as tee boxes that aim you 30 yards into the right woods. Unfair, but avoidable. Second are the invisible or unfathomable (especially for the first time player), such as forced carries with blind hazards beyond, doglegs with skinny fairways at the bend that penalize straight shots, blind shots in general, unreasonably long carries from forward tees. People play forward tees for a reason, and in general the person who hits it 200 yards from a 6,000 yard set of tees should face the same challenges and get the same rewards as a 300 yard blaster playing from the 7,000 tees. There is nothing more infuriating (and this is a pro/superintendent issue), than being forced to play from a set of tees that take driver out of the player’s hands when the rearward tees allow for the use of that club. I didn’t pay $500 for that driver to leave it in the bag. If I choose to lay up, fine. Just do not force the choice. In general, overly firm (Nicklaus) greens with ridiculous undulations are unfair. Yes, touring pros can hit it to 10’x10′ table top pin positions set within small mountains and valleys. Most of us cannot. If green complexes were more forgiving, courses and the game of golf would attract more players. We all know that is where the scoring occurs. When the average player is taking 40 putts on top of penalty shots and punch outs, the game is slow, boring and frustrating. Also in general, severe front pin positions should be reserved for tournament play. Most golfers cannot spin the ball well, so even a good shot leaves a long downhill putt coming back. If the player is short of the green what chance does he have? We all know to avoid short siding, so why make that a reality in the center of the green as well as on the side. Another writer said it — golf is hard. The difficulty is what attracts most of us, but also the first and often lasting difficulty is simply striking the ball with accuracy and consistency. When you top that with courses that only a pro can play, it chases people from the game. Finally, lasers and GPS devices, whether hand held or on a cart) have made things easier for players who can hit a club a known distance. Make most courses scenic but playable. Don’t spoil the walk!

  4. I think golfers need to make a distinction between fairness and playable.

    There are some scenarios that are unfair, like the greens during the US Open when it was held at Olympic Club in the 90s, when pros were putting uphill only to have the ball stop beyond the hole, then have in roll back down the hill and 30 yards past where they putted from. That’s unfair.

    But I think we as golfers equate unfair and lack of playability, lack of playability is when you don’t have options. There is only one choice on every shot from the tee to green, there is not safe area to miss a shot or find a better angle to green. Holes need width for players to have options and require them to think. Players need to think a shot ahead to find the best angle to attack the green based on the pin placement. Everything that takes away from playability like too many trees, lack of width, water, and forced carries make golf less fun. Not that its unfair, but lacking playability.

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