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 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?
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.