I covered this topic briefly in my recent book “Designs on a Better Golf Course: Practical answers to common questions for greens committees.” There, I review what are considered “Narrow (<30 yards), Medium, (30-35 yards), Wide (35-45 yards), and Wide Open, (Over 45 yards) fairways. I added some caveats about altering them for each hole’s basic design characteristics. For instance, if a lake or other 2 shot penalty borders the fairway, most architects would prefer to add width to allow golfers to “bail out” far away from the hazard. They may employ similar techniques on holes with significant crosswinds or cross slopes. Thus, even a course with a “standard” fairway width might have a few that require more.
Of course, there is always more to say on these” pure theory” discussions!
The general trend I’ve seen over the last 40 years I have been in the business has been to narrower fairways, mostly, I think for cost reasons. And a few contrarian architects have designed very wide fairways in response, which certainly make those courses stand out, but only time will tell if that trend stands up. Those designers believe it’s best to “defend par at the green” but I think you should defend par with a variety of tee shots, second shots, recovery shot, and putting challenges.
As a designer, I evaluate every hole in terms of its specific needs for fairway width, considering both the land it sits on and course playability and management concerns. There are many perspectives and philosophies to consider, as noted below.
Superintendent’s Perspective – As narrow as possible because it’s more costly to maintain fairway than roughs from both greater mowing frequency (3-4 times per week vs. 1-2 times per week for rough) and in the additional management inputs required for the better fairway turf.
Tournament Courses Perspective –As narrow as possible to keep scores high. Of course, only a few courses are truly designed for tournaments, and even those must serve everyday players the other 51 weeks per year. The traditional way to toughen up courses for that one week is to speed up greens, and grow the rough to exceedingly deep heights, extracting a penalty for missing the fairway.
The “Keep them in play” Perspective – Using a “just wide enough to be attainable” theory, one might follow the USGA Slope guide and other shot dispersion data. Those typically show that all distance drives need about the same width to be attainable by 50-66% of players – about 33-35 yards. Longer hitters tend to have narrower dispersion patterns, and 12% of 300 yards is like 16% of 225-yard drives. Alas, most courses seem to fit this pattern.
Strategic Design Advocates Perspective –Most architects prefer strategic design, usually striving to allow an easier shot from one side of the fairway than the other, most often created by having the green angle left or right, and providing a frontal opening on that side while covering the other side with hazards. Strategic theory needs wider than bare minimum fairways to aim for sides. 25-50% wider, or at least 40-45 yards.
Nature Perspective – Wide-open sites (Like West Texas where you can see forever!) generally require all golf features to be bigger, including fairway width, to create the proper visual scale. Small features look that much smaller in open spaces. Conversely, we want to save trees on wooded sites, suggesting narrower fairways.
Pace of Play Perspective – Wider is better, at least where average players land, but possibly narrower where good players land.
All these perspectives must be balanced on every hole of every course, and how the golf course architect decides has a big impact on the design quality.
Jeffrey D. Brauer/GolfScapes, Inc.
3809 Canton Jade Way
Arlington, TX 76005