Is a Course Fair or Reasonable?

By: Tripp Davis

Editor's Note: Tripp Davis, whose design credits include the Old Course at the Tribute (Colony, Tex.) and other notable renovations, is sharing his views on the principals of course design with regular installments in Cybergolf's Architect's Corner. Davis is currently working with Justin Leonard on the Tribute's second 18, the New Course, which takes its cues from the classic designs of the "Golden Age" of American golf architecture. Set to open in late summer 2009, the New Course will integrate elements from such tracks as Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links and Prairie Dunes into its site on the rolling hills beside Lake Lewisville. Here, Tripp discusses the difference between fair and unfair golf holes and courses.

Oftentimes a golf hole, or possibly an entire golf course, is judged partly on whether or not it is fair. What does this mean? If a hole or a course regularly makes a player feel as though he's had too many "bad breaks," is it unfair? If near-perfect shots are sometimes not rewarded, is a hole unfair? If a player is challenged to make par after either hitting a poor shot or seeing a very aggressive shot end up in tough spot, is that unfair?

I personally reject the notion of the game being fair and judging the merits of a hole or course on that basis. Part of the mental test of the game is dealing with bad bounces or seeing a near-perfect shot just catch a slope and end up in a challenging position - hopefully one with options.

I prefer to judge a shot, or a hole, on whether or not it offers reasonable options to devise and execute strategy. If it does, everything else that may happen when playing that hole is "fair game." Period.

What do I mean by reasonable? A hole where any player has to hit a 7-iron off the tee, because it is the only shot that does not offer too high a measure of risk, with the following shot having to be a 3-wood, is not reasonable. A hole where the only option is to hit a near-perfect shot to simply advance the ball is not reasonable. Holes where players have trouble reaching the fairway from the tee they "should" be playing are not reasonable.

The consideration of what is reasonable will vary from player to player, but if a player of decent ability can advance the ball without having to execute it to near perfection to do so, the shot or the hole is reasonable. In other words, is there a way to play the hole without taking significant risk while still advancing the ball adequate distances with each shot?

The perception of fairness that is often thrown around does not consider the above factors, but is subjectively analyzed relative to whether or not the player feels the shot played has been justly rewarded, regardless of whether it was the best option they could have chosen in the pursuit of finishing the hole in the fewest strokes possible. Part of the issue is that players do not often enough devise strategy to allow them to play the hole in the fewest strokes possible; rather, they look to play shots that will allow them to beat the given par for a hole.

I too often see players attempt a shot that is beyond their reach because if they do not try such a shot, "par" will likely be unattainable. When they don't or can't pull it off, the hole is too often deemed unfair. Expert players have to also realize that even though they have the ability to hit near-perfect shots with regularity, the margin for error given the pin location, firmness of the greens and environmental factors may suggest they attempt a shot that, while possibly not within feet of the hole, leaves them a chance to hole the next shot or at least avoid severe penalties. It is reasonable for there to be a pin location that should not be played to if they're out of position.

To fully appreciate the strategic content of a golf course, it would help to forgo the notion of par in the development of strategy and recognize that some holes are more demanding than others, given a player's arsenal of shots. The attempt to design golf courses that are fair will lead to the "dumbing down" of exciting, risk-laden, strategic variety in golf courses. This doesn't mean there should not be a way to safely play a hole, but it should come at the price of having to at some point play an above-average shot to achieve "par," or produce a score that is lower than the chosen strategic method should produce.

I often get asked about features that make a hole difficult and if I think such a feature is fair. My response is, "Was there a reasonable way to play around or away from the feature?" Usually the response is, "Yes, but if I hit my ball in or around the feature I can't make par, so it is unfair." To which I say, "Don't hit it there."

The next time you play a shot in a situation that you feel is unfair, look closely to see if there was a reasonable alternative to the path you took, even if it is considerably more conservative and may lead to the inability to make par. If there is, you have not been "unfairly" penalized and will hopefully learn something about the strategic side of the game.

This discussion can also lead to uncovering the "mythical" golf course that is a challenge for the better player, yet playable for the average golfer - something every course in America seemingly claims to be. The answer lies partly in design, and partly in the mindset of the player. For if a golf course provides multiple, reasonable options in how individual holes can be played, and the golfer comes to the course with some understanding of their physical ability or limitations and a willingness to devise and execute a strategy that allows them to play each hole and the course in the fewest shots possible, regardless of par, then the course has basically provided an interesting test for everyone.

This, however, can be taken to a higher level where the design of the course makes these options a challenge to uncover and commit to in execution. Creating a multitude of reasonable, interesting and challenging options was the foundation of how Justin Leonard and I approached the design of The New Course at The Tribute. With every hole, from every tee, we considered ways to entice golfers to play with risk, offered a way to play the hole with multiple types of shots, and offered a more conservative path - often providing more than one route with each of these. Our purpose was to create a course that makes it fun - during every round - to think how each hole can be played and to experiment with shot options. In this way, we have designed a course that is reasonable for every player at its foundation, but rises to the level of being imminently interesting each round. Is it a "fair" course? You be the judge.

I will leave you with the perspective of a fellow native of Atlanta, Mr. Bobby Jones, related to fairness. Questioned about the unfairness of being debilitated by illness he responded, "I have played it as it lies." Good advice for the fairness of golf and life.

Tripp Davis has been a golf course architect since 1991 and has, over the last 17 years, worked on both original designs and restoration/renovation projects around the United States. His first international projects are coming soon in Acapulco, Mexico and Devon, England. Tripp developed a passion for golf at an early age and went on to become a three-time AJGA Junior All-American, an NCAA All-American at the University of Oklahoma and, for the past 15 years, he has been ranked as one of the top mid-amateur golfers in the U.S.

After receiving a degree in Advertising/Marketing, Tripp studied in the Masters of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oklahoma, concluding his studies with his thesis on "The Environmental Impact of Golf Course Construction." Having surrounded himself with a highly qualified and experienced staff of golf architects and a golf course construction specialist, Tripp's award-winning original design and restoration/renovation projects have been praised highly for their substance, giving him the recognition as a "craftsman" of the most strategically interesting and enjoyable golf courses of our time. To learn more about his work, visit