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Ima Wilde asks, ‘What is the acceptable width for fairways?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


Any width can be acceptable. Fairways generally range from narrow (25 yards) to wide (65 yards), with most being medium width of 35 to 45 yards. The course's theme and intended audience are the starting points in determining individual fairway width.

Major tournament courses, like those hosting the U.S. and British Opens, have always had narrow, demanding fairways – traditionally less than 30 yards, and often only 24 yards wide. The PGA Tour typically maintains 30-to-32-yard fairway widths.

Most courses need wider fairways. USGA Slope Rating Charts show scratch players and 20 handicappers needing 32- and 40-yard fairways, respectively, to hit fairways with 66 percent of tee shots. Forty-yard-wide fairways seem about standard, as they allow average players to play faster and better players to have strategic choices.

A site with heavy trees usually dictates a theme "narrow fairways," emulating Medinah or Olympic. The owner may desire a difficult driving course because he's an accurate driver!* A "second-shot" themed course, like Augusta National, and/or public courses usually inspire wider fairways, even in heavy trees.

I prefer variety in fairway width, to strike a balance between driving, approach, putting and recovery skills. I carefully consider individual holes and site conditions in selecting fairway widths.

"Basic" Width

My ROBOT for basic fairway width is "longer = wider." Golfers want to hit full tee shots on long holes, and expect a comfortable fairway. On shorter holes, narrower fairways dictating accuracy are acceptable.

I generally make fairway width 20-25 percent (depending on course theme) of the anticipated approach-shot length. For example, if, after a full tee shot, I anticipate an approach of:

200 yards, basic fairway width is 40-50 yards.

170 yards, basic fairway width of 34-42 yards.

140 yards, basic fairway width of 28-35 yards.

110 yards, basic fairway width of 22-28 yards.

I adjust "final" individual fairway widths for many factors, including:

Hole spacing – Where holes are close together, narrower fairways keep them better separated.

Playability – Some natural conditions suggest wider fairways, for playability in typical conditions.

Prevailing Winds – either cross or head winds necessitate wider fairways for obvious reasons, with added width proportional to wind strength. My ROBOT adds one-half yard for each MPH of typical crosswind.

Fairway Slopes

My ROBOT adds fairway width for every 1 percent of cross slope and/or down slope, to aid in control. With uphill landing areas, there is less roll, and no need to compensate. I provide even more on reverse-slope doglegs (i.e. the outside of the dogleg being lower than the inside). Adding an additional few yards helps tees shots, which must hug the high side, stay on the fairway.

Difficulty Compensation – Basic width covers the difficulty of hole length, but difficult hazards on one side of the fairway – like water, trees, O.B. and native areas – or average hazards on both sides of the fairway may require compensation for the penalty.

Round Position (with opening holes wider to allow warm-up and speed play)

Strategic Factors

I often debate how fairway width affects strategy. Many golfers would want, for example, to have a short par-5 with an ultra-wide fairway to let them really rip a tee shot to get home in two. Architects would normally narrow the fairway to make wayward shots pay a penalty.

For all of the above, we want each hole to play differently:

If all long par-4s had wide fairways, they may get be too similar. At least one should have a narrow fairway and demanding tee shot, but not all of them. Short par-4s usually are narrow fairway and position holes. However, one could have the widest fairway, reserving the challenge for the approach, or putting.

Variety

And then there is "pure" variety. I vary fairway width arbitrarily among the seven long holes, with two fairways each at 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 yards, hoping intelligent golfers notice width differences and play accordingly.

* There is a long tradition in America – and probably elsewhere – of designing to one's game. The first 18-hole course in America is said to have been designed with every hole hooking out of bounds, to comfortably accommodate the slice of its designer, and first member, Charles Blair MacDonald.