The Recovery Shot

Designing Golf Courses for The Possible

By Tom Doak

Originally published in Golf Architecture, issue 6, the Journal of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects, January 2003

For many golfers, simply getting around the course is difficult enough. Their golf is so unpredictable that they cannot appreciate strategy in golf architecture. If their entire concentration is needed to hit the ball squarely and make forward progress, it’s ludicrous for them to think about driving to a certain side of the fairway to gain a better angle to the green.

But does that mean that interesting design is moot for the average golfer? Far from it. Even if the player’s position on the course is completely random, good golf holes present choices to be made for subsequent shots, depending on the nature of the lie and the design of the hole. For most golfers, the recovery shot is a frequent occurrence, and the nature of the design has direct bearing on their enjoyment of the game.

Many courses designed by top-flight players are torture for the average player, because great golfers tend to think about golf architecture in absolutes. To cite just two examples, some believe it is unfair for any fairway bunker to prevent a good player from going for the green, or that a poor drive on a short par-4 should leave the player with an approach where it is quite difficult to hold the green.

These pronouncements are based on a narrow perspective of golfing ability, when in fact a full spectrum of players will play any course. In the first instance, there are always many players who will strain to reach the green from a fairway bunker if the shot is over 100 yards, so why should not the top-flight player occasionally face the same situation? In the second, if the good player has to hit a good drive in order to hold the green with a second shot, then the poor player will never have any chance of doing so from even his best drive.

Instead of designing in absolutes, the golf architect should always think about the possible. The greatest courses create chances for players to show what they can do, instead of punishing them for what they cannot. With rare exceptions in the name of variety, every green complex should be designed so that it can be attained at the length of a full 3-wood shot, because there is always some player who will need every last ounce of strength they can muster just to reach the green.

At the same time, when the golfer has strayed from the centerline, the architect has license to call for creative shots which he cannot insist upon otherwise. It is when the average golfer is just playing for his bogey that we may ask the good player for something more if he wants to save par. The final clearing lines of a course, the pruning of trees, and the variety of grass textures used, all can have great influence on the nature of the approach shot. Around the green, we should give the advantage to the master of chips and flops and run-ups, instead of relegating every missed green to a pitch or a blast.

In short, the average player needs as many choices as possible in order to find a shot which he can manage. By the same token, for the greatest players, from Walter Hagen to Arnold Palmer to Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods, complicated recoveries are the rare chance to show off their true talent and imagination.

Having the chance to play all the great courses of the world has given me many opportunities for memorable shots. I will list a few examples of such shots below, in the hope that golf courses of the future will provide more such thrills:

Playing Around Trees:

Playing a big slice or draw around an intervening tree.

Playing a hooded shot under the limbs.

Threading between limbs with the correctly lofted club

Playing left-handed from up against a tree.

Bunker Play:

Choosing the right club to avoid the lip of a fairway bunker and get maximum distance to reach the green.

Digging out of a buried lie in a bunker or playing off a downslope.

Playing out of a really deep bunker like the Strath at St. Andrews

Playing from the inside edge of a bunker while standing outside of it.

Playing a ball lying just outside of a bunker from an abnormal stance.

Putting out of a bunker with no lip.

Course Management Moves:

Clubbing oneself from the tee to give the best stance for the approach shot.

Overclubbing into the wind and hitting a soft punch shot.

Deliberately playing short of greens so as to chip uphill at the hole instead of putting down a slope.

Choosing the right club to neutralize the effect of a severe downslope.

Short Game Examples:

Putting away from the hole to use a contour to get close.

Pitching over a bunker but into the bank above it to take the steam off a chip and let it trickle down the other side of the bank to the hole.

Hitting a high cut shot over a hazard and stopping quickly on the far side.

Landing a pitch shot in a hollow part-way to the target to reduce the need for precise distance control.

Picking the ball clean out of a fluffy lie, or digging the ball out of a divot.

Playing out of the edge of a creek or a pond.

Famous Courses:

The chip-and-run around the Road bunker at St. Andrews -- or playing off the road itself

Running the ball up the bank to the “Foxy” green at Royal Dornoch.

Putting around the boomerang on the seventh green at Crystal Downs -- or chipping off the putting surface over the ridge and bunker.

Chipping over the low stone wall on the 13th at North Berwick, Scotland - or putting through one of the gaps!

Famous Shots:

Chi Chi Rodriguez’s “masse” shot around the front bunker on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills.

Seve Ballesteros’ running shot through a narrow space between two bunkers, 72nd hole, 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale.

Davis Love’s chip shot using the slope of the green as a backboard on the 16th hole at Augusta National, 1995 Masters.

Johnny Miller’s bank shot off the railroad tie bulkhead on the 17th at Harbour Town, Heritage Classic, c. 1980.

In olden days, chipping over an opponent’s ball on the green to avoid a stymie.

Golfers who truly love the game relish the chance to try these type of shots. When successful, they are as rewarding as a crisply struck 4-iron, if not more. That being said, none of these shots I have described should be part of the main body of a course, or a shot that you have to pull off to make a routine par. But the more a golf course includes scope for a thrilling recovery shot, the more memorable and fun it will be to play.