Should All Clubs Use Fairway Mats In Winter?

Is a compromise during the colder months the best way for clubs to deliver the best overall playing experience to members and visitors?

Should all clubs use fairway mats
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The use of fairway mats has become a bone of contention at clubs up and down the country with vocal advocates and opponents at most establishments.

Those in favour argue that the benefits from protecting the course, preventing damage and allowing the fairways to start from a better position as the growing season begins, far outweigh the detriments of a reduction in quality of the playing experience for a few months.

Those against would say that golf is a game in which the ball should be played as it lies, and the use of mats greatly detracts from that element of our sport. They would say that playing off the mat does not give the right sensation of striking a ball and, with the playing experience diminished, the club or facility is not offering a satisfactory quality of golfing experience.

The arguments against hold weight, but the truth is that fairway mats do make a huge difference. During the winter in this country it’s, generally, too cold for grass to grow and for the ground to recover from damage. It’s not until spring that the renewal begins. More people now play golf, and more continue to play through the winter, which is a great thing. But more people means more damage. For the course to have a chance, golfers need to compromise during the winter.

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A single golfer of average handicap will, conservatively, take 20 divots per round, 10 of those from the fairway. That’s 40 per fourball. If 10 fourballs play through a day, that’s 400 divots for the day. Over a winter that could be as many as 50,000 divots that will not have recovered by spring.

Think of that – starting the season with 50,000 extra chunks out of the turf that wouldn’t have been there had fairway mats been in operation. It’s clear why greenkeepers and greens committees have put them into use.

Most of us are proud of the course we play and we want it to be in the best possible condition through the playing season. We want to enjoy pristine surfaces ourselves and to welcome guests with pride and excitement that they should experience the good conditions. We want visitors to be attracted because of the quality of the fairways and greens. When we play as visitors, we look for the same at other venues. If we are all to realise those wants, we should be prepared to make the compromise and play from a mat in winter.

Some clubs will have a rule that it’s mats on fairways only, others might require use from fairways and tees when an iron is being struck. Courses where the ground is firmer, a links perhaps, might stipulate mats only need be used from the areas of heavier play – where most approaches are played from for instance.

But what about WHS and General Play scores? Surely the use of mats precludes their submission… Not so. Golfers can still submit scores for handicap when using a fairway mat, where the ball is lifted and placed on the mat as near as possible where the ball lay. It should be noted that if mats are required on parts of the course where the grass is longer than fairway height (some clubs may say mats are required in the semi rough) then scores cannot be submitted for handicap.

The widespread use of fairway mats is fairly recent and in the early days they were pretty rudimentary – a slice of astroturf, an old beer towel, a bit of carpet – Not great to play off. But modern mats are fit for purpose and many have been designed to replicate playing off the turf. 

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We can still enjoy our golf during the colder months but there are a few things we have to adapt to – The weather, an often shortened course, the ball doesn’t fly so far, we have to play with more layers on, we might carry our bag or take a half set… Playing from a fairway mat is just another element of winter golf that we can all embrace and get used to with a view towards the greater good for golf courses.  

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There are exceptions. Courses that are particularly well-draining may not benefit sufficiently from the implementation of fairway mats during winter to merit the compromise. Others in warmer corners of the country may have a longer growing period meaning damage is limited. Or a course may have so little traffic through winter that, again, damage is minimal. But for the majority of tracks in this country, particularly those inland, the use of fairway mats during the winter is, or would be, of huge benefit to the standard of the playing surfaces during the bulk of the season.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?