what makes a golf course unfair

After a brutal third round of the Players Championship in which scores rocketed, Neil Tappin asks what makes a golf course unfair?

Saturday’s Sawgrass test at the Players Championship was the source of much criticism both amongst the media and the players themselves. With the wind blowing, the greens left to get slowly firmer and firmer and the pins placed in near impossible positions, the scores rocketed with the average for day three rising to 75. As the players were left scratching their heads at the severity of the test, we were left asking the question – what makes a golf course 'unfair'?

One argument is that golf, like most sports, was never supposed to be fair. Moreover, if the test is the same for all the players in the field, how can any golf course be truly be described as unfair? Played on a natural landscape and open to the elements, golfers are perpetually bemoaning their plight when they find themselves on the wrong side of the rub of the green. Luck, good and bad, is a regular factor in all sports, but especially golf but when does the golf course itself transition from being tough to unfair? Here are four factors in the set up of a golf course that can make it play ‘unfair’.

1 Pin placements

One way in which tournament directors can toughen up a golf course is by placing pins in tricky spots. Instead of situating them in flat areas or gathering points, you can place them on ledges or, worse still, side slopes and watch the field struggle. But what constitutes an unfair pin placement. Firstly, if you place it behind a bunker or even a tree surrounding the green that prevents any golfer, no matter what their skill set from getting access to it seems unfair (you are effectively offering no reward for a good shot). Likewise, if the pin is cut into a slope and players are regularly 3-putting from just a few feet and the only way to get the ball close is to hit the hole, that would seem to be artificially toughening the course.

2 Green speed

We saw it at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay - when undulating greens are made exceedingly fast, regular golf quickly starts to resemble the crazy variety. Ultimately, you want good golf shots to be rewarded and bad ones to be punished. When good shots start to get punished, that is when you are entering the realms of unfair. There has to be at least a small margin for error with every shot a golfer faces. A ball that rolls one turn past the hole but ends up 12ft away, would seem unfair.

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3 Patchy rough

Picture the scene - you have missed the fairway by a yard and you’re in a thick patch of rough that means you have to chip out. Meanwhile your opponent has missed the same fairway, further off line than you, but has found a bare spot. He has an unimpeded route into the back of the ball and can attack the green as usual. It’s hard not to feel a little hard done by in this situation!

Grandstand Finishes At Sawgrass

4 Weather

Granted, this one has nothing to do with the tournament director and everything to do with Mother Nature. The perfect example of when weather makes golf course play unfair comes every year at the Open. The early tee times on day one play in benign conditions, while the afternoon starters play in strong winds. On day two the early starters have the strong winds and the late starters get the best of it. One side of the draw is all but wiped out of contention because of their tee-time. This of course is down to luck but is the perfect example of the playing field not being the same for all parties!


Neil Tappin

In July 2023, Neil became just the 9th editor in Golf Monthly's 112-year history. Originally working with the best coaches in the UK to produce instruction content, he has also presented many Golf Monthly videos looking at all areas of the game from Tour player interviews to the rules of golf. 

Throughout his time with the brand he has also covered equipment launches that date back well over a decade. He clearly remembers the launch of the Callaway and Nike square drivers as well as the white TaylorMade driver families, such as the RocketBallz! If you take a look at the Golf Monthly YouTube channel, you'll see his equipment videos dating back over a decade! He has also conducted 'What's In The Bag' interviews with many of the game's best players like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. Over the years, Neil has tested a vast array of products in each category and at drastically different price-points. 

Neil is currently playing: Driver: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus Fairway Wood: Titleist TSR2 Hybrid: Titleist TS3 Irons (4-9): Mizuno JPX 919 Forged Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM7 46˚, 50˚, 54˚, 60˚ Putter: Odyssey Triple Track Ten Ball: Titleist Pro V1X