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What's a Fairway?
This article originally appeared in issue #51 (Fall 1999) of Disc Golf World News

What's a fairway?

Oh, about four pounds. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

In the previous seven articles, we have developed the hypothesis that the bottom line job of the course designer is to find the tees and pin positions that define a disc golf course.(Don't forget the landing areas, too -- see "Happy Landings," DGWN #49). The designer says, "the tee goes here, and the basket goes here. That's your hole." Sometimes tees and greens can be challenging or even spectacular by themselves, but on most good holes the fun is a result of what's in between: the fairway.

So far we've managed to make good use of principles borrowed from ball golf design, and we will continue to, but now things get trickier. The disc golf fairway is a whole new animal, and it's very important to understand why.

Ball golf fairways are always well defined. In the fairway, the grass is short, and that's where you want to be. If you're not in the short grass, you won't be able to swing your club the way you want to. The fairway may dogleg, but your ball doesn't have to dogleg; you can fly right over the water or rough or trees on the corner of the dogleg. But by all means, you want to wind up in the fairway.

Disc golfers don't generally worry about how tall the grass is where they land. Three inch grass doesn't bother them, and neither do little undulations, small rocks, or even sand. We're more concerned about landing somewhere where we'll have a route to the basket. Whereas a ball golfer thinks about particular spots on the ground, a disc golfer focuses on spaces in the air.

The big difference is in how the objects fly. Balls go up in the air. Then they land and roll. That's why the hazards for ball golf are on the ground: long grass, mounds, sand traps, creeks, ponds, and lakes. To get to where he or she wants to go, the ball golfer has to land on the right spot and get the right roll: missing a hazard is generally a matter of going over it.

Disc golfers have water hazards, too, but most of our obstacles are above the ground: trees and bushes. To get to a particular spot, a disc golfer has to curve around things, to fly between things, to go over and under things. If you want to hit a spot on the ground, you generally will have to hit a spot IN THE AIR first. Sometimes you have to hit multiple spots in the air. And you have to hit them with the right angle and the right speed.

So whereas a ball golf fairway is black and white, a disc golf fairways is hard to define. Is it anywhere the disc can land? Hmm. Discs can land pretty far from where they're supposed to (and still often have a decent shot). What really matters is the gaps between the trees, the areas under the branches, the space above the bushes. I like to call these ROUTES to the basket. Dave Dunipace goes so far as to call them "flyways" and "rollways" to emphasize the difference between them and ball golf fairways. For now, let's see if this definition will suffice: a disc golf fairway is the sum of all the routes to the basket. (And the sum of the square of the roots is equal to half the cosine, or is it the hypotenuse...)

FINDING YOUR WAY. Sure, ball golfers sometimes have to curve their shots to the right or the left in the air. And they have to go around trees, but usually that's just following the curve of the fairway. They can't make the sharp turns that we can, and I guarantee you they never make shots that curve right and then left, or left and then right. They can't. In fact, when I'm trying to explain the difference between the two games, I might just say, "Ball golf courses use trees as guidelines; disc golf courses use trees as obstacles."

I learned this lesson the hard way when I was working on the bottom course at Circle R. Over and over, I kept saying, "Wow, what a great fairway -- it looks just like a ball golf fairway." I was on the verge of really blowing it. If you ever find yourself making a lot of ball golf-type fairways, slap yourself. Hard. You're missing one of the most important aspects of disc golf. Keep two ideas in mind:

  • the essence of disc golf is the challenge of controlling the flight of the disc between and around and under and over obstacles
  • obstacles in the fairway force players to make choices, which is a key to the mental part of the game

Should there be big wide disc golf fairways with trees on both sides and no trees in the middle? Sure. Those holes can be fun and challenging and beautiful, and they have their place in disc golf. But keep them to a minimum.


HUNTING FOR FAIRWAYS. One big tree can define two routes, and it can force players to choose if they want to go around it right-to-left (RTL) or left-to-right (LTR). But the most basic interesting fairway starts with two trees. Two trees with a gap between them automatically define three shots: LTR, RTL, and up the middle (OK, let's call it UTM for today). If one of these options is obviously the easiest, players will take that route all the time. So to maximize strategy, let's try to make all three options equally tough.

First, assume that your tee is fixed, and you need to pick the pin placement (diagram A). Bringing the basket closer to the gap makes the UTM shot easier. Putting the basket to the right makes the LTR shot easier, and putting it to the left makes the RTL shot more attractive. Remember that anyone taking the UTM shot is more likely to hit a tree, making that shot more risky if the basket is deep.

Now let's assume that your pin is set, and you have to pick a tee (diagram B). Putting the tee closer to the gap makes UTM easier. Moving the tee right makes the RTL shot more appealing, while moving it to the left leads players to want to try the LTR shot. Move the tee back and forth and left and right until you have it at a spot where players are likely to say "I like all three options about the same" (or, as I prefer, "I hate all three!").

On two-shot holes, you'll want to make easier routes that lead to tough second shots, and tough routes that lead to easier second shots.

The course designer really earns his or her pay when neither tee nor green is set. Then you have hundreds of options to choose from on each hole. Finding the perfect hole that is great on its own and fits in with the rest of the course can take large amounts of time and creativity.

Of course things get more fun when there are more trees in play (diagram C). Now you might have routes where even a well-thrown shot can only get within 30 feet of the basket -- you'll need to make that shot more attractive. You might have routes where a bad shot will hit a tree and fall 200 feet from the basket -- you'll have to make that route more attractive, too. Or you might have three main trees, which will give you FOUR routes. Or you might have five main trees...

WINDOWS. One thing you'll never see in a ball golf fairway is a window. In disc golf, a gap between trees might not just be defined by the trees on the right and the left; the branches might define a bottom boundary, and even a top boundary. If you have all four boundaries, you have a window. Windows are great to have on disc golf courses, because they require a kind of accuracy that is unique to disc throwing. As strategy options, windows will be more attractive if they are closer to the tee (easier to hit), closer to the basket (less penalty if you miss), bigger (duh), or positioned so that hitting the window means the thrower is sure to get close to the basket.

Windows can add a lot to a course, but remember one thing: the size of a window will vary from season to season as the leaves blossom and fall off, and they will vary from year to year as trees grow, get hit by storms, etc. Plan ahead.

TUNNELS. Tunnels are well-defined narrow fairways that may or may not have obstacles in the middle of them. There is room on every course for a tight, straight shot that makes a golfer prove that he or she can throw straight. Tunnels can also curve in either direction, and if they are done right, righthanders and lefthanders will have reasonable shots to the pin. (One of the biggest mistakes of rookie course designers is making long fairways that go straight 90% of the way to the hole then turn hard left. This requires very little skill of a right-handed player, and it's almost impossible for a lefty. Quit it.)

When making tight fairways, remember another basic principle: if the rough is nasty, the fairway should be wider, and vice versa.

IS IT FAIR? Now we get to one last critical question. Occasionally you'll see holes that have lots of trees, and therefore lots of gaps. In order for the hole to be fair, as we know, good shots should be rewarded while bad shots are punished. Let's say you're trying to hit one particular gap, but you miss, go through another gap, and still end up 15 feet from the basket. That's not a good fairway. This criticism was common at Brahan Springs (Huntsville, Alabama Worlds 1993), for example, where there were thousands of tall skinny trees, and sometimes it was better to be lucky than good. As Harold Duvall points out, one thing you don't ever want to hear players saying is, "Just aim at that tree and hope you miss it."

If your property looks like that, you'll need to look for the widest obstacles available, and use them as much as possible. In some cases a wide obstacle may be 3-4 trees so close that a disc can't get through them.

Sometimes you'll see a hole where the only way to get to the basket is to hit a window that's 3 feet square and 275 feet from the tee. Even the best players can't be expected to make that shot consistently. You'd have to be lucky to hit that window, so it's not a fair fairway. The same goes for tunnels that are too narrow.

And keep an eye open for little branches that might be sticking out where they're not welcome. Your gaps, windows, and tunnels -- your routes --should be well defined, so that you never hear players say, "I threw it right where I wanted to, and it got deflected by some branch I couldn't even see." Players whine enough; don't give them something legitimate to cry about.

Finding good fairways may be the hardest part of the course designer's job. The more trees there are, the more potential fairways there will be, and the thorough designer needs to check out all of them. That process can take a long time, and it can drive you crazy, but you can learn to enjoy the thrill of the hunt. If you want to do the job right, you'll need to check out all the possibilities. Fun, challenging fairways with multiple options are a big part of what makes disc golf different from ball golf, so get out there and find them.

  Circular Productions - Disc Golf Course Design, Disc Golf Equipment, Disc Golf Tournaments, Disc Golf Tee Signs, and other Disc Golf Services
Circular Productions - Disc Golf Course Design, Disc Golf Equipment, Disc Golf Tournaments, Disc Golf Tee Signs, and other Disc Golf Services

Circular Productions - Disc Golf Course Design, Disc Golf Equipment, Disc Golf Tournaments, Disc Golf Tee Signs, and other Disc Golf Services