Architecture Glossary - Gateway Hazard

01 August 2022 Respond to this article

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Gateway Hazard’.

Several months ago, we explored the concept of the “Line of Charm”...or inducing golfers to tangle with a hazard in return for having a better look at the hole for their approach shot. Those who choose not to tangle with the hazard off the tee may veer wide, and accordingly be faced with a tougher angle into the green. Understanding that a GIR may be out of the question at this point, the wise golfer may decide to lay up just short of the green, and chance an up-and-down for par.

Not an easy play necessary, but still too easy for some golf course architects to stomach. A more penal viewpoint might be that If the player decided to play timidly from the tee, and then timidly during their second shot, surely their third must be a test. This is the mindset behind the “Gateway,” an area comprised of varying “gateway hazards.”

Many holes rely upon greenside hazards in order to steer strategic play. These components make it difficult to land on the green. Gateway hazards, rather, include hazards and elements that make it difficult to either land near the green, or to run the ball up to the green.

A barrage of bunkers separate the "gateway" at Oakmont Country Club's No. 9 from the rest of the fairway. (Photo: USGA)

These elements are especially prevalent among the world’s more testing championship courses. Although Oakmont Country Club is notorious for including bunkers here-there-and-everywhere, those competing in the U.S. Open are guaranteed to conclude their rounds with a dose of gateway bunkering — both nos. 9 and 18 feature examples, and both traditionally play among the club’s toughest holes.

During the 2016 U.S. Open, No. 9 played second-toughest, relative to par. To even consider going for the green in regulation, players need to find the fairway. Then they need to send an uphill approach shot toward the tricky green…and here’s where “Gateway” hazards play havoc. Two large cross bunkers must be carried to enter the “Gateway” area. This stretch of fairway slopes left to right, so those aiming to run onto the green must aim near two additional bunkers that lie along the final 25 yards on the left. Two more bunkers pinch both the fairway and the green from the right. If a player missed the fairway from the tee on this 490-yard par four, even getting over the cross bunkers was no sure thing, forcing a longer pitch onto a notorious Oakmont putting surface for the third shot. The gateway to this green helped ensure iust 34 birdies to 167 bogies during the competition.

The gateway bunkers at Bethpage Black are especially cruel because they are also visual traps...from a distance they appear to abut the green (and they do) but they also reach out nearly 30 yards to grab running approaches. (Photo: Ryan Book)

Although we suggested above that greenside hazards are generally not gateway hazards, there are exceptions where they can be both. Bunkers or (especially) water hazards can sit alongside the green, but can also be large enough to impose their wills out into the fairway. For example, the greenside bunkers at Bethpage Black No. 12 reach some 30 yards back out into the fairway, yet another penal touch on one of America’s most penal courses.

Defining how far out a “Gateway” can start is an inexact science. For example, some might argue that the final lake at Bay Hill Club qualifies. It does indeed squash the fairway down to a slim strip, but does so for more than 100 yards. Is this too long to be considered a proper “gateway”? We’ll leave that up to you.

Is there such a thing as too long a "gateway"? The pond at Bay Hill's final hole tightens the landing area for running shots...for nearly 100 yards. (Photo: PGA Tour)

There is one more definitive rule, however: Although gateway hazards may make a run up more difficult, they do not make it impossible. Therefore elements that force a carry — whether they be sand, water, or even second cut — to reach the putting surface cannot be considered “gateway hazards.”

Although such design elements grew mightily during the so-called “Penal Era” of golf course architecture, comprising much of the second half of the 20th Century, it would be incorrect to suggest the technique of establishing “gateways” originated in that era. As stated above, they certainly occurred at the toughest championship courses, and those instances were predated by examples in the linksland of old.

The gateway at Royal Birkdale's second hole has hazards both natural and manmade...grassy slopes will capture a wide shot, while a short one will find a centerline pot bunker. (Photo: Royal Birkdale Golf Club).

Consider No. 2 at Royal Birkdale (alright, so this hole’s modern look came from J.H. Taylor and Fred G. Hawtree during that same Golden Era). The long par four features a centerline pot bunker 25 yards out from the green, which will be an intimidating pass if the player has hit a weak tee shot. Another pair of pot bunkers also stand just short of the green, to either side. Gateway hazards are not limited to man-made hurdles. This green sits in a natural hollow between dunes, and shots that approach wide within the final 50 yards are liable to get caught in fescue…an element that further encourages a lay-up.

Some of the most creative gateways don’t require any additional work on behalf of the architect. A more modern example occurs at Bandon’s Pacific Dunes. No. 4 is a lengthy par four (463 yards) that features out-of-bounds down the entire right side, in the form of a cliff. The player can choose to hug the left of the fairway for as long as they want, but eventually they’ll need to head back toward the green, which also sits on the cliff. At about 50 yards out, a dune (featuring a natural bunker) juts in from the left. Those who tiptoed the cliffside off the tee will still face a tough shot…but those who bailed out left will face a blind approach, where too long goes over the edge.

Looking back from the green at Pacific Dunes No. 4, one can see how a dune creates a sudden gateway to the green where there had previously been a wide fairway. (Photo: Ryan Book)

Can one-shot holes also feature a gateway? Interestingly enough, yes. Golden Age architects of many stripes often included imposing hazards in the lead-up to their longest par threes. Examples include A.W. Tillinghast’s famous “Reef” template (which originated with No. 4 at Newport Country Club) and some instances of C.B. Macdonald / Seth Raynor’s “Biarritz” template (clubs that choose to follow the original design concept, which cuts the first plateau at fairway height, are inherently converting the first pair of bunkers to “gateway hazards”).

A “gateway” can mean many things, both good and bad. The Gateway Arch bills itself as “The Gateway to The West,” a symbol of the West’s hope for weary pioneers of yesteryear. In this sense, a golf gateway represents the hope that comes with being near the green. “Gateway drugs” are also known as seemingly innocent doors to much larger troubles, however.

In this sense, always be careful when flirting with gateway hazards.