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Architecture Glossary - Reverse Camber

25 May, 2023
Ryan Book

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 ‘Reverse Camber’.

Most golfers experience the same patch of bad luck (or bad placement) during any given round…the bad lie. Sometimes the ball is sitting below the feet, leading to a shot that sprays hot and away from the player, and sometimes a lie above the feet causes it to hook drastically inward in line with the swing. Often, this is the result of a bad shot finding slope on the outside of a hole.

But what if golf course architects were to intentionally position fairways so that players would be required to deal with a tricky lie in order to score? This concept is known as “reverse camber.”

As we’ve discussed in a number of terminology posts, some greens are strategically designed to attract a draw or a fade. Playing from a level lie, a skilled golfer will shape the ball accordingly in order to find the green in regulation. A number of architects decided to ratchet up the challenge for championship golf, however.

One can see how the angled fairway leading up to the No. 10 green at Olympic Club's Lake course makes the necessary draw a tough proposition. (Photo Cred: P.J. Koening)

For example, a green may call for a draw (from a right-handed player). The architect has designed this green with the knowledge that the fairway tilts downward from left-to-right somewhat aggressively. This means that a well-struck tee shot will likely come to rest at an uncomfortable angle on the slope. The typical player (right-handed) will need to hit a draw if they want to score, but the angle of the lie amplifies the difficulty of hitting that shot.

This concept comes to public awareness most often, it seems, during any event held at Olympic Club’s Lake course, where the San Francisco slopes set William Watson up for angle-based design attacks. Perhaps Olympic gets the most attention for utilizing reverse camber because an early trio of holes flexes the test in both directions.

No. 2 doglegs right toward the green, yet calls for players to hit a fade off of a fairway that starts high on the right and slides down to the left. No. 4 reverses the logic, requiring players to attempt a draw around a dogleg left while the lie sits well below their feet. The next hole finds players looking for an awkward above-feet fade once again…but this time the par four stretches to 500 yards.

What’s the appeal of reverse camber at big-time championship courses? It’s the rare trait that has not had its fangs dulled by advances in technology. Although modern clubs have added significant distance for the modern pro, it’s possible that those advances have also dampened players’ ability to shape shots in both directions. So, while the original members at Olympic were certainly challenged by the Lake course’s odd lies, those shots were less daunting at the time.

Combine the ample use of reverse camber with Olympic’s small greens and trees, and it’s reasonable that Webb Simpson managed to win the 2012 U.S. Open despite finishing above par.

It’s somewhat ironic that Olympic draws all the attention for reverse camber as, after all, perhaps the world’s most famous golf course is also among the most eager subscribers to this technique. It also happens to host a major every year.

Augusta National's No. 10 hole is one of many at The Masters' host that uses reverse camber to test a player's approach shot. (Photo cred P.J. Koenig).

Ask an attendee to The Masters for their thoughts on walking Augusta National, and they’ll respond that no matter how dramatic the land looks on television, it’s twice that bold on the ground. Players comment frequently on the hidden nuances of Alister MacKenzie’s greens, but they also profess that a shot in the fairway is hardly a guarantee for a green-in-regulation.

Among the holes that best demonstrate this is No. 10, the lengthy par four renowned for its rapid descent from the top of the property. Less discussed is how the fairway also slopes from right-to-left, and the difficulty that adds for a player looking to hit the proper fade uphill to the green, when the ball is likely above their feet.

Although it took relative eons for the first left-hander to win a green jacket (Mike Weir during 2003), three wins for Phil Mickelson and two for Bubba Watson makes one wonder if the camber might fall in their favor.

As has been the case with several entries in the terminology series, MacKenzie was a frequent participant in reverse camber. Another famous design from his pen that features the strategy, clear on the other side of the world, is Royal Melbourne’s West course.

The combination of an awkward lie and Melbourne's notorious greenside bunkers makes the approach into West's No. 17 a tough one. (Photo cred: Gary Lisbon)

No. 17 may be the most clear example. The bunkering at both the fairway and green suggest this is a traditional dogleg; play too far from the fairway bunkers on the left, and your angle into the green will be impeded by one of the course’s iconic greenside bunkers (on the right). That said, hug the inside of the dogleg and a new challenge emerges: This portion of the shortgrass tilts inward, adding difficulty to the fade that a player was hoping to hit into this green.

Few design elements have as immediate roots to the game’s origins as reverse camber. Even before strategic golf course architecture came to be, players on the bumpy linksland of Scotland realized that they owed some amount of their fortune to luck; a straight tee shot could just as easily settle into a flat lie as come to rest on the side of a mound. Success in matches often came from one’s ability to manage the lies provided by the sandy soil’s spontaneity.

Harry Colt's use of reverse camber at Muirfield (No. 14) and other courses marked a transition from the "luck of the linksland" to more strategically-considered elements in British golf. (Photo cred: Gary Lisbon)

Eventually, Britain’s great golf course architects came to utilize the lay of the land as more than just luck of the draw. One example is the subtle rightward cant of No. 14’s fairway at Muirfield. It’s one of the holes Harry Colt contributed to the club, calling for a drive that hugs the three bunkers along the left fairway, and then the ability to guide the approach shot down the left side of the fairway into the green, without being thrown off by the ball’s placement just below the player’s feet.

A shot involving reverse camber remains one of the toughest in the game — and that’s for professionals, much less mid-handicappers. The architects of yore realized it would be asking the common man too much, and that’s why this shot is most prevalent, as seen in the examples above, at championship-caliber courses.


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