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​Architecture Glossary - Switchback

28 January, 2022

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The 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 ‘switchback’.

The ideal golf course, in the mind of many, will produce a champion who demonstrates skill across a number of shots; from the tee, from the fairway, the short game, as well as putting. All architects agree that a fine driver and iron game is essential for navigating a course. Some take it a step further, asking if a player can shape, and not just smash, their drives.

A switchback is a par four or five that requires a player to hit both a controlled draw and a fade in order to take the ideal path to the green.

The architect most commonly associated with switchbacks (although many employ the method) is Donald Ross. Aronimink Golf Club, one of his most championship-caliber routes, features two differentiated examples during its second and third holes.

No. 2 is a dogleg left, where the fairway tightens near two intimidating sets of bunkers. The ability to draw the ball is helpful on any dogleg left, but here it’s especially useful. The fairway angles away from the bunkers; those who hit a fade may continue running all the way until the right rough. If the hole is cut on the right, the aggressive line demands a fade around the front bunker.

No. 3 demonstrates that switchbacks don’t need to be dog-legged holes. It’s a straight par four, but its bunkering calls for two specific shots to score. The cautious golfer will stay right, away from significant bunkering on the left. Those who can hit a draw will try to bring their ball from right-to-left, between two sets of bunkers that cut into the fairway. This leaves them the ideal angle to a green that angles left to right. Those who played it safe from the tee may need to lay up short of the green.

Seth Raynor occasionally created par four versions of the famed “Redan” template. As a Redan green requires a draw upon approach, the ideal play from the tee is to the right of the fairway. Therefore, a fade followed by a draw helps the most proficient attack the hole. This path can be seen at the opening hole of Blue Mound Country Club.

The switchback is hardly limited to “new world” designs. In fact, it is likely that Ross brought it from his Scottish home, Royal Dornoch. No. 14, “Foxy,” is a long par four that embodies the concept. An angled fairway encourages players to start their ball right and bring it back toward the left as the short grass narrows. The green is angled in a similar manner to No. 3 at Aronimink, and some rumpled dunescape makes a direct line toward the back of the green difficult.

One of the world’s most famous links holes is, in nature, a switchback. The Road Hole at St. Andrews calls for a fade to find the ideal line into the green, which requires a draw to work around the infamous pot bunker guarding the left side.

A.W. Tillinghast, a contemporary of Ross, was a fan of “Double Dogleg” par fives, which he believed guaranteed a three-shot voyage to the green. As with No. 3 at Aronimink, sometimes these long holes didn’t feature actual doglegs, however the positioning of bunkers enforced the behavior. One example is No. 9 at the San Francisco Golf Club.

Measuring 580 yards, reaching in two is unlikely. The wise play then is to play draw toward the first fairway bunker on the left. This will leave a relatively open lane for golfers to play a long fade around the dense bunkering on the middle of the hole’s right side. Having completed these two shots, the player is left with a straight, short wedge shot into the green.

You may have noticed that each of these holes offers a “scoring route” as well as a more conservative path. Pete Dye, a noted Ross fan, often advocated for the switchback technique, and the closing hole at Whistling Straits, appropriately named ‘Dyeabolical’, reveals how the “scoring” and “conservative” routes can change, depending on where the flag is.

All of the greens mentioned thus far are positioned to welcome approaches from a single angle - but this famous hole shakes up the approach with its four-leaf clover green. If the flag is positioned on the right “leaf” or in the middle, players will want to begin by fading off the tee, away from the sand hazard on the left, and then take a draw into the green. Tougher pins sit in the front and back “leaves.” Although the front leaf is rarely accessible from any second-shot position, those who draw a drive to ride up along the sunken sand area will have a chance at fading the ball into flags on the back corner of the green.

Next time you find bunkers or doglegs preventing you from getting close with your ‘standard’ shot shape, you might wonder if the architect is taking sadistic pleasure from your frustration.

The Architect’s Glossary is a monthly feature written by Ryan Book. Are there any architectural terms that you think deserve exploration in this column? Feel free to write in to [email protected] and he might well oblige!


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