Throwing caution to the wind


Throwing caution to the wind
Sean Dudley

The Dell at Lahinch, Himalayas at Prestwick, and Blin’ Dunt at Cruden Bay are blind par threes. The Dell and Himalayas are revered short holes with immediate name recognition. Along with Blin’ Dunt, all have connections to Old Tom Morris. The likes of Bernard Darwin and Horace Hutchinson have spoken fondly of blind shots and the thrill of running to the top – to see what happened on the other side.

Blind par threes have played a small, yet colourful role in the history of golf architecture. Willie Park Jr designed blind par threes that came to be known as Punchbowl, Crow’s Nest, and The Hollows. And although these holes may not be mentioned in the same breath as the Redan, Cape, Eden and Road, it does seem surprising that these holes have not been a source of creative interpretation for golf course architects of the past or present.

Why have so few blind par threes been built on major golf courses in the last 100 years? Some would say the answer is easy – they are poor golf holes. In the annals of golfing and golf course architecture history, there is much evidence of this opinion. My personal favourite is from Tom Simpson in Golf Architecture: “Holes of this character (heroic holes) may be in a sense attractive, but many of them, such as the Himalayas at Prestwick, are too adventurous and resemble too closely ‘dips out of the lucky bag’ to justify their presence on our classic courses.” You can hang your hat on any number of reasons – unfair, unpopular, lacking in drama, lacking in shot value. You can also choose to characterise blind par threes as unsafe. Nowadays, the devil’s advocate is safety and liability. If you are sceptical to begin with, the litigious nature of our society is the final nail in the coffin.

Yet, the Dell, Himalayas, and Blin’ Dunt are memorable holes that evoke strong convictions among members, guests, and visitors. They are spoken of fondly, with a nod to the great history they represent. The point of this article is to argue there can be blind par threes without exposing the golfer to danger, the architect to liability, and the owner to potential litigation.

During a particularly rugged game of basketball, the announcer may be heard to say ‘no harm, no foul’ – meaning that if the play didn’t result in some type of damage or detriment to the other side, play goes on. Perhaps the same should be said of blind par threes. There is no evidence these menacing looking one-shotters actually produce injuries.

I surveyed representatives from all the blind par threes I could find. None report even one serious incident, accident or injury. For the big three: no accidents have occurred over the last 17 years on Blin’ Dunt according to professional Robbie Stewart. Cruden Bay secretary Rosemary Pittendrigh adds that the club has never had any great safety problems at the fifteenth. Alan Reardon at Lahinch reports no accidents or near misses at the Dell over his 20 years as secretary. Prestwick’s Ian Bunch reports the same: no significant incidents in 12 years. Likewise, I have been unable to find any legal case in the United States or the United Kingdom relating to a blind par three. This is not surprising: ‘no harm, no foul’ means no injury, no lawsuit. If a case were to land in court, the judges would not have precedent to follow.

Detailed claims information (of the nature we need for analysis) from the insurance industry is near impossible to come by. Blind par threes are not an issue in the United States because they are so rare. “From an exposure standpoint, the risks associated with a blind par three are fairly minimal in the broad scheme of things,” acknowledges Tom Walker, senior vice president of Bollinger Club Programmes. According to Ric Sirmans, underwriting manager at Travelers, the largest insurer of golf courses in the US, a course’s premium would not automatically be higher because it has a blind par three.

To some, blind par threes exhibit a magical hold on the golfing soul which is hard to put into words – mystery, suspense, ‘pleasurable uncertainty’ as Horace Hutchinson called it. According to Jim Kass of the US National Golf Foundation, there are an estimated 134,600 par threes in the world. By my best accounts, there are a scant eleven completely blind one shot holes. That is a miniscule 0.008 per cent of the world’s population! In an industry where imitation is the sincerest flattery, there certainly seems to be room for ten or 20 more blind par threes scattered across the continents.

One golf architect who says he’d give it a go is Sweden-based Peter Nordwall. When I spoke to David McClay Kidd, the boundary-pushing architect of the new Castle Course admitted he is probably not brave enough to design a blind par three, referencing the litigious nature of American society: “Everyone is scared to make bold decisions.” But he tabs his friend and colleague Nordwall as a prime candidate. “I wouldn’t be afraid of designing a completely blind short hole, if the design and construction process is a matter of leaving nature more or less as it is,” Nordwall told me, adding that he would need to be convinced that “it is likely most players will walk off the green with a smile on their face” and that it is safe.

A safe, liability-free blind par three will be a product of design, golf course operations and the law. The recentlyopened Erin Hills Golf Course in Wisconsin has back-to-back, side-by-side par threes. The sixth hole plays over the same seam of land that houses the seventh green. Golfers get a clear view of the Dell green, pin placement, and importantly, the position of the golfers ahead as they golf the sixth. Routing can play a critical role in the safe transition into a blind par three.

With long blind par threes such as the Punchbowl at the Willie Park designed Temple, near Maidenhead in England, measuring 246 yards and the fourteenth at Hunstanton coming in at 222 yards, it may be necessary to consider a liberal safety buffer to protect adjacent property. The blind hole could have a significant zone of danger if the golfer has a metal wood in his hands, a mountainous sand dune to clear, or is just plain uncertain where to hit.

A golf course with a blind short hole has a whole host of risk management tools at its disposal. For those in the US, they should probably pick more than one. Sirmans says: “We would expect the insured to take measures to reduce the risk of golfers (or others) from being hit by a golf ball.” He lists a bell, periscope, and warnings on the scorecard and golf cart as examples of possible precautions.

Bells are a popular choice to send the all clear to the group on the tee. Cruden Bay’s bell is rung by tugging on a long rope from the next tee. Hunstanton opted for a lighting system instead of a bell: push the button on the tee and the light turns red. Push a button after putting out and the light turns green. As secretary Bob Carrick explains, a bell would have disturbed golfers on neighbouring holes and jeopardised the quiet atmosphere of the course.

If the situation allows, periscopes, mirrors and platforms may also be used to give the players on the tee the needed vantage point. US architect Garrett Gill notes that bells place the responsibility on those on the green whereas periscopes, mirrors and platforms place the burden on the golfers on the tee. ”From my perspective, make the golfers on the tee clear the hole prior to hitting.”

In this day and age, golf courses can also take advantage of technology to determine if the green is clear. Gill notes the ease in which GPS markers and video surveillance could be set up and administered. He also throws out thermal imaging as an option because of its greater depth of field over a conventional video camera. However, Gill warns that given the tendency for technology to fail, the golf course better have a backup plan.

In his 1896 book The Game of Golf, Willie Park notes: “a guide-post should be placed to show the direction in which the ball is intended to be played, not necessarily in the direct line to the hole. The guide-post should indicate safety to the average player.” British architect Simon Gidman suggests that tee markers and mowing patterns be in a direct line to the target or marker. Not only will poles and marker stones enhance decision making on the tee, but they will encourage golfers to avoid dangerous lines of play toward nearby green or tee complexes. “Caddies are my insurance policy,” says Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser. Although speaking more generally about the value of their guidance in safely negotiating the course, Keiser raises a good point. Caddies or spotters can add a human touch that cannot be equalled by simple bells or advanced technology. A 1951 scorecard from Prestwick advises golfers on safe play over Himalayas: “When playing the fifth and tenth holes (Himalayas out and home), the players before striking off shall send a caddie forward to the top of the ridge to signal when the party in front either has left the green, or is out of danger.” Although Prestwick no longer provides this notice, clubs can learn from this example. A scorecard is written documentation that the golf course conveyed important safety related information to its players.

American architect Perry Dye says: “There should be a blind shot or shots on every golf course. If the law disallowed for blind shots, the integrity of the game would be weakened. If the law became the designer and stated where the blind shot should fall, well, I think the game would truly be on life support.” Fortunately for golf, the courts have not stepped into the design business. I have been unable to find any cases on blind shots. Even without direct case law precedents, there are a number of legal concepts to consider.

In Ireland, the golfer who struck the shot would have primary liability. “If a golfer played a shot to a blind par three without taking reasonable precautions to ensure that it was safe to do so – and caused injury – he would be liable to the injured party,” says solicitor John Power of Limerick. The etiquette section of the Rules of Golf states clearly that golfers should wait until players are out of range and immediately yell the warning of ‘fore’ if someone is in danger. This has not escaped the attention of at least one court in Scotland. After quoting the etiquette section, the court in Lewis v Buckpool Golf Club states: “An instance of negligent disregard of the recommendation in that rule would be the impatient golfer who drives into the party in front before they are out of range.”

Under certain circumstances, golfers are said to have assumed the risk of the natural incidents of the game. As far back as 1905, this concept has been recognised by Scottish courts as it applies to golf. In the case of Andrew v Stevenson, the court stated: “The risks of accident in golf are such, whether from those playing behind, or from those meeting the player or crossing his line of play, that, in my opinion, no one is entitled to take part in the game without paying attention to what is going on around and near him, and that on who receives injury, which by a little care and observation on his part might have been escaped, should not be entitled to claim damages for that injury.” Assumption of risk can be a defense to a negligence action. In some countries, the concept is referred to as ‘volenti non fit injuria’ – to a willing person, no injury is done.

Under the law of negligence, a golf course has a general duty of care to protect golfers from danger. The exact boundaries of this legal requirement vary, but a golf course should be prepared to show evidence of their safety related precautions. For a blind short hole, a golf club should have documentation of the design and operational features mentioned earlier – visibility of walk-offs, a liberal safety buffer, a bell or lighting system, signage, and scorecard language.

A golf club may be under a formal requirement to conduct a risk assessment. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act in the UK applies to golf courses and requires a risk assessment and plan to minimise risk. According to Michael Shaw, chief executive of the UK’s National Golf Clubs’ Advisory Association, blind shot risks would be subject to this requirement. Although conducting an audit of risks may feel like a burden, it is further evidence that a course is serious about safety and fulfilling its duty of care.

Many golf courses in the US require golfers to sign a legal waiver or release of claims before teeing off or driving a golf cart. Private clubs can also seek to limit liability in their bylaws. The Court of Appeals of Massachusetts enforced an indemnity provision in a golf club’s member handbook in a wrongful death action ultimately saving the club (or its insurance company) US$4.5 million (see Post v Belmont Country Club). While the language of a limitation of liability is key, and implementation of a release can be met with resistance from pro shop personnel, these are hurdles that can be overcome.

As Prestwick, Lahinch, Cruden Bay and others have proven, it is possible safely to operate a blind par three for many years without incident. But to build a safe blind par three in today’s litigious age, it takes a combined effort from architect, management team, and perhaps a lawyer to avoid potential liability. And just to be safe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to throw in a little luck as well!

Mike Kraker is an American lawyer who specialises in golf course liability issues. For more information, visit his site.

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.