Out of bounds: the worst thing in golf?

  • Out of bounds
    Carnoustie Golf Links

    Hogan’s Alley, the par-five sixth at Carnousite, where a drive close to the out of bounds line sets up the best angle to attack the green

  • Out of bounds
    Jason Livy Photography

    Out of bounds on the right of the fourteenth at Royal St Georges arguably cost Dustin Johnson the 2011 Open

  • Out of bounds
    Kevin Murray

    Royal Liverpool’s dogleg first (which plays as the third for the Open), where out of bounds looms large on both drive and approach

  • Out of bounds
    Jason Livy Photography

    A railway line defines the right side of Woking’s famously strategic fourth

  • Out of bounds
    Talking Stick

    On the par-five second at Talking Stick’s O’odham course, there is plenty of room to the right, but “sooner or later you have to deal with the fence”, says Bill Coore

  • Out of bounds

    OCM’s redesign of Medinah No. 3 will see the fifth, sixth and tenth holes moved inward, but the out of bounds line will move in too, retaining its strategic impact

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Going out of bounds is, pretty much, the worst thing in golf. Compared to OB, losing a ball in a pond, gorse bush or patch of thick rough is kids’ stuff. But the white stakes that mark out of bounds lines are the golfer’s most hated enemy.

Why should this be? There is no fundamental reason why going out of bounds is worse than any other hazard; indeed, depending on what is to be found the other side of the OB line, it is often possible at least to retrieve the ball, something which is usually impossible from a water hazard and frequently also the case from vegetation like gorse, heather or rough. No, the issue is the penalty for going out of bounds, the infamous stroke and distance.

Effectively stroke and distance is a two-shot penalty, because it puts you back where you started at a cost of one more stroke. By contrast, tangle with other hazards and it is usually possible to drop fairly close to where the ball ended up: large water hazards can sometimes require going back a long way to find a drop zone, but they are the exception to this rule. Single penalty shots are annoying, but a shot is a shot – it only requires one piece of skill (or a failing on the part of one’s opponent) possibly to sneak a half on the hole. In medal play, losing a stroke is annoying, but rarely fatal. Two strokes, though, is something different: in a match, going OB means an almost certain loss of a hole, and in medal, giving up two shots is a more significant hill to climb if one is to get the round back on track.

Stroke and distance as a penalty for a lost ball first appeared in the St Andrews Rules in 1754. The rule, however, changed many times over the next two centuries, until, finally, in 1952, the R&A settled on stroke and distance as the penalty for hitting off the golf course (the USGA experimented with distance only in the early 1960s, but it didn’t last); the situation has remained the same ever since. But it is important to note that, when older courses were built, the penalty for going out of bounds was not necessarily quite as severe as it is today.

Back in the day, the use of out of bounds as a strategic hazard was, if not exactly commonplace, far from unknown. Some of golf’s most famous holes incorporate out of bounds lines, and some even present golfers with a strategic dilemma: the closer you can place your ball to the OB, the better the line for the next shot will be. Think, very obviously, of the Road hole at St Andrews. Famously fearsome for its blind drive over the old railway sheds and the former stationmaster’s garden (now part of the Old Course Hotel) and for the brutally difficult green, perched above the road and protected by a deep pot bunker, there is no doubt that the approach shot is easier (a relative term to be sure), especially to back pins that are tightly defended by the bunker, if the player has been brave enough, or lucky enough, to lay his drive close to the OB wall on the right side of the fairway. As the drive is blind, it takes a brave, perhaps foolhardy, player actually to try to do this. But fortune is said to favour the brave.

Royal Liverpool is a course famous for its use of out of bounds. The course’s traditional opening hole (now played as the third as a result of the changes made to bring back the Open) features a drive over a turf ‘cop’ which surrounds the practice ground; close to the cop is the favoured strategic line. The ninth (traditionally the seventh), known as the Dowie, is today a fairly unobtrusive par three, but it used to have out of bounds hard to the left edge of the green, meaning that, in the words of Bernard Darwin, ‘nearly everyone slices at the Dowie out of pure fright’. The old seventeenth, now the first, known as the Royal hole, was one of Harry Colt’s most famous creations, with the green set right against Stanley Road; sadly, because it was impossible to get spectators round it, the green had to go to get the Open back to Hoylake. Similarly, at Carnoustie, the famous par-five sixth, known as Hogan’s Alley, after the great American who won his only Open there in 1953, offers a definite advantage to the player bold enough to do as Hogan did in 1953 and lay his drive down the left hand side, close to the OB line and left of the centre bunkers. Or there is the famous fourth at Woking, where the course boundary, in the form of the railway line, defines the right side of the hole and the direct, open line to the green, with the centre bunkers built by John Low and Stuart Paton giving the golfer a clear choice of where to play (though the distance today’s better players carry their drives has reduced the impact of the hole a little). “The fourth at Woking has long been considered the birth of strategic golf design,” says Tim Lobb, who is consulting at the club. “Cleverly the green slopes from left to right so the golfers who take the risk of playing to the right of the bunkers will be rewarded with the easier approach to the green. A very intelligent yet simply strategic challenge for this important hole in the history of strategic golf course design.” Up the road at Swinley Forest, architect Colt designed the home hole to favour an approach from the left side, close to the course boundary and, over it, the house built for himself by club founder Alexander Davey – the alignment of the bunkers protecting the green shows clearly that Colt intended the best line of approach to be close to the fence. Sadly, Swinley has, to protect the course from balls going off its property, had to remove Colt’s strategic choice by building a bunker and growing rough up the left side.

Which illustrates the problem, in today’s age, with the strategic use of out of bounds. Even if golfers are prepared to risk the penalty for tangling with the OB (which they mostly are not), golf clubs cannot afford to ask them to do so, because the risk of balls flying over the boundary line and hitting some neighbour or passer-by, with the consequent likelihood of expensive legal action, is just too risky to countenance. “A course has to have edges, but OB is mostly a question of safety these days,” says Australian architect Neil Crafter. “What is on the other side of the OB stakes? Roads? Houses? Farmland or scrub? These days there’s no luxury in using OB as a strategic hazard. Sadly, it’s a thing of the past. It can have severe strategic impacts like the last few holes on the Old course.”

“OB is better to be avoided where possible in my opinion,” says French-based English architect Stuart Hallett. “However, I think a straight line, fence, rail track, or other is better, clear and fair whatever distance you hit it. There’s nothing worse than a jagged line, leaving doubts about, in or out. If it’s strategic, then it needs to be crystal clear and menacing.”

American architect Jay Blasi is not generally a fan either. “I hate the idea of OB – I feel if you can find your ball anywhere you should be able to play it,” he says. “That isn’t always practical, but many courses define OB inside of their actual property boundary, which I think sucks.” That said, Blasi is prepared to consider the strategic use of OB on a boundary line. “If you have a property boundary and can safely use it as a strategic element then I’m all for it,” he reflects. “Put the golf right against it. Probably is best for half par holes like short par fours of fives. And, because of the lack of recovery options, it is probably best to use it in the middle of the round. Too early and it frustrates the whole day, too late it ruins the round with no chance to recover. Mid-round you can make up for a mistake.”

And there are modern architects who have set up strategic OB holes. At the Talking Stick club in Arizona, which opened in 1997, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were faced with a totally flat property and needed to find ways to add interest to the holes on the two courses they built there. “It was completely flat. I put a Coca-Cola can at one end of the 400-acre property and went to the other end, and with binoculars I could see the can,” says Coore. “On a scale of zero to ten potential for golf, it was about 0.5. We’ve always said we like the site to guide us – but there was nothing to guide us. Yet the club has been incredibly successful – both courses are full and there’s a huge amount of repeat play.”

The second hole of Talking Stick’s O’odham course is famous for its use of OB as a strategic hazard. “There was a ditch that was about two-and-a-half-feet deep and six feet wide that the ranchers had dug, and there was a fence,” says Coore. “The fence was absolutely straight. So we said we would use it on one of our holes. We built a par five straight down the fence and put the green hard against the fence. There is a lot of fairway out to the right, but sooner or later you have to deal with the fence! You can play fifty yards or more out to the right on your first or second shot, but eventually you had to deal with the fence.”

Even at Talking Stick though, the fear of OB is strong. “I’m not sure they still play it as OB,” says Coore. “I think it’s played as a lateral hazard and so a one-shot penalty. Golfers can retrieve their ball but they have to drop.”

Which brings us to a current project where strategic OB is very much the order of the day. At the famed Medinah club in Chicago, the championship Course No. 3, which has hosted three US Opens, two PGA Championships, and the 2012 Ryder Cup, Australian firm Ogilvy, Cocking and Mead is currently in the preparation stage for a major renovation, which will bring the boundary line very much into play on two holes. The fifth, sixth and ten holes of Course No. 3 currently sit on the property line, and given the amount of development in the area around the course, have become very loud and busy over the years, so will be moved further away. Because the course has plenty of land – and because it is a regular host of major events – the plan is to move the holes inward on the property, but to build a fence at their edge, and outside the fence to create a ‘ring road’ to move people and equipment around the course while keeping away from play. Which means there is an opportunity!

Architect Mike Cocking explains: “In looking through a lot of the old aerials it seemed as though the boundary played a bigger role in the design of at least the sixth and tenth holes, but obviously with time and the encroachment of roads and houses the holes moved further away and the fenceline was vegetated to remove this design feature. Clearly we can’t once again expose the roads and houses but we liked the idea of using a fence line in this corner. It’s probably the plainest section of the course – fairly flat and without the water or large oaks which define so much of the course – and a fence, if done well, could add a great deal of character and interest.

“There is so much room to the right of each of these holes we have ended up suggesting they are moved inland slightly so that the true boundary is further away from play and allows more vegetation to properly screen the houses and roads, but then a new fence line is added against the edge of the fairway to create the strategic interest. This will be an attractive timber post and rail-style fence which will be in character with many other aspects of the redesign. I think it’s a clever way to bring a fence line into play without creating safety issues externally or opening up ugly views of the surrounding landscape.”

This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.