The pursuit of safety

  • Safety
William Swan
By William Swan

Since the restart of professional golf there has been a lot of discussion around driving distances. It’s been amazing to see just how far the pros can hit the ball. And the carry distances… wow!

The ‘Bryson factor’ has certainly added some excitement to these first few tournaments. Golf balls are flying faster, higher and further than ever before, and it makes for quite a spectacle.

There are a lot of theories about what is causing the increase in distances, whether that’s improved player technique or fitness or improvements in golf ball or club technology. I’ve got my opinions, but certainly wouldn’t be claiming to know the definitive answer. However, what I do know is that it is having an impact on how golf courses are being played – by tour professionals and also by the rest of us – and it’s not entirely positive.

Now, it is important to say here that I am not against long hitting. Being able to hit the ball a long way is a great skill and one that should be rewarded when it is well executed. Professional golf has always had its fair share of long hitters in the same way as some amateurs hit further than others, but it’s never been the case that length off the tee directly correlates with success. The trick is to combine such long hitting with the other key skills, not least accuracy.

Having said that, I am increasingly concerned about how the ability to hit the ball further is affecting golf courses – not in terms of scoring but in terms of safety.

The hard truth is that golf can be a dangerous game. Golf balls can cause significant damage to people and property.

I know this anecdotally – I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about people getting hit – and also from having worked as an expert witness on litigation relating to errant golf shots. At the lower end of the scale, windows are broken, roof tiles are cracked and cars are dented. I wouldn’t say that these are trivial, but at least they can be repaired. My greatest concern is when people are injured, as often these incidents are not so easily overcome.

The golfing community has a responsibility to make sure that the game is safe. It could be argued that golf’s various governing bodies could play a more active role in ensuring golf does not become more dangerous. Certainly, if the game embraced a roll-back on ball and club technology so that distances and trajectories reverted to those of the not-so-distant past, that would help reduce the dangers of being on or adjacent to golf courses. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that such action will be forthcoming. In the meantime it’s up to golfers, golf clubs and the rest of the golf industry to do everything possible to protect the game.

The primary responsibility is on golfers to ensure their golf shots will not cause injury or damage, but it is also the responsibility of golf course operators (private members’, proprietary or municipal golf clubs) to create conditions in which this can be done. Between us we have a duty of care to other golfers on the course and also to those that live, drive or walk on or adjacent to the course.

We at Swan Golf Designs believe that prevention is better than the cure, so as professional golf course architects we work hard to ensure that our designs are as safe as they can possibly be. We always conduct comprehensive safety audits and make detailed risk assessments of courses that we work on and designs that we propose. This not only protects our clients and their golfers, but also helps to prevent avoidable and costly incidents affecting third parties. And in partnership with law firm Taylor Rose, we offer a stand-alone safety audit for golf clubs. We will analyse your golf course, identify and quantify any potential risks, and propose solutions which eliminate, reduce or mitigate these risks.

The greatest concern is always golf balls landing beyond the boundaries of the golf course. Those that live, work, walk or drive adjacent to golf courses do not necessarily know or understand the dangers involved, and it’s the golfers’ and golf clubs’ role to prevent them from being injured or their property damaged. It’s also no good saying ‘the golf course was here first’ or that ‘it didn’t used to be a problem’. Both of those may well be true, but if the problem exists now then a solution needs to be found. It would be even better if we could identify an issue before it becomes a problem, and that’s where risk assessments come in.

Where dangers exist within the golf course we could argue that those at risk – the golfers – have a better chance of knowing what may befall them and, therefore, how to avoid it. That is not to say that identified risks shouldn’t be removed or mitigated, but rather that this is usually more easily achieved. Again, a full risk assessment of the golf course allows clubs to proactively address any potential issues and prevent future incidents.

If there was one piece of advice we could give all golf clubs it would be to not bury their heads in the (bunker) sand. Don’t place your club at risk of litigation or forced closure by not addressing potential or current safety issues, when a little forward planning could help prevent future loss.

William Swan is a Golf Course Architect at Swan Golf Designs. He can be contacted on +44 1728 727006 or at