How golf course architects use illusion and camouflage to test us

They’re sneaky and crafty but that’s the fun of designing a golf course. Architects use a number of illusions to trick golfers into making bad guesses about distance. A yardage chart becomes essential, hence my own large collection of the things which I always carry when I’m watching professional tournaments too. It’s interesting to see how designers use illusions to entice the golfer to see things that might or might not be there.

One technique is with bunkers, Some can be built so the top edge appears to be level with the putting surface. So that the area between the bunker and the green is hidden. This can cause underclubbing. Swales in the fairway can confuse the eye into thinking the distance to the target is shorter than it actually is. At Riviera Country Club, site of the Los Angeles Open, large expanses between the tees and fairway bunkers are camouflaged hiding swathes of nasty kikuyu grass which can tangle the club and limit the balls bounce and roll.

An illusion in this sense is a misleading image presented to the eye the true characteristics of the hole are different from how they appear. This distance puzzle makes golf a unique challenge. Other sports use consistent measurements in standardised playing fields. In golf so many factors come into play that distance measurement is variable giving the risk of under or over clubbing.

Another trick is relative size. If two trees are planted near each other the smaller one will appear further away. Architects will plant taller trees further down the fairway can lead us to underestimate the relative distance between taller and shorter trees.

Designers tempt you to focus on the near edge of a feature while ignoring the far edge. The near portion is made prominent while the distant edge is less visible. On doglegs a bunker placed on a corner can lure you into attempting to carry it to shorten the hole. underestimate the distance and end up in the bunker. A bunker with a dominant face in this position might make the golfer choose the longer route around the dog leg because you would think the landing area is narrower.

A hole may appear to be longer than it is by running a water hazard alongside it. Trees either side of a fairway give the impression of a narrow landing area. Trees positioned at the back of a green may induce a player to hit short, particularly if the trees are taller than other trees along the fairway.

Flagstick heights can cause distance calculation problems. On links courses which are more exposed to the wind shorter flagsticks tend to be used, these can confuse the eye into overestimating yardages. There is a general human tendency to think of objects to be closer than they really are.

If a hole ascends from tee to green there can be a tendency to underestimate the steady increase in elevation and underclub. Descending holes tend to play shorter because of the drop. A ball carries further at high altitudes, and in high humidity and temperature.

Wind is an invisible hazard which the course designer takes into account prevailing wind patterns in deciding how course features are configured. If the prevailing wind blows east to west then putting greens will often be laid west to east to counteract the wind.

Tailwind – from behind the golfer – blows in the direction of the target. Spin has less effect and it is more difficult to shape the shot, the ball will carry further.

Headwind – blows toward the golfer from the target and makes the ball spins more. Draw or fade will curve more. Shots have a tendency to balloon reducing the carry. Use a less lofted club, play the ball with a lower trajectory, swing easier.

Crosswind – Cuts across shot lime and will cause the ball to move right or left.

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