One of the consistent things that I enjoy on older courses is the natural flow of the land uninterrupted by man-made contours. I’ll even take flat fairway over ones that have been artificially shaped to have roll. The modern idea seems to be that fairways must be receptive to be fair and rolling to be interesting. Architects now shape the fairways to achieve both and have turned to fairway area drains in order to make it work.
The new fairways are not only contrived but often feature a “moon like” appearance where the area drains have been used. The placement is so uniform and predictable that the shaping around the basins often upstages even great bunkering. I look at a great course like Tobacco Road where the wildness of the bunkering stands out – yet quite often the fairways come across as too contrived due to the extensive use of area drains in the landing areas. Even a create mind like Mike Strantz can’t overcome the definitive bowl shape that catches your eye and interrupts the natural flow of the land. Once you start using them – there can no longer be anything natural about the fairways. The more you use the less natural the look.
The main reason they are used is to catch water and get it underground as soon as possible so that play will not be interrupted through rain. The only problem with this idea is the low areas around the basins tend to remain wet – and since that is where most balls tend to collect the results are less than satisfying as a player. Throw in ice problems in the north and agronomic problems with wet turf and you wonder why they are so prevalent. If the fairway can be drained off to either side it always removes water far more effectively.
Some builder’s and superintendent’s want them since they catch water quickly to avoid washouts during grow in but there are so many alternatives from wood mulch to just plain old sod that turning to basins should remain a last resort. I personally like to make a conscious effort to route holes so that water can fall off the sides and avoid the problems in the first place. Holes with containment mounds are often forced to use them.
They need to be treated as a necessary evil rather than an important tool – then golf courses will be much better for the change in attitude.