In the last couple of weeks we have seen runoff areas featured at Pebble Beach during the US Open and at Aronimink for a PGA Tour event. Some modern golf course architects and so called restoration experts have convinced golf's oligarchy that runoff areas are historically accurate and were prevalent features for some golf course designers of the "Golden Era" of architecture.
In the 1920s and the 1930s there were no runoff areas on golf courses. It's just that simple, the revisionist golf course architecture history is purely a fabrication. How do I know this? Good question and the answer will appear self evident. Fairway mowing heights in the 20s and 30s were generally between 1 and 1.5 inches or about the same as today's intermediate rough height. Does a ball roll very far in intermediate rough? No, it settles down very quickly. It really is that simple, the great designers of the 20s and 30s could have wanted to have runoff areas but the mowing heights didn't allow it to happen. Greens in the 20s and 30s were maintained at 3/16 to 1/4 of an inch or about the same as the most closely cropped runoff areas of today.
Now mind you, I really like short grass around putting surfaces, although I have difficulty understanding why most modern designers only utilize short grass to take the ball away from the green. It seems as if a balance of run-on areas and runoff areas would be more interesting golf architecture but that's another blog for another time.
Having worked at Aronimink some thirty plus years ago, I really enjoyed seeing the golf course on TV. I did golf course setup there for three years and knew the golf course fairly well. I thought the changes were an improvement to the golf course but to call them historically correct in regard to playability is just flat wrong.
Below are two articles from the 1930s that talk about fairway mowing heights. We might assume that in the 1920s the mowing heights were even higher.
1933. The Bulletin of the United States Golf Association Green Section. May. 13(3): p. 86-87.
Cutting height for fairway turf.—What is the proper height for
cutting fairways in midsummer? At that time of the year our fair-
ways are often badly burned from drought, and the clay loam on
which they are built becomes hard and baked. Our practice has been
to cut the fairways at 3/4 inch in spring and 1 inch in summer. (New
ANSWER.—Recent work which we have conducted concerning the
best height of cut for fairways, Kentucky bluegrass fairways in par-
ticular, has indicated that for the best growth of grass the Kentucky
bluegrass should be cut not closer than 1&1/2 inches. This is a little
high, no doubt, for fairway purposes unless the fairways can be
cut frequently enough to prevent the grass from growing much
taller. It would be found that if the grass could be left that long it
would be conducive to a much thicker turf, and hence the ball might
easily present a better lie than it would on turf cut at 3/4 inch but
much thinner. We would suggest that you commence to cut the turf
in the early spring at 1&1/2 inches and continue through the summer
with the 1-inch cut, and if necessary during the early fall, when blue-
grass is growing vigorously. However we would allow the grass to
go into the winter on a long cut; in other words, as the end of the
fall growing season approaches we would allow the grass to grow to
1&1/2 inches. This gives the grass more of an opportunity to store up
plant food to be carried through the winter and to obtain a good start
in the early spring.
Fairway Mowing Height
Q.—Shall we set our mowers as close as one
inch for cutting fairways and lawns? (Ohio.)
A.—In general we find that bluegrass and
fescue on fairways have been cut too close. Our
recommendation is that mowers be set as high
as the golfers will permit. The higher the fair-
way grass is cut, the better it will withstand
adverse conditions. There naturally is a limit
to the height that can be tolerated on fairways.
Since this height is below that which is best
from the standpoint of the grass, we make no
specific recommendation as to height but simply
urge that the mowers be raised as far as the
players will allow, realizing that this will be
decidedly different on various golf courses. Our
experience has been that as the mowers are gradu-
ally raised, the players will tolerate longer grass
and will actually find that the playing conditions
will be greatly improved even though the roll
of the ball will be less.