What Is a Split Fairway in Golf?

A "split fairway" in golf is a fairway that, at some point on its route to the putting green, splits into two distinct fairways, offering the golfer the option to play to one side or the other. It's a way for golf course architects to provide some variety and some extra options for playing strokes off the tee and into greens.

Split fairways are an architectural feature that are not necessarily common on golf courses, but they aren't rare, either. Some well-known ones include No. 8 at Riviera Country Club in California, and No. 7 at Valhalla Country Club in Kentucky. The sixth hole at Carnoustie in Scotland is where Ben Hogan played four rounds in a row to the narrow, dangerous side of the split en route to winning the 1953 British Open.

Split fairways are also called alternate fairways, double fairways or dual fairways. One hole, two different fairways to pick from off the tee. (Fairways on par-5 holes that split closer to the green — offering golfers the choice of two different fairways for the approach shot rather than tee shot — also exist, but are rarer. The 18th hole at Valhalla is an example of this type.)

Jack Nicklaus, who designed two split fairways into his Valhalla course, once wrote for Golf Digest:

"I like option golf. As a designer, I think it's good to give golfers choices. And as a player, I enjoy weighing those choices. That's why I like holes that offer double fairways, where you have to pick one route over another."
Picking one route over another is the key to split fairways. When faced with a split fairway, the golfer must assess which presents the best path to the hole. Such holes are typically designed so that the fairway that offers the best approach to the green is also the one that is most challenging to hit from the tee. It's a risk-reward option.

A fairway that splits usually branches into two separate fairways by going around some natural or manmade feature that bisects the fairway. The fairway might be split by a natural feature, such as a creek or ravine. Or the feature that splits the fairway might be manmade, such as large bunker, a waste bunker, mounding, or simply a long patch of rough.

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