The Barranca: What It Is on a Golf Course

On a golf course, a "barranca" is a (usually) dry ditch, gully or ravine that is (often) littered with rocks and/or desert-type vegetation.

Yes, there were a couple parenthetical caveats in that first sentence. Sometimes barrancas are a mixture of smaller rocks, sandy soil, and desert plants. Some golf courses call any kind of ravine or ditch a barranca, because, hey, the word sounds cool.

Note that "barranca" did not originate as a golf term. It is a geographical term, and the dictionary definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a deep gully or arroyo with steep sides" or "a steep bank or bluff." The term's use by golfers can mean one of those things, but within the golf world, the term has also acquired some other meanings, too.

'Barranca' Is a Spanish Word for 'Ravine'

"Barranca" is a Spanish word meaning gulley or ravine. Merriam-Webster traces the word's crossover to English speakers to 1648. According to the Historical Dictionary of Golf (affiliate link), the word first began appearing in the lexicon of English-speaking golfers and golf media in the late 1800s.

The Historical Dictionary cites, for example, an 1887 magazine article by Horace Hutchinson in which Hutchinson — the 1886 and 1887 British Amateur champ — describes a golf course's terrain as "bare crumbly clay, with stones interspersed among it, and intersected by dry barrancas or water-courses."

Ravines, gullies, ditches, gulches, canyons, draws — these things have always been around on golf courses. But today, calling such a feature a "barranca" often indicates a rocky or desert-y look to the feature.

At one point in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, barrancas became trendy in golf course design and some architects began creating them by hollowing out small gullies and filling the bottoms with rocks. These appeared more like dry creek beds than ravines, but, again, "barranca" is a cool word to use in golf course marketing, so the term was applied.

Is a Barranca a Penalty Area?

Whether a barranca is played as a penalty area or not is up to the golf course staff (or tournament organizers) to determine, and may depend on the location of any given barranca.

Most barrancas are not penalty areas, but rather parts of the golf course you will very much try to avoid hitting into. Just like that thick stand of trees running alongside the fifth fairway isn't a penalty area, but you sure don't want to hit into those trees.

If a barranca is designated a penalty area on a golf course, the course (or tournament organizers) will let you know in one of several ways. They might paint a boundary line around it, or place stakes around, with the color of the line or stakes indicating the penalty procedure; and/or the penalty area-status might be indicated on the scorecard or pin sheet.

But in most cases, a barranca on a golf course is simply something to avoid. And if you do hit into one but cannot find your ball, or find it but cannot play it, then you'll likely be proceeding under a lost ball or unplayable ball procedure.

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