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Classic Comeback

Green-side hummocks are back in style

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No. 10 at Inverness Golf Club, photo by Andy Johnson
No. 10 at Inverness Golf Club is once again sporting the green-side hummocks originally designed by Donald Ross.

The low points of the 1980s were truly low: mullets, Milli Vanilli, and golf course architects washing away much of the great character from the golden age. Quirks and creative thinking were stamped out and replaced with water- and tree-lined fairways and greens choked by bunkers. But some classics, like tailored suits and suspenders, are making a comeback. Hummocks, also known as chocolate drops, are once again on the scene.

These moundings were originally used as a hazard off the tee or on the approach to greens. Hummocks saw their popularity dwindle over the years mostly because they were misunderstood. Unlike most hazards, which have a clear line of good or bad, hummocks bring chance into the equation. Their mounded, uneven nature can lead to a great bounce that saves a poor shot or a bad bounce that punishes a decent one. This unpredictability was labeled unfair and led to the flattening of most hummocks, with bunkers or water hazards as replacements.

That also ironed out the excitement hummocks bring to a round. The element of chance—the stomach-churning emotion of watching a shot on the edge of good or bad—is what golfers talk about after their rounds. Hummocks provided another tool for architects to conjure this feeling during a golfer’s journey around a course.

Over the years, the historic Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, abandoned all of its original hummocks. But a recent renovation by Andrew Green brought the feature back from the original plans of the famed Donald Ross layout. Ross admired hummocks and used them regularly in his designs. He appreciated their versatility and ability to test a player’s skill at playing from different stances. In his book, Golf Has Never Failed Me, Ross suggested, “Nothing is quite so good for testing approach shots.”

The 393-yard 10th hole at Inverness is an excellent use of this tool. Its fairway tumbles downhill into a hollow 250 yards from the tee before it’s cut off by a creek just short of the green, forcing most players to lay up to a wedge distance. But a series of 3-foot hummocks now guards the left and right sides of the green, defending it from errant and overaggressive shots. Hit the green and a birdie putt awaits; miss and it’s welcome to the chocolate-drop factory. 

Hummocks do not possess the visually imposing threat of a deep bunker, but they can exact a similar penalty. While great players find bunkers predictable, hummocks are the opposite. Their thick rough and uneven lies make recovering around the green in less than three at times nearly impossible. Meanwhile, a hummock can make for an easy recovery for an average Joe in comparison to a bunker, creating the rare scenario where a 15-handicap can be more comfortable than a scratch player.

Many courses in America fall into the trap of monotony: fairway, green, bunker right, bunker left for 18 holes. Hummocks add variety, chance and much-needed quirk to golf courses. Here’s hoping that this time, like a good bowtie, hummocks are more than a passing trend. 

Andy Johnson is a Chicago-based golf writer and competitive amateur golfer. His website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf course architecture and professional and amateur golf.