Golf Tip: What is a “False Front” on a Green, and How Do You Play It?

You may have heard TV golf commentators refer to a green having a “false front” and wondered, What the heck is that?

The term describes a green with a sharp drop-off or ledge at the very front, where the green meets the fairway. The slope is technically part of the green and mowed to the same height as the rest of the surface, but it's too steep for a ball to come to rest there. That's what makes it “false.” (Many greens have similar fall-offs to the sides or back section, but these shouldn't be confused with false fronts.)

While modern golf course architects sometimes install false fronts, the feature is most common on courses built during the so-called “Golden Age” of golf course architecture, from about 1910-37. Designers including Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie used the feature as an element of deception and challenge. In fact, a false front can function much like a hazard, protecting a pin that's placed just past its crest.

A famous example of a false front is the 14th green at Augusta National Golf Club, home of
the Masters. The 14th hole at Pebble Beach features one as well.

When approaching a green with a false front, make sure you've got enough club to carry past it as any shot landing on the slope will likely roll back down into the fairway. From there, you'll typically face three options:

1. Running the ball up the bank with a putter or hybrid.

2. Hitting a chip-and-run (aka bump-and-run) with an iron.

3. Flying the ball to the green's top level with a lofted club.

Beware the false front – a subtle feature that can cause far more trouble than meets the eye.

What is a False Front Green, and How Do You Play It?

One of the great things about golf is the variety that you will face in the design of each course you play. Unlike most sports, which are played on fields or courts with pre-determined dimensions, every golf course on the planet is unique. This is part of what makes golf so enjoyable as a game that you can play for a lifetime, but it also presents some challenges to you as a golfer. In order to put good scores on your card time and time again, you need to understand how to analyze and attack the design of the course in front of you.

While all courses are unique, there are some common design elements that you will see used repeatedly - and one of those elements is the false front green. What is a false front? Even if you haven't heard this term previously, you certainly have encountered this design more than a few times. A green is said to have a 'false front' when the front portion of the green is too steep to actually hold the ball. The front is 'false' because if you hit that part of the green, your ball Isn't going to stay on the putting surface for long. Landing your ball on the false front is one of the more frustrating experiences on the course, as you will have to watch as your ball rolls back toward you - and away from the hole. Some courses will only have one or two false fronts (or none at all), while other courses will make regular use of this design tactic.

False fronts are more commonly seen on hilly golf courses, as the topography provides the opportunity to build up the green complexes appropriately. Also, they are far more intimidating on courses with fast greens. When the greens are quick, it doesn't actually take that much of a slope within the false front to repel your ball back off of the green. Even if you don't think the front of the green is very steep, you might be surprised to see your ball rolling off thanks to the combination of a slight slope and fast putting surfaces.

Professional golfers are used to dealing with false fronts, and they are sure to take this design element into consideration when planning their shots. You should be using a similar line of thinking to your professional counterparts, and that is going to be the focus of this article. Having a clear plan of attack for dealing with a false front is an important part of the mental game puzzle. You don't ever want to simply aim for the green and hope for the best - you can do better than that. Think about how the green is designed - including whether or not a false front is present - and then pick your shot accordingly.

All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions accordingly.

Assessing the Situation

Assessing the Situation

When you suspect that the green in front of you is guarded by a false front, the first thing you need to do is take an overview of the situation and work on coming up with a smart plan for your shot. The approach that you take is going to depend on the specific design of the green and the surrounding area, so your plan of attack will vary from one false front to another. It is the golfer who is able to adapt best to what they are facing on the course that will come out ahead at the end of the day.

As you are working on a plan for avoiding trouble related to a false front, keep the following three questions in mind.

  • How steep is the front? This is really the most important point to keep in mind. If the false front really Isn't steep enough to repel your ball (when taking into consideration the course conditions), then you don't have to worry about it as an obstacle. Even if you come up short of your actual target and wind up on the front of the green, you will still be able to putt and there shouldn't be any damage to your score card. In order to avoid pace of play problems, many public courses resist the temptation to put in severe false fronts - therefore, you might not actually have anything to be afraid of in the first place. Take a careful look at the green and make your best guess as to how punishing the false front actually would be.
  • What kind of trouble is short of the green? When looking at a false front, you always want to look short of the green itself to see what kind of trouble may be lurking. For example, there could be a pond waiting to catch balls that roll back off of the front edge, or there could just be some light rough. Obviously, if there is a pond short of the green, you will need to play as safe as possible by giving yourself plenty of margin to clear the front. On the other hand, if it is only a little rough that is waiting short of the green, you might not have to worry so much. Golf is all about finding the right balance between risk and reward - taking on a false front while trying to get close to the hole is too risky if a hazard is waiting, but it's probably a chance worth taking if you would still have an easy chip for your next shot.
  • Where is the hole located? Is the hole located somewhere close to the false front, or is it all the way in the back of the green? If the hole is in the back, you probably don't need to worry about the false front much anyway, since your shot should be carrying well onto the putting surface. However, if you are looking at a hole that is cut somewhere within a few steps of that false front, you will have to be more careful. A shot that comes up just slightly short - maybe due to a minor miss-hit or a gust of wind - could catch the false front and run back down the slope to leave you with a difficult shot. Be wary of pins that are located near the front in an effort to tempt you into a mistake. While you always want to get your ball as close to the hole as possible (obviously), it is just as important to avoid making an error that will cost you a shot or more on the scorecard.

Each of the three questions above need to be processed while you are getting ready to hit a shot. As you get more experience in dealing with this kind of situation, you should find that you get better and better at making good decisions. Successfully handling a false front requires a combination of good nerves, patience, and solid execution. Even though a false front might not look as intimidating as some of the other types of hazards and obstacles that can be found on a golf course, it can be just as harmful to your score at the end of the day.

Beware of Backspin

Beware of Backspin

Even if your ball does manage to carry over the false front on the fly, you will still have to protect against putting too much spin on the ball and bringing it back onto the slope. Backspin on approach shots is usually thought of as a good thing - and it can be - but it can be trouble if the ball starts to roll back and gets onto the slope of the false front. This is a problem that often comes up on soft greens. If you hit a spinning wedge into a soft green with a false front, there is a good chance you will see that ball slowly start to roll back toward you.

So what can you do to counteract the effects of backspin on your approach shots? The answer can be found in trajectory. If you are able to bring the ball in lower than normal when facing a false front, you can reduce the chances of the ball spinning back. Even if the shot still has plenty of backspin, it should just bounce once or twice prior to coming to a stop right where it is, rather than reversing course and potentially rolling off the front. To hit the ball lower, you want to use a soft swing with the ball slightly back in your stance. Also, you may need to use one extra club in order to carry the ball the right distance. During your next practice session, work on learning how to hit lower wedges and use this shot anytime you are worried about backspin leading your ball down a false front.

The ability to control your spin rate will help you all the way around the course - not just when you are dealing with a false front. Many golfers aspire to create as much spin as possible on all of their shots, but too much spin can take your ball way up into the air, where it is harder to control your distance accurately. There is a time and place for hitting high shots with lots of spin, but you also need to have the ability to hit controlled shots that keep the trajectory and overall spin rate down. Only when you are able to hit both high and low shots with varying spin rates will you be able to conquer all of the challenges that a tough golf course can throw your way.

One last point that needs to be made about backspin and false fronts has to do with the type of golf ball that you are using. If you choose to use a 'less-expensive' golf ball that has a hard cover and won't spin much, you won't need to fear spinning the ball back off of the front. Most lower-end golf ball models aren't capable of spinning back a significant distance, simply due to their construction and the materials used in the ball. However, if you are using a premium ball designed for Tour-level performance, spinning back is a real possibility. As you stand over your shot in the fairway and think about how to avoid the false front, be sure to consider the kind of golf ball that you are about to strike.

A Numbers Game

A Numbers Game

Another one of the keys to dealing with a false front successfully is proving yourself with accurate information. You need to know exactly what kind of distances you are looking at for the various portions of the green in order to pick the right club and the right kind of shot. When most golfers are getting ready for an approach shot, they think about just one number - the distance to the hole itself. That number is obviously important, but you should be doing a little more work if you want to navigate your way onto the putting surface safely time after time.

If you are facing a green that features a false front, you really need to know how far you have to hit the ball in order to clear that front and get to the flat part of the green. Essentially, that is the number that you should treat as the 'front of the green' yardage. Even though you might have another 10 yards of green (for example) short of the false edge, that part of the green won't do you any good because the ball isn't going to sit there anyway.

The best way to determine the distance to the false edge is through the use of a yardage book, if one is available on the course you are playing. It is hard to determine exactly how deep the false edge is when you are standing back in the fairway, but that information will usually be marked in a good yardage book. Of course, if a book isn't available, you could make your own if you are playing a course that you will return to over and over again. Put a small notebook in your bag and write down important points during your rounds, such as the size of any false fronts that you encounter. This information will become highly valuable to you during future rounds, and it shouldn't take much effort to jot it down as you play.

So, for instance, let's say that you now have gathered two yardages for your approach shot - one to the hole itself, and one to the top of the false front. Both of these numbers are important, but your club and shot selection process should start with the number to carry the false edge. This carry isn't optional - it is a requirement for a good shot. You have to pick a club that you are sure will be able to get up and over that false front. If you come up short of the edge, it isn't going to matter where the hole is located because your ball is going to wind up off the front of the green. Start by picking a club that is sure to be enough to get safely onto the green, and then move on to worrying about the hole location.

Once you are holding a club that is certainly going to miss the false front, you can then decide how aggressive you want to be in terms of attacking the hole location. If the hole is only a few steps beyond the false edge, playing slightly long and leaving yourself in a safe position is probably the right play. You could choose to be aggressive and go for the hole itself, but that decision is going to bring the false front back into the picture. Deciding on your course of action in this situation will depend on where you are at in your round, and what kind of style you like to play. An aggressive player will take a chance in order to hopefully set up a birdie, while the tactical player will look to the safe side for an easy par. There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer - it is more about how you play and the kind of confidence that you have in your swing.

Recovering from a Mistake

Recovering from a Mistake

Even with great planning and smart club selection, you are probably going to see your ball come down a false front every once in a while. When that happens, you need to know how to hit a quality chip or pitch shot to set up a par-saving putt. With the right short game skills and a little bit of practice, you should be able to recover from the bottom of a false front at a pretty good rate. To get up and down as frequently as possible, consider using the tips that follow -

  • Pitch it low. There is a temptation, when at the bottom of a false front, to loft the ball up in the air and land it softly somewhere near the hole. While this is certainly an option, the better play is usually to pitch the ball up the slope and let it bounce a few times on the way to the cup. This is the safer choice, as going for the lofted pitch makes it more likely that you come up short and have to watch the ball roll back down again. The last thing you want to do is have to pitch again before setting up a putt, so take the safe round and use a less-lofted club to bump the ball into the slope.
  • Play it safe. This point way alluded to above, but it needs to be highlighted on its own as well - you absolutely have to find a way to put the ball on the green with your first chip or pitch. If the hole is cut only slightly above the false front, you will want to pull off the perfect shot in order to knock it close - but trying to get close makes it possible that you will be short and the ball will come back. That is a mistake that you simply can't afford if you want to keep your score on the right track. Even if it means setting up a longer putt than you would like, the top priority on this short game shot is to place the ball somewhere on the green.
  • Take a deep breath. Seeing your ball roll off of a false front is a frustrating experience. In one moment, you probably think the ball is on the green for a birdie putt - and then suddenly, it has rolled off and you are chipping. To get over this frustration, take a deep breath or two prior to playing the chip or pitch. You need to get your mind off of the disappointment of the last shot and bring your focus up to the task at hand. This isn't always easy, but a couple of deep breaths will go a long way toward restoring your focus and positive attitude.

Mistakes happen in golf - and sometimes they aren't even your fault. Your ball could roll off of a false front due to a poor swing, or it could simply come up short because of wind that started to blow after you swung. Whatever the case, dealing with mistakes is a big part of playing good golf. Before playing a pitch shot up onto the green from below a false front, get your mind in a good place and come up with a specific plan for the shot - your results will benefit as a result of taking these actions.

False fronts are just one of many 'tricks' that course designers use to make the game more interesting. While they are frustrating at times, they can also be conquered through a combination of smart decision making and good execution. Use the information contained in this article to make wise choices regarding approach shots onto a green with a false front, and you can minimize the damage that this course feature does to your scorecard.