Creating An Equal Game: Rethinking Distance is the Number One Key
Six hundred yards. If you think golf should be an equitable game, then have J.B. Holmes play par 4s from six football fields back.
“It’s just math,” says Arthur Little.
If a basic tenet of the game is that well-executed drives by players of any ability level should lead to an approach shot that has each of them hitting the same club, then we need to kick to the curb long-standing presumptions as to what constitutes “proper” tees. If economics — and practicality — don’t support pushing Jason Day that far back, that’s fine, let’s just move most everyone else a lot closer, far closer than might be assumed.
Four thousand yard forward tees, anyone?
ALL ABOUT SWING SPEED
Arthur Little is the Pied Piper of Practical Distance — my phrase, not his. He was a presenter at this spring’s 2017 North American Golf Innovation Symposium in Vancouver BC, co-sponsored by the USGA, Golf Canada and the Mexican Golf Federation. He’s a former course owner, avid golfer, and consultant/confidant to all manner of golf industry groups, including the USGA, National Golf Course Owners Association and America Society of Golf Course Architects. With his wife, Jann Leeming, through the family’s trust, he is also a financial supporter of research endeavors and growth initiatives.
In practical observations over the years and most recently with empirical testing, Little has devised a yardage-differential template suggesting where tees should be placed based on swing speed, calling how far players hit drives the “critical point,” and downplaying tee assignment based on handicap, though his recommendations also present index ranges alongside speed categories. As he said at the conference, with a cheerily dismissing eye roll and shrug, “We did the handicaps because some people still want to look at that.”
In sum, historically and continuing today, most golf courses are set up far too long for shorter-hitting players, be they women, juniors, seniors, beginners. And, yes, the data reinforces the popular lament that many men play it too far back, too.
Players with a 65-mph swing speed should be presented 18-hole regulation courses set at 3,900-4,100 yards. That’s the swing speed of the average female recreational golfer, yielding a 154-yard drive. Junior players, who the data shows swing at 55 mph, would need further yardage concessions. The average male recreational golfer should stick with courses at 6,000-6,200 yards given his typical 90-mph swing and 220-yard drive. (Get OFF the blues, boys, most every one of us.) Accomplished amateurs who can move a driver at 105 mph can stick to the 6,800-plus length tees with their 300-yard blasts.
“It is all about fun,” shared Bruce Charlton, the chief design officer at Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects, a panelist with Little. “You need to get players into a position off the tee to where they have a chance to succeed and to have fun. This is telling me you need to think a lot farther forward than the norm.”
And by “success” and “fun,” he means a realistic expectation of reaching a green in regulation. So let’s put to rest that antiquated — and always false — notion that as long as various tees put players into the same position in the fairway, it is fair. Yardage differential between players continues from driver through the bag, and speed also equates to higher flight and more carry.
SHATTER THE NORM
Little’s testing data was commissioned by the course owners association through Gene Parente’s Golf Laboratories of San Diego, a respected independent testing facility. It should be noted that this was mechanical testing using tracking technology, so the numbers cited in the report are under perfect laboratory conditions and therefore exceed what John and Joan and you and I can do out in the field on an every swing basis.
In a supporting document, the USGA presented what it would take for players across the speed spectrum to have the same club in hand on the approach shot; in other words, the distance from which each group should be driving on par-4s. For the shot none of us want — a fairway wood approach on a par-4 — a fast, 110-mph swinger and a slow mid-60-er would have to tee off 260 yards apart for each to have that same type of club in hand for the second shot. That’s a tee at 560 yards and one at 300. But we want diversity in our course designs and our shots, so if the design goal is to sometimes put mid-irons in players hands, those tees need to be set at 490 and 260 yards, respectively, and for a wedge, move them to 450 and 220 yards.
Pull out a half-dozen scorecards; rare is the regulation course with multiple low-200-yard par-4s and spots out front totaling 4,743, let alone 4,057 yards, and a par of about 72. The courses I play most often hover around the 5,600 mark. We cannot default to the position that the solution is, however, simply an executive or par-3 course. We need those, too. But folks of all ilk still deserve that experience of 3s, 4s and 5s. We need to rethink “regulation,” and the black-7,100/blue-6,500/white-6,100/red-5,600 paradigm needs to be shattered.
It’s not just about the grounds crew pulling out a Bushnell, finding a spot in the middle of the fairway some distance out from the green, mowing a rectangle and dropping down two markers. Golf is a game of the senses for all. It needs to excite. It needs to present a challenge; a challenge commensurate with skill level, but a challenge all the same. All players pay the same green fee, so dumbing it down is nothing more than patronizing and insulting.
It’s easier with a new project versus a retrofit, or dealing with shoreland or in the desert versus a tree-defined parkland site, to locate tees and have them function well aesthetically while being relevant to those playing them.
“That is one of the key areas,” Little said in an interview after the Vancouver symposium, when asked how to make the placement of a tee box on a, say, 230-yard par-4 workable for all parties. “You need to look at your course from the visual perspective, where it is you placed new tees and whether you would have done that differently, or where you should place them. You can’t just run out a string of tees going forward in a line, you need an artistic setting of the tees. Think of angles for better play, using them to help lesser-skilled players steer away from hazards and to use the ground to better help them advance the ball, and so you don’t impinge directly on the sight lines of those playing from behind.”
THE SANTA ANA CC EXAMPLE
In 2014 Santa Ana CC began a tweak that turned into a total baby/bathwater do over. Golf Course Architect Jay Blasi, who might be best known as the architect-on-site during the building of Chambers Bay GC, was hired by the club to lead the transformation.
Blasi, his team, club leaders and the membership spent a long time in dialogue and planning, figuring out where to take the venerable club. It was decided, as Blasi says, to “blow it up” and come up with something new and intriguing where the “great common goal was to make the course more fun and more enjoyable for more players.”
On the sticks side of the ledger, SACC didn’t pick up length, per se, as it did better angles and much more diversity in shot requirements, hole orientations and good old variety.
Drastic change came at the front-line tees, which once were at 5,600 yards and now top the scales at four-large.
“The old routing was too long for women,” Blasi said, “too hard for juniors and short hitters, but not tough enough for long hitters. The approaches were too tough for those who can’t hit a high ball and it lacked strategy.”
Through the assessment process he spent a great deal of time assessing how women play the course and the club pro had them on Trackman, charting their real-world yardages. “Watching groups of women playing you’d see that the course wasn’t even close to being reasonable,” he added. “They are hitting 3-woods from 105 yards where I would have a sand wedge. Dustin Johnson would be upset if forced to play a 650-yard par-4, but that’s exactly what they were feeling.
“Tees are one thing. You also really need to look at the design of the hole in relation to the green complex. Appropriate yardage is great but if the greens will only receive a high, soft shot, or if anything that misses ends up in a deep bunker or rough, that is an extra challenge some players cannot overcome. It all goes hand in hand.”
Former LPGA Tour player, two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and Golf Channel announcer Kay Cockerill obviously is an accomplished player, and even with her skill set, she said playing “6,200 yards or so, if it is firm,” is about as far back as she wants to go.
“I don’t want to have to hit every driver perfectly and I want to have some 8-irons in. I don’t want it all to be short, as I don’t want it all 400-plus-yard par 4s. I want variety and I want to have fun. Fun golf is fast golf and not banging your head against the wall.” My guess is that’s the mantra for most of us.
“Shorter hitter” is becoming, thankfully, a gender-neutral concept. Yes, yes, people still cluster based on gender, and there will be trends, but what golf needs is for more recreational players to check in with reality, and more course owners and developers to provide the necessary product.
Be who you are, and enjoy it.
“You have to get away from the stigma of tees for different genders. It needs to be ability-based,” Cockerill advised. “You don’t go on a black diamond run if you don’t have the talent for it.”
Know your capabilities and your speed.