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Online Exclusives

June 2018

When Shorter is Better

By Trent Bouts

What does it say about golf that one of the most competitive athletes in sports history wants his own course to be, above all else, “fun and interesting.” 

That was Michael Jordan’s brief to architect Bobby Weed once the NBA legend committed to building Grove XXIII in Hobe Sound, Florida. There was a time, an era, when course developers of Jordan’s wealth wanted tough — the tougher the better.

Given that Grove XXIII’s membership will be plush with PGA Tour stars and other high-fliers, you might expect Jordan to demand a similar test. It’s not like the six-time NBA champion and six-time MVP has gone soft.

“He’s as passionate and as driven as anybody I’ve known,” Weed says.
Even so, Jordan is no Brooks Koepka. He may be a low-single-digit handicapper, but he’s not crushing three-woods 300 yards.

What’s “fun and interesting” to Jordan is competition. So, if he is to compete with buddies of that ilk, he’ll have more of a shot if their length is less of an advantage. To achieve that, Weed is crafting a course “with a more even challenge.”

“You can’t just back up the tees to 8,000 yards,” he says. “That only increases the advantage for the long-hitters. That’s not the answer.”

Weed is using proprietary performance data that helps him “understand the best players better than ever before.”

“We know their tendencies and we know how close they hit the ball to the pin from every yardage,” he says. Thus, he can heighten their challenge where it matters most without forcing shorter-hitters into the same battles. It’s an equation more course operators want to balance as the differential between the longer and shorter players has “never been greater,” Weed says.

Thus, Grove XXIII will feature tees ranging from 5,445 to 7,470 yards with more width for shorter hitters and fairways narrowing farther out. Some fairway bunkers will be as far 340 yards from the back tees. Weed will create tough recovery shots for misses that fall short right and go long left, where the data says the better players miss most often. Approaches to greens will have openings for bump and run shots for those who don’t possess the aerial game and spin control of a Tour player.

“So, we’re not making it easier or softer,” Weed says. “We’re making the golf course more playable, with more options. That’s the future of golf, I think.”

He cites historic Palatka Golf Club, a 1925-Donald Ross public layout in Florida that is a mere 5,820 from the tips. Despite its throwback length, the course attracts and tests strong amateur fields each year for the Florida Azalea and Florida Senior Azalea. Firm, undulating fairways reward a strategic line and length off the tee and small greens demand accuracy above all else. Only five players finished under par in 2017.

In Los Angeles, California, Brentwood Country Club used a comprehensive renovation in 2015 to create fun and interesting play for a wider spectrum of players. Additional tees – “combo tees” – were inserted between each of five existing tees, allowing members to find tees better-suited to their driving distance. The result is the stuff golf course operators’ dream of – shorter round times, more rounds and better member, or customer, retention.

The root of it all, says Brentwood’s’ 18-year director of golf Patrick Casey, “is that the membership is having more fun. More players have more options to play the course with the shots they are capable of playing. Scoring has improved for the average player and beginners.”

Rounds times are down from an average of 4 hours, 15 minutes pre-renovation to 3 hours, 55 minutes.

That’s a familiar refrain for Jan Bel Jan, the ASGCA golf course architect who has championed what she terms “scoring tees” since 2012. Like Weed and others, Bel Jan has known for a long time that many golf courses are too long for the average player, particularly women. When a golfer’s “consecutive best shots” can’t reach a green in regulation, Bel Jan says, “There’s a problem.”

That means extra shots, longer rounds, more fatigue, more frustration and, critically, less fun.

Bel Jan’s solution is tees that create a course in the 4,000- to 4,200-yard range catering to those with slower swing speeds. At that range, she says, par becomes a realistic prospect when the average woman player – with a handicap in the 22 to 26 range and a driving distance of 150 yards – can string together those consecutive best shots.

“They might even get themselves a birdie now and then,” she says.

Importantly, the term “scoring tees” is non-discriminatory, unlike seniors, ladies, juniors and so on, but everybody likes to score well. Bel Jan says that philosophy of equal treatment must literally be built into the tees themselves. For maximum effect, they must look as much a part of the golf course as the regulation tees.

“It’s not enough to just walk out there and drop down two markers,” she says. That implies scoring tee players have less standing at the facility, which can be a disincentive to move forward. 

Moreover, Bel Jan says scoring tees provide options for better players to hone their ability to strategize and polish their short games. At Pelican’s Nest Golf Club in Bonita Springs, Florida, some of the club’s better men players use the scoring tees for regular games. At Green Valley Country Club in Greenville, South Carolina, Bel Jan’s scoring tees on the 10 most difficult holes have transformed the experience for many women. Owner Mike Kaplan, who bought the club out of bankruptcy, told Golfweek that some who never broke 90 are now shooting scores in the mid-80s. “They’re just ecstatic,” he said.

The cost to install new sets of tees is subject to myriad variables, but Bel Jan says a ballpark range might run somewhere between $1,000 to $2,500 each.

Consulting an architect to ensure those tees are in the right place will increase costs, but Bel Jan says their location in relation to hazards, angles of play and ball trajectory all matter.

As Weed says, “We’re rethinking what was that penal, heroic school of design. Bunkers left and right front of the green with a little pinch point in between, that’s often more penal than it is strategic. The goal is not to drive people from away from the game, not to beat you up. I think that’s our charge today.”

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.


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