This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of NCGA Golf.
By Stephanie Wei
It’s no secret that golf has largely been viewed as a male-dominant sport, and that the vast majority of traditional course designs and setups cater primarily to men. Women’s needs are often incorporated into golf courses merely as an afterthought.
The industry has long neglected to offer a suitable and enjoyable experience for more than half of the world’s population. It’s no wonder that women have been far outnumbered on the golf course, as they make up just 21% of amateur golfers in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation. Time, access, difficulty and an overall unwelcoming environment certainly provide plenty of barriers to prevent more women from participating in the game.
However, times are (finally) changing, and modern facilities have begun to take into account how to accommodate women. And it just so happens that a women-friendly setup also provides a better experience for beginners, seniors and juniors.
Golf course owners and architects were previously preoccupied with length, difficulty and a seeming infatuation with features that could make their courses harder. That would be fine—if the average customer were a tour professional, or at least a golfer with a swing speed more than 100 mph. But the reality is these components repel the majority of their clientele, and detract from creating a fun and enjoyable experience.
Course setup consultant Arthur Little and his wife Jann Leeming discovered these common design flaws were grounded in a failure to understand the average woman’s swing speed. They uncovered the average women’s swing sits at 65 mph, and produces an expected driving distance of 140 yards.
In a recent booklet commissioned by the PGA of America, Little explained that the majority of forward tees are positioned at 4,900-5,200 yards. But an average woman playing a 5,200-yard course would be the equivalent of your average male teeing it up from 7,500 yards.
“Not everyone is going to want to move up and play from (a shorter) yardage, but it’s an eye opener that getting to the green in regulation is exciting,” said PGA of America Secretary Suzy Whaley. “To try and accomplish that from a comparable yardage of 7,500 yards for men, it makes you think, ‘How many times am I doing that, and am I playing from the right yardage?’”
It prompted me to wonder that, too. I was initially shocked, and even a little reluctant to believe the comparison. As a former junior and college golfer—and still a single-digit handicapper—I simply couldn’t relate to those numbers. But I am not the average woman golfer. As a junior golfer, I practiced and played from the “men’s” tees at my club, which measured around 6,200 yards. In college, we generally played tournaments on courses that averaged 6,000 yards. These days, I’m comfortable playing from tees around 5,800 yards.
What I’ve always found frustrating is the lack of choices at the majority of courses. Oftentimes I am only given one option, whereas men have three or sometimes four. I usually end up creating a composite course from two sets of tees. It works, but it also gets irksome calculating my new course rating/slope for handicap purposes. Other times I’ll find the right tee for me, but it won’t be rated for women.
But perhaps a more annoying problem is playing from tees that appear to be an inconvenient afterthought. As a woman, how many times have you felt like you were playing from tees that completely altered the integrity and idea behind the hole? Or from tees awkwardly slapped down beside a cart path next to some shrubs? It happens so often that you probably don’t even notice it anymore.
“It’s important to have an option for women to experience the golf course the same way,” said Paige Mackenzie, an LPGA pro and Golf Channel analyst. “I want to play the golf course the way it’s meant to play. I want to enter the green where I’m supposed to hit into. I want to drive it to the areas I’m supposed to—in the wider part of the fairway. That’s where traditional course design has failed the shorter hitters—and by definition women.”
Little’s philosophy solves these concerns. He maintains that a key factor in attracting and retaining women is providing a course that is set up to accommodate a wide spectrum of swing speeds—starting at 65 mph, and increasing by 10 mph increments all the way to 105 mph. That range of options gives golfers of all levels the opportunity to score well, and most importantly, have fun.
“Basically what you’re doing is you’re taking mathematical and physics data and applying it to the way tees are set up on the golf course,” said Little. “People who are playing should be able to find a set of tees where they can hit almost all the greens in regulation.”
The numbers from Little’s studies translate to offering up to six sets of tees that avoid gender labels, ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 yards. The color-coded tees should all be rated for both men and women.
And once women have more choices, then so do seniors, juniors and beginning golfers.
If it were up to Little, he would implement a measuring device on the first tee of every course that easily calculated a golfer’s swing speed. Golfers would be encouraged to play from a set of tees that equated and suited their swing speed.
Asked if he considered this to be a realistic possibility, he laughed and said, “Not in my lifetime.”
Another adaptation of this idea is a driving rang at Berkshire Hills in Chesterland, Ohio. Owner Milan Kapel created practice targets that correspond to the tee colors at his course. Whatever flag your drive lands closest to while warming up is what tee you are recommended to play. Berkshire Hills has six flags, ranging from 135 yards to 260 yards.
“People overestimate their drives by probably 40 yards, so this is a true test to see how far they actually go,” Kapel said.
Little and Leeming owned and managed a golf course called Province Lake in Maine from 1996-2005, and they quickly discovered their tees weren’t suitable for their female and senior customers, as well as families. So they reinvented their course’s tee system, which ultimately included six color-coded sets of tees from 6,336 yards to 1,998 yards.
As a result, rounds spiked, with women making up more than one-third of their clientele. Junior and senior play also grew dramatically. The bonus? Pace of play was reduced by 15-30 minutes per round.
“The whole idea is to widen the spectrum of people who can play the game comfortably and for fun,” said Little.
Once more forward tees were built, their senior golfers moved up and played from the tees formerly known as the “ladies tees.” Women with slower swing speeds relished playing from tees where they could hit greens in regulation.
But Little also noted that their women clientele played from a variety of tees.
“We had women who played from the 6,300 yard tees, we had women who played from 6,000 yards, from 4,900 or 4,000,” he said. “We had beginner women and younger players play from under 2,000 yards.
“We tried to take away all the labels that have been attached to golf courses. We forbade our staff to call any of our tees by gender. The effect of that was our women’s play increased from 15% to 35%.”
And just like there are men of varying degrees of skill, the same applies for women, too.
“I prefer to not call the forward tee ‘the women’s tee’ because it actually discourages competitive and longer-hitting women from teeing further back,” said Mackenzie. “You should have multiple options for women’s tees, and not just the forward-most tee.”
You don’t have to go to Maine to see the findings of Little and Leeming in play. The couple took their thesis to Bandon Dunes owner Mike Kesier after playing his three courses in 2007, pointing out that the tees were too long.
Their thoughts struck a chord with Keiser, who ultimately asked them to consult with Old Macdonald co-designer Jim Urbina on the fourth course at Bandon Dunes. Urbina designed an additional option—the Royal Blue tees—that measured 4,258 yards.
“I never wanted a tee that seemed like an after-the-fact,” said Urbina. “You’ll see forward tees generally off to the side or next to a cart path (at other courses). I thought that was not the way you want to approach the (Royal Blue) tee.”
Urbina also did his best to ensure that players would still be able to enjoy the architectural features of the course.
“I think the Royal Blue tees at Old Macdonald were a perfect example of a teeing location that would be conducive to strategy, not out of the alignment of the intended line of flight, not a distraction to the back tees and conducive to fun golf,” said Urbina.
Keiser is so on board with the work of Little and Leeming that he went back and had the other three courses at Bandon retrofitted with Royal Blue tees—each shorter than 4,000.
Keiser then brought those ideals to his Cabot Links (below), a resort in Nova Scotia that he co-owns with Ben Cowan-Dewar. Royal Blue tees were retrofitted at the original Cabot Links, and incorporated into the design and construction of Cabot Cliffs. Little actually walked the construction site and consulted with co-designer Bill Coore on tee placements.
“Arthur and Jann made a case that the (Royal Blue) tees should feel like tees, and not just an afterthought as tees thrown in the fairway,” said Cowan-Dewar. “We had tee blocks that we actually designed and made.”
Cowan-Dewar noted that there was a small additional cost, but emphasized that it wasn’t significant. More importantly, he’s seen how the Royal Blue tees—which eliminate forced carries—have enhanced the golfing experience and made it more fun for some of their customers.
“From beginning golfers, we hear it was so much fun and they had their best score ever,” said Cowan-Dewar. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about challenging the pros, but the daily golfers we see every day.”
Cowan-Dewar also made the case that the Royal Blue tees are more conducive for juniors. In the summer, Cowan-Dewar was playing a round and his 7-year-old son was able to participate.
“It makes him feel like he’s playing instead of sitting on the side of the fairway,” he said.
“Anyone who is beginning or has a slower club-head swing speed is going to benefit. It’s just creating an atmosphere that’s fun and enjoyable.”
And that’s the point at the end of the day.
“When you think about all the things you can do to grow the game, the biggest thing is to make it fun, and anything that helps create an atmosphere to make it fun or more fun for beginning golfers, that’s a good thing,” said Cowan-Dewar.
Once I actually took some time to stop and assess Little’s theories, the more they made sense, but I’ll admit it’s difficult to get people to start thinking differently—which is something Little understands is a hurdle.
But now I’m even reassessing whether or not I’m playing from the proper yardage. Perhaps I should move up a set of tees, or simply change it up from time to time when given the rare choice.
“Wouldn’t it be more fun to hit an 8-iron into a green instead of a 4-iron?” mused Whaley. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we could all do that? And what would it be like to shoot under par? If we give people the tools to try it, they’re going to pick on their own. I think offering more choices in a traditional game is important, and we can do it where we’re also innovative.”