Date: Tue 26 Apr 2011

How golf course design is limiting the growth of women’s golf

By Kari Haug, EIGCA Associate Memeber

Golf is a perfect lifetime sport for women. It is cordial and civil, exercises the body and calms the mind. It's clean, social and doesn't require excessive strength, but rather rhythm, concentration, balance, endurance and precision. Plus, one can look good while playing golf and have lunch with the ladies afterward.

My grandmother gave me the gift of golf and I can't imagine a better legacy. So when concerns about sustainability of the game started to crop up, I set out to figure out why women's golf hasn't grown over time. What is limiting the growth of women’s golf?

I propose there are golf course design barriers that limit participation by women.

I am a female golf course architect who understands the limitations of design from the forward tees, and it is not an exaggeration to say that many disappointments and difficulties on the golf course for women can be attributed to course design.

First, courses are often too long. Second, a critical course length required for skill development is missing. Finally, watered down design from the forward tees erases many of the strategic elements that create interest and challenge.

Courses are too long

I recently studied 300 golf courses and found an average course length from the forward tees of approximately 5,168 yards. However, less than half of the courses studied had the forward tees playing 4,800 to 5,200 yards. Many courses studied played even longer from the forward tees — in the 5,200 to 5,500 range.

According to existing shot distance data, an average female golfer hitting all of her shots with her driver could play a course 5,400 yards long. This distance is too long for many women, especially considering current maintenance practices where lush irrigated fairways limit roll of the golf ball. And it’s not much fun if she had to play all of her shots with her driver.

The solution is to design the course such that the forward tee distance plays between 4,800 to a maximum of 5,200 yards, extending up to 5,300 only if fairways run firm and fast (as they do in Scotland), allowing for a ground game. One may argue that contemporary equipment and extended ball flight cancels out the effects of irrigation, however, with extended distance comes an increase in errant shot direction, which ultimately increases time and difficulty of play. Furthermore, women are not reaping the benefits of new equipment design.

Where are the graduated tees?

At many courses there is only one forward tee and then a large gap between the forward tee and the first back tee, sometimes more than 1,000 yards. This gap is significant and does not allow developing golfers to incrementally improve their game.

Golfers need a playing distance that will bridge the gap between the approximate 5,000 yard length where the first forward tee should be located and the 6,000 yard length where the first back tee is usually located.

The critical gap range in playing distance is between 5,500 to 5,700 yards — the length where many developing and mid- to low-handicap women golfers prefer to play.

Most courses are fun, challenging and enjoyable when they can be played with a length that brings with it strategy. This frequently missing distance (5,500 to 5,700 yards) is also the course length at which junior girl's golf programs and women’s golf associations across the United States set up courses for junior girls and mid-amateur championship tournaments. But probably the most important reason to correct this flaw, is that the missing distance is needed for practice rounds played by developing young female athletes in order to experience challenges to distance and strategic play.

Some may argue that an incremental forward tee system (a tee complex that has progressively increased course lengths played from the forward tees) is not needed because there is a steep learning curve and golfers may start at 5,000 yards, but quickly progress to playing the 6,000 yard course. However, this is not correct for women. The gap range (5,500 to 5,700 yards) is actually the maximum distance range at which many good amateur women golfers top out, leaving them completely without a playing field that is challenging, fun, and playable. Of the courses in my study, only 22 percent could be played in the gap range.

The solution to this problem is not complicated. Some courses may be able to bridge the distance gap without any renovation by simply adding a combination course to the scorecard, one that combines play from two sets of tees to extend the length of the course for women. This course length could also serve as the teeing ground for senior men, and boys and girls whose skills are developing.

Thoughtless strategic design

The lack of thoughtful strategic design from the forward tees limits the playability and enjoyment for women. When discussing course design from the forward tees, one of my golf course architecture instructors in Scotland told me, "the forward tees are often an afterthought." He went on to explain that time and money constraints often limit architects from taking the time to consider what play will be like from the forward tees. In addition, he thought that most women don't really care about strategy, so it wouldn't warrant spending the time to develop a fun and playable strategy from the forward tees.

In my opinion, it takes thoughtfulness, consideration and planning to design challenges that are appropriate for different skill levels. And if the architect has only taken the time to design the course from the back tees, then they have only done half their job.

Research shows that design elements that create challenges and thrills from the back tees are the same elements that women enjoy from the forward tees. These elements usually produce an emotional reaction and come in the form of a hazard or view that creates awe, mystery or fear. When golfers overcome the challenge, it enhances their enjoyment of the game. It is important to note that designed challenges must be surmountable. These elements take time to design and are often missing for women who typically play from the forward tees.

According to one source, the average driving distance for amateur female golfers is 161 yards (other sources say 140 yards). Par 4's and 5's create more difficult design problems than par 3’s because many American courses are designed for an aerial approach. In this case, the short-hitter is often trying to stick a fairway wood on the approach shot to the green. A ground option may be a design solution in some cases.

In any case, solutions to design problems for women start with the considerate architect and should include involvement of women on greens committees, design advisory committees for new courses, and renovation advisory committees.

Thoughtful design solutions for women could include course design that places a premium on precision rather than length and may employ design techniques that encourage a ground game versus an aerial approach. Putting is always a great equalizer, and heroic forced carries should be replaced with a strategic option from the forward tees. Design approaches that employ strategic options are a much better design choice than all-or-nothing heroic carries.

The game has changed for women. Since the arrival of Title IX, women have more athleticism, are more interested in strategic challenge, and are less tolerant of dismissive design practices. It is time to update forward tee guidelines and for architects to take strategy and playability for women golfers into consideration when designing.

This article was originally published in Golf Inc, Spring 2011.

Click here to read more about Kari.

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