Women’s golf participation rates have hovered around 22 per cent for decades. Even though approximately half of all new golfers are women, this market has not grown. The reasons for lack of growth within the female demographic are too numerous and complicated to fully account for in this article, but I believe that course design deficiencies that contribute to attrition of women golfers are the same deficiencies that limit growth of the game in general.
First, watered down design and off-set forward tees erase many of the strategic elements that create interest, challenge, and ultimately the degree of enjoyment women and beginners in general are able to draw from the game. Second, courses are often too long. Finally, an intermediate or graduated tee that provides a critical distance challenge required for skill development is missing.
One source of discontent for many women golfers is the placement of forward tees off to one side of the fairway. While the benefits to safety and speed of play are obvious, often the tee is located far to the side of the fairway, along a tree line, in the shade, causing poor re-growth of grass, or with a poor angle to the landing area for drives. on dogleg holes where the tee is located on the outside of the bend, the strategic element requiring one to decide how much of the inside corner one is able to negotiate is erased. If the forward tee complex were simply moved further down the fairway and not offset, the strategic element would still be in place, but could be surmountable. It is important to note that appropriately designed golf challenges must be reasonably surmountable by the player for whom they are designed.
Research has shown that design elements which create challenges and thrills from the back tees are the same elements that women would enjoy from the forward tees. However, the forward tee is frequently located downhill from an elevated back tee, often diminishing a thrilling view or visual access to the hazards that lie ahead. In this case, an offset tee that maintains strategic integrity may be a better option.
In addition to dull design from the forward tee, many courses are too long for the beginner or high handicapper. Even decades after Alice Dye first recommended course length from the forward tees to play between 4,800 and 5,200 yards, less than half of the courses in a study I recently carried out played in this range. In addition, less than 22 percent had a second graduated tee as recommended by Mrs. Dye. In my data set of 300 golf courses, the distance gap between the forward tee and the first back tee was an average of 800 yards, and in some cases it extended to more than 1,000 yards. This gap is significant because in order for developing golfers to be challenged to reach improvement goals, they need to be able to experience incremental successes that lead to further growth.
I think the solution to appropriate design distance from the forward tees is to ensure that all golf courses designed in the future integrate a course that plays between 4,800 to a maximum of 5,200 yards, and ideally it should play at around 5,000 yards. New courses should additionally have a graduated tee designed to play between 5,500 – 5,700 yards so that golfers can experience a surmountable distance challenge. Finally, existing courses should carryout renovations or implement scorecard combo-tee (combining play from different tees on the scorecard) changes to bring existing course lengths within this range. In my opinion, inappropriate course length, and along with it the erasure of strategic elements, contributes greatly to stifling growth of golf participation by women, and limits the development of new golfers, regardless of gender, entering the sport.
To ensure strategic integrity, contemporary forward tee placement should maintain alignment of the forward tee complex with the back tees in most cases. Subtle elevation changes, native vegetation that is harmonious within the landscape, and clear navigation with walking and cart paths is often a solid design solution to maintain strategic integrity from the forward tees. In this age of declining golf participation, forward tees that provide strategic thrill and excitement are not only needed, they are critically necessary.
Due to economic and environmental pressures, sustainability of the sport is at stake and resistance to change would be a high price to pay. If architects and clubs could culture an ideological shift where gender were not assigned to the tees, but rather golfers played the tee appropriately designed for their ability, it is quite possible beginner golfers of both genders would have a more enjoyable first experience.
This article originally appeared in Golf Course Architecture July 2011. Click here for further information.
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