Scaling golf to fit the juniors (and adults)

The discussion about appropriate tee lengths for both adult and junior golfers has been around for a few years now.

As I’ve been researching the topic recently, here are a few discussion points, ideas, initiatives and solutions that I’ve come across:

Adult golfers

The USGA and the PGA have been pushing forward their “Tee it Forward” initiative. The premise is very simple – we should encourage people to match up their abilities with the golf course length by letting them tee off closer to the green than the standard tee box, so that they can hit more-lofted clubs into the greens. This, as advertised by the golf agencies including the R&A, will result in faster play, more birdies and more fun. Data seems to be backing this claim, with golf clubs and golf associations saying that incorporating the initiative has resulted in increased participation and satisfaction of golfers.

I guess this discussion has two aspects:

  1. Getting rid of labeled tee boxes
  2. Shortening the courses

The first point is pretty straightforward – golf clubs should stop using terms like “men’s tees”, and either mix up the colours used for the tees or even get rid of all the colours altogether.

I’ve seen it done at PGA Sweden National club in Bara (Sweden). There were no colours on the tees. Each of the 6 sets of tees was labeled with the length of the whole course played from that tees instead (like “53” for the 5,300m length). Check out their scorecard here.

Although it seems like a simple solution, maybe this course is not the best example for the discussion – it’s clearly a championship course (Nordea Masters is often played there), and even the shortest tees are not really short (4950m).

For participation purposes, creating more gender-less tees seems like a no-brainer to me. I mean – you’ll be able to take complete beginners on the course much sooner (playing in the same way as everyone else), it will speed up play, level the field and improve scores (potentially making people more likely to play more often).

Here is a really cool article that explains the logic behind playing from appropriate distances (“every golfer should have the opportunity to hit par threes in one shot, par fours in two, and par fives in three”) and comes up with a very easy equation that allows people to quickly calculate what tee length they should be playing from (it’s player’s driver distance * 28):

Which Tees Should You Play?

Junior golfers

The exact same concept applies to junior golfers. Well, in fact maybe it applies much more to juniors than to adults. There is a great blog post by Daniel Coyle that explains how playing on a mis-matched field size in any sport affects the “fun” factor for the kids, as well as how the mere design of the playing fields affect junior’s behaviour (like their attention span).

Obviously this doesn’t apply just to golf, here are a few examples (taken from said blog post and elsewhere) that nicely show what happens if we put junior players into adult-sized pitches, courts, courses (and using adult-size equipment). It is mind-blowing to see the exact techniques and behaviours normally associated with young performers REPLICATED by adults put in the same (relative) environments:

If a similar video existed for golf, we can imagine what it would look like – Tour Players playing on a ridiculously long holes (1000 yards PAR 4’s), maybe even using long and heavy clubs. It would probably look the same as 8 year olds playing from ladies’ tees.

I have encountered a few very neat solutions to this problem:

US Kids Golf – Family Courses

Family Courses is probably the one initiative around shortened junior tees that has received the most attention in the golfing world.

Again, the premise is very simple: juniors match their driver carry distance to an appropriate set of tees on the golf course (ball-park distances are easy to check by a simple addition to a driving range).

The golf course is set up in a way that recreates the same shots / clubs used from every tee, starting with a Blue set of tees for those who are able to carry their driver 100 yards.

 

What’s crucial is that creating these additional sets of tees does not require a huge investment. US Kids are using cheap, simple and unobstructive “Tee Plates” to mark the teeing location, allowing fairway mowers to ride over the tees with no problem.

JOLF – JOLF Tees and “One-hitters”

JOLF (a junior golf system co-founded by Neil Plimmer, previous guest of the Participation Coaching Podcast) recommends a slightly different approach.

First of all, JOLF Modified Golf Courses have three additional sets of tees (JOLF Red, Yellow, White). Same as all the previously mentioned solutions, the appropriate tee length is based on the distance that the player is able to hit the ball with their driver / 7 iron.

However, the shortest JOLF Tee accommodates juniors who are able to hit the ball just 20-40 yards (shortest US Kids’ set of tees is for 100-yards carry distances).

Holes’ lengths are based on a simple calculation – Red JOLF Tees are 20% of the white adult tees length, Yellow – 40% and White – 60%.

Quite importantly, the JOLF creators advocate for leaving the choice of what tees to play from to the children. Up to a point where children choose their own starting positions on each hole. As explained to me by Neil Plimmer, he would take a child onto the golf course and say something along the lines of “This hole is a one-hitter (par 3). I want you to start it from wherever you think you’re able to reach the green in one shot”. For some children this may be 5 yards away from the green :)

Operation 36 – Divisions

Matt Reagan and Ryan Dailey, creators of the Operation 36 programme (that’s getting some serious attention in the US right now!) have created a whole structure around playing from appropriate tees and shooting low scores (the general goal behind the whole framework being – shooting 36 shots on 9 holes)

As part of their weekly programme, Operation 36 coaches organise Matches that include juniors playing in what’s called Divisions. There are 6 Divisions, and each corresponds to a set of tees, with Division 1 starting from 25 yards away from the hole, progressing up through Division 5 (200 yards PAR 4) and Division 6 (full tees).

Each participant starts in Division 1, regardless of their age and driving distance.

The challenge is for the juniors to shoot 36 (even par) for 9 holes from their Division. Having done that, they progress to a higher Division.

I find this concept very interesting. It provides a clear structure / framework for the juniors to progress through. From a performance standpoint it also the additional benefit of making juniors comfortable with shooting level scores. The programme seems to be very competitive though, and I’m not sure what effect implementing such a rigid structure could have on more recreational, less ambitious or less skilled children. Especially knowing that reaching the highest accomplishment (hitting 36 from adult tees) is in reality (statistically) a feat available to just a few.

Conclusion

I have been thinking about the concept of shortened and gender/age-less tees for a while now.

I honestly can’t see too many downsides of this.

I mean, really, why don’t ALL golf courses create shortened tees?

What’s stopping them from doing it? It is not the cost, as shown by US Kids. Is it just the “tradition” holding us back?

Shouldn’t we all be actively lobbying for changing the tee structure at our golf clubs?

If the whole industry takes on this change (e.g. allowing to obtain/update a handicap on a shortened course, like in New Zealand; organising competitions from appropriate tees; encouraging members, visitors, recreational players etc. to use appropriate tees etc.), I wonder what would its effect be on:

  • junior participation
  • adult participation
  • adult retention (!)
  • junior performance
  • pace of play issues
  • state of the golf industry

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