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March 2020

Getting Right (Size) with It


By Jay Karen

It’s no surprise the recent report by the USGA and R&A on distance is getting a lot of attention. Golf has never been short on passion or opinion. Most are focusing on the question of ball flight distance by the most elite players, and how it may (or may not) be changing the pro game in a negative way. Also addressed are questions about the distance recreational players hit the ball, and excessive golf course length across the globe.

I’ll let others discuss the question of bombs off the tee on the tour. It’s interesting that we have converse dilemmas here: tour pros hitting far off the tee, and recreational golfers not hitting it far enough. Without changing equipment standards (I, for one, value standardized rules in the golf universe), the most obvious answer is staring us in the face. And there are some pretty smart people in this industry doubling down on it. We’re talking about getting more recreational golfers to play the most appropriate tees for enjoyment, recognizing that sufficient challenge is inside the enjoyment algorithm. If challenge overshadows enjoyment, which it does for many new golfers and those on the brink of quitting, then we have a big problem, Houston.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects, USGA, Longleaf Golf and Family Club, architect Jan Bel Jan, and Arthur and Jann Little are among a few crying from the rooftops how important it is to get golfers playing the right set of tees. It’s time NGCOA gets involved as well. We need to break down the rigid cultural barriers keeping people at the wrong tees for too long. Change at the course level will require pro-to-golfer engagement, changing scorecards and pre-game routines, new ways to figure out stroke allocation for friendly competition, etc. It won’t be easy, but I am a first-hand witness of how moving up a set of tees can inspire a person to go from playing two rounds a year to 20 (I’m speaking of my dad). Let’s dispense with the archaic concept of gender or age assignment to tee boxes and focus solely on driving distance.

I’ve heard Mike Davis preach about excessive course length for four years now. Over 95 percent of golf courses in the U.S. will never host tour events, but many are maintained at 7,000 yards or greater. At many of those, resources are too often wasted maintaining elements used by 1 percent of players. We need to give ourselves permission to downsize. Better yet, right size. One of my favorite management philosophies is that we should manage for the typical and deal with exceptions, rather than manage for those exceptions. We’ve allowed ourselves to build and maintain too many courses for the exceptions. Where there are courses and clubs catering to an inordinate number of single-digit handicappers who love the 7,000-yard experience: you be you! Don’t change (except, of course, to be sure you also have multiple sets of tees for the rest of the crowd).

I can’t imagine it’s easy being the USGA and R&A on this question, when you have arm-chair quarterbacks eagerly shouting into their megaphones. I will not fault them for taking a holistic, long-term perspective with the sustainability of the game and industry as context. Rigidity is not always a bad thing. Yet, we can also display flexibility by allowing and promoting forms of play that have nothing to do with the rules and standards. As someone said to me recently, let’s not be the fun police.

Let’s keep the conversations going, and take some action.



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