Slow play on the golf course has come increasingly under fire both on public courses, and on the Tours. For most of us, pace of play on the Tours is not an issue—Tiger’s complaints not withstanding. But among amateurs on public courses, slow play is being blamed in part for a general decline (or at least stagnation) in the number of rounds played.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the reasons for the five hour round. Experts blame practice swings, not playing ready golf, and course routing issues. But I think the principal one is that amateurs are playing from the wrong tees. The simple fact of the matter is that most golfers are not good enough to play from the tips (or even the blues)—and yet so many do. Consider:
- The average drive of the average male golfer is 192 yards (according to the USGA and major manufacturers). That same golfer, however, thinks that he hits the ball 230 yards on average.
- Only one in 50 golfers routinely hits drives of 250 yards or more.
- The average female golfer hits a drive of 135 yards. Seniors on average are able to drive 180 yards.
- All golfers, in fact, consistently overestimate the length of their shots—both on drives and from the fairway.
- The average score for a round of golf remains at 100—where it has been for many decades. Just 22% of golfers manage to break 90 on a regular basis. Only 5% manage to break 80.
- The average handicap for a man is 16.1. The average handicap for a woman is 28. And considering that it’s only the most dedicated golfers that bother to keep an official handicap, the handicap for the general population is likely much higher
- Less than 1 percent of the golfing population plays to a low single digit handicap.
Here’s why it matters: Playing a short drive from the back tees is going to add at least one shot for fourteen of the eighteen holes on the course. On a par 4, a drive that falls short of the legitimate range of your short to mid irons (wedge to seven) drastically reduces your chance of hitting the green in regulation. You may have the length to cover the distance in two, but with a long iron or wood as your second, chances are that you won’t hit the green. So you end up taking an extra shot or two trying to get up from a greenside bunker or grass.
Further, if you’re forced to hit a driver on every hole to get the distance required, you also increase your chances of landing in the rough, in the trees, or worse. In that case, even if you DO hit it 250 yards, you add a shot getting out of trouble. On a par 5, golfers not only face this risk on the tee shot, but also on the second, where the necessity of playing a long wood to get into scoring range presents a second opportunity to get into trouble.
Then there’s the lost ball issue. When you are forced to constantly hit the big sticks, you’re going to lose balls. And time will be lost looking for them.
All of those shots add up. Assume three minutes for each shot per player (travel time, locating the ball, picking a club practice swings, watching the ball flight, putting the club away, etc.). Multiply that by 14 extra shots per round per player and you’ll find that each player loses 42 minutes to poor tee selection; for the group, that adds up to 168 minutes. Even with some overlap (two players preparing at the same time), and holes where you don’t actually take the extra shot, that adds an hour-and-a-half to two hours to a round.
Poor tee selection thus explains the five to six hour round very neatly.
I’ll add that it’s possible poor tee selection will add a shot on all eighteen, since playing from the back tees also reduces your chances of hitting a green on a par 3.
Playing from the wrong tees (and the insane lengths of courses these days), also may explain why—even as equipment improves—scores have remained constant. Any playing gains in equipment have been more than offset by the added distance (either by the course design, or self-inflicted by playing from the tips). Players purchase a driver that’s “ten yards longer” and then play from tees that are twenty yards further back.
Playing from the correct tees not only will improve pace of play, it also will improve player scores, and thus enjoyment of the game. And all of that can only be good for the game.