It's Time to Embrace the Longleaf Tee System
The definition of 'playing golf' is changing before our eyes. As companies and upstarts think of new, creative ways for us to enjoy golf, an era of inclusiveness can be felt in all facets of the game. With determination and innovation like the Longleaf Tee System, golf tomorrow will look entirely different from yesterday's game.
Is there a problem?
Change is one of life's constants, and is perhaps the most highly resisted. When change happens just for the sake of changing, people become frustrated, fearful, and angry. We strive for consistency and predictability. Life is just easier that way.
Since its inception, golf has fit into that mold nicely. Technology and locations may have changed, but what constituted 'playing golf' did not. The concept wasn't even a question. Nobody thought twice about it.
Sometime along the way -- most likely decades ago -- an elephant entered the room and everyone looked away. My golf experience could be entirely different from yours despite being in the same foursome. Bunkers, hazards, and greens didn't change mid-hole, but their impact on a player's experience did. None of us were playing the same game, and this variability ironically started with the game's need to remain consistent.
What in the world are you talking about?
John Kim of US Kids Golf recently joined the podcast and shared his view on all that mumbo-jumbo stated above.
In short, most golfers differ from one another in terms of how far they hit a golf ball. If Player A hits his driver 275 yards and Player B hits his 230, playing from the same teebox doesn't make a lot of sense. Yardages on second shots, the impact of reachable hazards and the opportunities to use lower-lofted scoring clubs will vary considerably. The two golfers are playing a completely different game.
Wouldn't it make more sense to tee off from a starting point based on your shot distance tendencies? Put another way, shouldn't Player B also have the chance to hit a wedge on his approach shot just like Player A?
I can almost feel your counterarguments brewing.
Blasphemy, I say!
Does the idea of catering to another's weakness in ability feel like a participation trophy? I get it. Believe me, I do.
But consider the following example.
My wife and I play golf together on occasion. A gifted athlete, her ability to hit a golf ball puts her comfortably in the "above average" category in terms of shot distance. It is not uncommon for us to play from the same teebox.
Years ago she would have been strongly encouraged by a starter to play from the forward tees. This was undoubtedly due to her gender and perceived ability. Imagine her perception of the game when a line of eager golfers waited for us to tee off, especially when she had to walk to the forward tees after the rest of our (male) foursome already hit.
Assuming she hits a good drive (heaven forbid if she didn't, considering the gallery), a new set of problems arise. Hazards are obviously closer, doglegs more severe, and carry yardages need to be adjusted. While elements that any experienced golfer would have to account for normally, the obstacles can become closer to barriers depending on golf course design.
"What's the point of playing," my wife once asked me after hitting her driver into yet another fairway bunker one day. "My options are to hit driver into every bunker, or a 7-iron onto the fairway leaving me a 4-iron into the green. How is this fun?"
She had a point.
How is this a problem for anyone else?
When talking about the experience of enjoying a game, nobody should be excluded by the design of that game. Furthermore, the perception that you have to play from a certain teebox due to anything other than ability introduces a prejudice that can be very uncomfortable.
My wife's example above can be flipped: how many less-skilled male golfers do you know that would willingly play from the red tees?
I propose the problem is defined by this prejudice and can be solved quite easily: take perception out of the equation entirely. Allow data and numbers to direct you to the appropriate teebox.
Luckily, this is exactly what John Kim referenced in our interview and what some courses are already testing: the Longleaf Tee System.
What is the Longleaf Tee System?
The Longleaf Tee System...
is a joint initiative of the American Society of Golf Course Architects Foundation and the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation. Our mission is to offer golf course owners and operators a practical, affordable way to scale their course in a manner that will enable more players to enjoy playing golf while keeping the design, integrity and challenge of the layout intact. (longleafteesystem.com)
Following the system, teeboxes are available for players based on how far they hit their clubs. If unknown, players are assisted on the driving range by course employees to record their distances. A player is then assigned a tee box based on these distances.
Rees Jones has brought this system to Medinah No. 2 in the Chicago area. Simple in concept, Jones agrees that this system can benefit golfers of all abilities while protecting the integrity of course layout.
“This is being incorporated in a number of golf courses around the country to help the game grow and sustain people in the game,” Jones said. “There are seven sets of tees. Six of seven are able to be ranked and rated for the USGA, and so when a beginner plays they play the forward tee and as they get better they keep moving back. Then as you get older and you can’t hit it as far, you start moving forward again. I think this is going to be a golf course that every calibre of player, from the entry level player to the young player to the older player, can play and enjoy if they play the proper tees.
“[Medinah] No.2 hadn’t been touched for a very long time,” Jones explained. “The trees had overgrown, the greens had shrunk, and some of bunkers had been eliminated. So we restored it back to how Tom Bendelow designed it. Tom Bendelow lived in Chicago and this is one of the courses he spent a lot of time on, and there are a lot of great nuances to it because of that.”
So how does this solve the issue?
Time will tell if the Longleaf Tee System is adopted on a wide scale, but its biggest benefit is its simplicity and messaging. Making the decision to play from a teebox "because the course assigned it to me" seems different than being told to play from a tee based entirely on perception.
Nobody can argue with data. To reference my earlier example, Player A (275 driver) and Player B (230) may start a hole at different areas, but they will understand that its due to their showcased ability and for their benefit. It is not due to a perceived ability based on age or gender prejudice.
While that difference may seem subtle, millions of golfers could argue that it is incredibly important to clarify.
Any attempt to provide a common playing experience for all golfers is a step in the right direction. Removing the unintended yet very real punitive nature of the current teebox system could be revolutionary. Players will be positively reinforced, pace-of-play will improve, and I daresay your weekend money game will be more competitive and enjoyable.
What are your thoughts on the Longleaf Tee System? Share them in the comment section below or reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.