From the July 2005 'On Course Magazine' for the Midwest Association of Golf Course Superintendents
If tee boxes could talk, they would likely sound like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield: They don’t get no respect. This has something to do with not being as photogenic, as varied, as “sexy” as greens, bunkers, and other elements of golf course architecture. Commentators during the recent U.S. Open Championship couldn’t stop talking about Pinehurst No. 2’s turtle-shell-contoured putting surfaces and elaborate green complexes. But, having logged my share of tube time watching the event, I recall almost no pearls of wisdom concerning tee placements, beyond the observation that, like most classic courses, No. 2’s tee boxes tend to be relatively close to the preceding green.
Fair enough, except that for all us non-Open players, tee placement and maintenance are immensely important to strategy and – more important in this “let’s-grow-the-game” era – in attracting and retaining new and infrequent players, who tend by definition to be less accomplished. So while I’m not surprised that Pinehurst’s greens are the story of the tournament, I am frequently amazed at how little understanding of, and attention to, the tee box system receives from owners and managers who should know better. And though the reasons for this lack of regard may vary, it seems to apply across the spectrum of facilities: public and private, high-end daily fee, muni, you name it.
An unreconstructed perspective on tee box options may even be deliberate, rather than inadvertent, as a noted national golf course rater once explained to me. Having often encountered resistance to the suggested additions or alterations to various courses’ network of tee boxes, he noted that this reluctance was usually explained not as stubbornness but as devotion to the game’s traditions: “Our tees haven’t changed in a quarter of a century. Why would we do it now?” Sadly, as the rater also noted, such a defense of the faith generally coincides with a decline in rounds played at pay-for-play courses, a struggle to retain members at private clubs.
During my two decades as a practicing golf course architect, examples of faulty tee design and placement have come in innumerable forms. But it is fair to classify the vast majority into five significant problem areas, as follows:
a. Failure to include forward tee options suitable for beginners and high-handicap golfers.
b. Inadequate matching of teeing options with the variety of regular players at the course, public or private, in question.
c. Angles of play that impede rather than promote the course’s strategic attractions, especially “risk / reward” options.
d. Sight lines that fail to capitalize on design elements, natural or man-made.
e. Teeing areas that make maintenance difficult or impossible due to size, location, or composition.
Fortunately, there is a flipside to the relative lack of attention devoted to the tee box’s contribution to the playing experience, namely that all the above are also comparatively easy to fix: In most cases, it is a lot easier and less costly to rebuild a tee box than a green.
Though the guilty party shall remain nameless, one of my recent projects – at a respected private club in the Great Lakes region – illustrates the point. Asked to make suggestions on the remodeling of a couple of discrete areas on the course, my first recommendation didn’t even require a site visit: A look at the scorecard revealed that the forward-most tees played more than 5,800 yards. When I questioned two club officials about the length, they replied with obvious pride, “We have always wanted to ensure that our club is very challenging from all tees, even the forward ones.”