Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

Uva Every October since 2000, the Sunday Morning Group has taken an end-of-season weekend golf trip to Atlantic City.

Las Breñas For the past four years, we’ve allowed every player on the trip to play from any set of tees. Some guys worried at first that our matches and team competitions would be unfair unless everyone was “playing the same course.” But we have discovered that, as long as you calculate the handicaps correctly, the competition actually works better if golfers are able to make rational decisions about the trade-off between course yardage and handicap strokes. And that’s true even when the skill spread is huge. (Handicaps this year ranged from 0 to more than 30.)

Our experience aligns perfectly with the findings of the USGA and the PGA of America, which in 2011 introduced Tee It Forward, an initiative that “encourages players to play from a set of tees best suited to their driving distance.” According to the USGA:

I firmly believe all of that. But there are reasons you haven’t heard much about Tee It Forward since 2011, and the main one is probably the USGA’s semi-incomprehensible two-step system for calculating course handicaps when players compete from different tees. Virtually no one understands how the USGA’s system works, including, in my experience, most PGA of America head professionals. My friends and I are able to do what we do mainly because Tim, who is SMG’s mathematician-in-residence, created an Excel spreadsheet that does all the figgerin’ in the background and eliminates a potentially huge rounding error inherent in the USGA’s method. Every player on the trip, before we leave home, receives a handicap for every set of tees on every course we’re going to play, and is then free to choose:


Another impediment to Teeing It Forward is that most golf courses stigmatize their forward tees by suggesting that they’re intended only for certain players — as at Twisted Dune, in Egg Harbor Township (a course we nevertheless all love):

It’s far, far better to rate all sets of tees for both men and women, and to give the tees gender-and-age-neutral names—as at Wintonbury Hills, in Bloomfield, Connecticut:

One discovery we’ve made during the past four years is that virtually all players, including many with single-digit handicaps, play better and have more fun if they move up — even way up. At Twisted Dune, Addison, who hits his driver 300 yards and has USGA Handicap Index of 0.4, played the black tees, from which the course measures 7,300 yards. But Brendan (8.3), Tim (12.3), and I (7.1) all played the “Senior Tees”—the yellows —from which the course is 1,500 yards shorter. When we started, Addison was so far behind us that we could barely see him. In the photo below, the red V is just above his head:

Addison loves playing from the tips, and he has more than enough game to do it. The rest of us, though, were very, very happy to move as far forward as we could.

9 thoughts on “Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

  1. I’ve been talking about this for a long time! I wish courses would do exactly what you suggest. Tees should be about your driving distance, not your gender or age. I’m forwarding your column to my local courses!

  2. We’ve been using different tees for several years. I agree with everything you’ve said, except the need for a spread sheet to figure handicaps. The ghin app for smart phones allows you to quickly calculate the handicaps from any set of tees for at least 10 golfers.Its a great app and its free.

    • The GHIN app gives you only your Course Handicap for each set of tees on whatever course you’re playing. It doesn’t make the critical second adjustment you need to make before those players can compete from those tees. The second adjustment is based on the difference in Course Rating between the tees chosen by the competitors–and when you do that the difference can be substantial, like four or five strokes. I’m going to write about this again, but you can read someone else’s explanation here:

      • Tead just showed me that the GHIN phone app (but not the GHIN website) allows you to make both adjustments at one time. Not the ideal solution to the USGA’s tee problem, but a step in the right direction! Further study!

  3. David, you mention a “potentially huge rounding error inherent in the USGA’s method.” Likewise, it appears from your example picture that the calculation is not exactly as the USGA explains (I would expect to see the difference between two given tees to be the same from golfer to golfer). Can you explain further the adjustment your friend Tim is making to the stroke calculation? Thanks!

    • If you adjust handicaps the way the USGA wants you to, you have to round twice. So: a 0.1 difference in Stroke Index can make a 1-stroke difference in Course Handicap, and a 0.1 difference in Course Rating can make a 1-stroke difference in adjusted Course Handicap. If those two roundings move in opposite directions you get a 2-stroke swing on a total 0.2-stroke difference in input. But if you do the entire calculation just once, as Tim does, incorporating all the information, you have to round only once.

  4. David, would your friend Tim be willing to share his spreadsheet? I manage the course handicaps for an annual buddies trip involving 15-20 or so players of various skill levels across 2 or 3 different courses and would like to get it right, or as right as possible.

    • I completely messed it up by fooling around with it this year, but Tim is going to redo it in generic, idiot-proof form, and when he’s done that (assuming he agrees) I will make it available to all. One interesting thing he discovered when he set up the pairings for our Ireland trip last spring is that controlling repetitions is much, much harder than you would think. More later.

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