Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

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

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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.

Hating Golf’s Out-of-Bounds Rule Has a Long History

The penalty for losing a ball or hitting it out of bounds is “stroke and distance”: if your first shot vanishes or ends up on the wrong side of the white stakes, you count that stroke (one), add a penalty stroke (two), and hit again from the original spot (three).
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Many average golfers either don’t understand that rule or refuse to observe it. They “drop one” on the course near the spot where they figure their first shot disappeared, add a stroke, and play from there.

Stroke and distance was part of golf’s original list of rules, in 1744, but during subsequent decades and centuries it was repeatedly modified, dropped, resurrected, and modified again. Sometimes you counted only the bad stroke and the do-over; sometimes you added a penalty but got a drop. The most severe version was adopted by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1842: three strokes and distance, meaning that if you hit a ball out of bounds your next stroke, played from the spot where you struck your first, counted as your fifth. That lasted until 1846.

In 1951, the R & A and the USGA agreed to apply the single-stroke-and-distance penalty universally. But there was still plenty of grumbling, and in 1959 the Southern California Golf Association, with the support of 90 per cent of its members, adopted a local rule eliminating what it described as the “unfair penalty stroke in connection with ball out of bounds, lost ball and unplayable lie.” Thenceforth, in Southern California, if you did something stupid the assessment was “stroke only.” You counted the bad shot and the replay (from the original spot), but nothing in between.

The California revolt had some prominent supporters—among them Gene Sarazen, who told Golf Digest, “Golf is a game of luck. The stroke and distance penalty gives luck extra value. A guy gets into trouble at the wrong time or on the wrong hole and it is the equivalent of two strokes added to his card. The population is growing and taking up more space, so out-of-bounds holes are increasing. The double penalty rule is entirely unnecessary.”

The USGA relented for a year, in 1960, but the stroke-only faction ultimately lost out, and the current rule, with minor tinkering, has been in place all over the world since 1968. But who knows? Maybe the governing bodies will come around to Sarazen’s point of view.

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This is the Wrong Way to Take Divots on the Driving Range

home course has a terrific practice area, which our greens crew has built and steadily improved over many years. Here are Corey (our pro, left) and Gary (our superintendent) last March, in the rain. They’re measuring yardages from various positions on the freshly re-graded and sodded teeing area, which is almost as big as our entire golf course:

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I never practice, but other people do, and recently Gary reported that repairing the damage they do to the range was becoming more time-consuming than taking care of our fairways and greens. The main problem is lazy divot-taking. People see all those acres of brand-new sod and can’t resist chopping it to smithereens:

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The problem is that they don’t know the proper way to take divots on a driving range: in neat lines separated by bands of intact turf, as in this diagram from the USGA:

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Here’s the USGA’s explanation:

A scattered divot pattern removes the most amount of turf because a full divot is removed with every swing. Scattering divots results in the most turf loss and uses up the largest area of a tee stall. This forces the golf facility to rotate tee stalls most frequently and often results in an inefficient use of the tee.

A concentrated divot pattern removes all turf in a given area. While this approach does not necessarily result in a full-sized divot removed with every swing, by creating a large void in the turf canopy there is little opportunity for timely turf recovery.

The linear divot pattern involves placing each shot directly behind the previous divot. In so doing, a linear pattern is created and only a small amount of turf is removed with each swing. This can usually be done for 15 to 20 shots before moving sideways to create a new line of divots. So long as a minimum of 4 inches of live turf is preserved between strips of divots, the turf will recover quickly. Because this divot pattern removes the least amount of turf and promotes quick recovery, it is the preferred method.

Thoughtful golfers know how to do it the right way. Here’s Todd, who probably practices more than any other member of our club but does way less damage than guys who just slash their way through a quick half-bucket before heading to the first tee, because he takes his divots in neat lines, the way the USGA recommends:

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Every Course Should Copy These Awesome Features

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On Saturday, Addison, Todd, Hacker (real name), and I took a field trip to Wintonbury Hills, a muny that’s roughly an hour and fifteen minutes from where we live. The course, which opened in 2005, was designed by Pete Dye and Tim Liddy. There are four sets of tees, at 6,700, 6,300, 5,700, and 5,000 yards. As is seldom the case at golf courses of any kind, though, the scorecard at Wintonbury lists ratings and slopes for both men and women from all four sets:

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Furthermore, neither the scorecard nor any of the course signage mentions “women’s tees,” or “senior tees,” or “regular men’s tees,” or “championship tees,” or anything else. There are just four different sets, at four different yardages, and the scorecard contains enough information to enable players of both sexes, at all levels, to calculate handicaps for matches of all kinds, in all conceivable combinations.

Every course should do this.

Addison and Todd played from the black tees, I played from the greens, and Hacker played from the whites, and we were able to adjust our handicaps accordingly. (The USGA actually makes doing this much, much harder than it needs to be—but that’s a semi-complicated issue, which I’ll explore in a couple of future posts.) We played three matches, switching partners every six holes, and everything came out virtually even. (Todd and I each lost a dollar.) And if Michelle Wie and my mother had joined us we would have been able to work them into the game, too.

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Another awesome Wintonbury feature—and one that should be copied by public courses everywhere—is generous fairways accompanied by challenging green complexes. This is a feature that Wintonbury shares with Muirfield Village and Augusta National, to name two member-friendly golf courses that great players don’t dismiss as too easy. Wide fairways keep play moving. None of the four of us lost a ball.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Another awesome thing about Wintonbury: the Bag of Beer, available in the grillroom (which is called the Tap Inn):

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That’s what the guy in the photo below was picking up. Weirdly, though, he had ordered just two beers—both Budweisers. What was he planning to drink when he got to the third hole?

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The only thing I didn’t like about Wintonbury: they charge you extra if you walk. (They don’t think of it as a walking penalty—in their view, they give away carts, since carts are included in the greens fees—but a walking penalty is what it is, since you don’t pay less if you don’t take a cart.) As far as I could see, though, we were the only walkers, so they probably don’t get a lot of complaints.

Still, it’s a terrific course. We’re definitely going back.

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Two Easy Ways to Speed Up Golf

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My golf course closed for the season on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The day before that, thirteen guys showed up for the final 2014 home-course meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. I wasn’t there, because I was on my way home from a non-golf reporting assignment in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California—poor life-management on my part. The following Sunday, though, Hacker (real name), Mike B., Gary, Ray, three of Ray’s friends from other clubs, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a 36-hole facility owned by the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut:

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The Wheel (as it’s known to friends) is the main winter golf hangout for a lot of guys in our region, because it’s so close to the coast that it doesn’t get much snow. It’s where S.M.G. played last year on New Year’s Day:

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The Wheel is also the home of an extremely successful chapter of The First Tee, which served more than 600 kids last summer:

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One of the volunteer coaches is Richard Hunt, an honorary S.M.G. member. That’s him at the far left in the photo below, which was taken at Twisted Dune during S.M.G.’s fifteenth annual golf trip to Atlantic City, in October:

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Each summer for the past ten years, Richard has spent his Saturday afternoons at the Wheel introducing youngsters to golf. This year, his First Tee chapter named a trophy after him: the Coach Rick Award, which goes to the scoring champions in the Ace/Birdie division. (He’s also pretty good at teaching grownups; he’s a marketing consultant in Manhattan, and he oversees the Venture Creation Program at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, where he is a mentor-in-residence.)

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A couple of weeks ago, Richard attended the U.S.G.A.’s Pace of Play Symposium, at which two dozen speakers spent two days talking about how to make golf go faster. “I thought the event was quite valuable,” Richard (who took the photo below) told me. “This is exactly the kind of thing they need to do ‘for the good of the game.'”

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Richard’s report:

Turns out, there are way more problems than your buddy plumb-bobbing his third putt. A major culprit is tee-time spacing, which is way too short at most public courses, and even in professional events. The L.P.G.A. did a test this year, and was able to reduce playing times an average of fourteen minutes per round just by moving tee times slightly farther apart, from ten minutes to eleven, and asking players to keep up with the group in front of them. Easy stuff. In addition, course setup, design, and facility management policies are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.

When I was in Arizona, I had dinner with my old friend Shelby Futch, the world’s greatest golf teacher, whose company owns several courses in the Scottsdale area. At one of them, Shelby reduced playing times by offering forty dollars in grill-room credit to each day’s first group if they finished in less than four hours, and by asking the groups behind them to keep up. Easy stuff.

I asked Richard whether the kids he teaches play quickly—and, sad to say, he said they don’t:

Trust me—we don’t teach them to play slow. Yet on late summer Saturday afternoons, during our team matches, my young charges struggle to beat darkness every week. I myself blame CBS, NBC, and the Golf Channel. Maybe Fox will only show golfers in action next year, instead of repose.

Easy stuff.

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Did Bobby Jones Use an Illegal Putting Stroke?

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Last week, the U. S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews adopted Rule 14-1b, which prohibits so-called “anchored” putting strokes. (The rule will go into effect in 2016.) Nate Burns, a reader in New York City, writes:

In their recent rules decision, the U.S.G.A. and R. & A. claim that “the essence of the traditional method of golf stroke involves the player swinging the club with both the club and the gripping hands being held away from the body,” but I question whether that is actually the case. If you look at video of golfers in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties, you see that many of them anchored a hand or forearm against their leg to create a hinge (a technique that will become illegal under the new rule). It makes me wonder how the stroke has evolved over time and whether there really is an “essence” of the traditional stroke. (It seems to me like the U.S.G.A. might be making stuff up.)  Is it possible that anchored putting is actually more “traditional” than non-anchored putting? 

To see what Burns means, compare the photo above with the photo below—which is from the U.S.G.A.’s website and depicts a putting technique that will be banned under the new rule. (To see a U.S.G.A. album of prohibited putting strokes, go here.)

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As Burns observes, putting techniques like Bobby Jones’s, in which one or both hands were held against a leg during at least part of the stroke, were common in the old days. Here’s Jones demonstrating how to do it:

Burns has found additional evidence in old film clips on the U.S.G.A.’s own website. In an email to me, he called particular attention to the ones showing “Bobby Jones winning the 1930 U.S. Amateur, Tommy Armour winning the 1927 Open, and Lawson Little at the 1940 Open.”

What do you think?

Burns, incidentally, is a student at Columbia Business School. He has a handicap index of 3.4, and plays mainly at Knickerbocker Country Club, in Tenafly, New Jersey. “I played all my golf out at Bethpage State Park until I got a junior membership at K.C.C., about a year ago,” he told me. “I grew up in Northern Virginia playing junior golf with Steve Marino (he was awesome), and I was in the same class at Wake Forest as Bill Haas (although I wasn’t on the golf team and didn’t really know him). I don’t currently use an anchored stroke, but I have tried pretty much every type of putter and grip, in casual rounds and in club and Metropolitan Golf Association competitions. Unfortunately, none has worked particularly well.”