Industry ads aimed at promoting participation have the same theme, “Play Golf Because It’s Fun.” I disagree with the presentation, but admittedly it takes explanation. Fun is considered, light, enjoyable among other adjectives. Golf hasn’t been around for centuries evoking a unique passion because it’s “fun.” It’s hard and frustrating yet we come back sometimes—even ignoring weather we wouldn’t otherwise be outside in.
Because it’s rewarding! Not on the whole, that’s reserved for the very few who are excellent players. “Rewarding” for the masses will be a well-played hole, even a singular shot. We are rewarded in small victories, not mastery.
How then do we focus on the concept of reward? The answer falls into what we call course layout and must be championed by those organizations promoting the game—the PGA of America and the USGA. I’ll proceed with some typical examples with real data, not opinion.
This is data-centric: Years ago, the former Technical Director of the USGA reported that his study revealed an average driving distance of 192 yards. Who are the 192s? The short answer is they are the overall majority of players who play and financially support the game. Their brethren are not coming on board in numbers, and pure age analysis shows that they are a declining population, albeit with a huge reservoir that is retiring and could decide to play.
They love to watch the 300-yard drives of Tour players and marvel that the average iron into greens is an 8—albeit some 170 yards. Further, these iron shots are struck consistently, high, landing with spin allowing them to shoot for targets within the confines of the green.
The 192 group doesn’t hit 170-yard 8-irons. If they make that good swing, their 8-iron goes roughly 120, and rather than a spot on the green, they are trying to get on the putting surface.
What does this have to do with rewarding? I was recently asked to analyze a course that had installed forward tees, but something was off. The overall yardage was 5,900 par 70, which seemed perfect.
However, there were six holes in various forms of what follows: yardage 354, a 192-yard drive leaves 162 and in each case, it was a forced carry of 162 yards. The 192s don’t have a high soft shot that carries 162 plus yards. They may have an occasional low bullet that doesn’t hold, but the sensible play is to lay up.
This gets old and it’s not rewarding. If their second shot on forced carry holes was, say, 125 yards they would have a chance to hit a solid shot onto the green, and that’s rewarding. We 192s aren’t good enough to hit center face solid shots every time. Give us the chance that we’ll be rewarded with a birdie putt just some of the time and the experience is one that keeps us playing (“fun,” if you will, but more accurately defined).
Further, a 370-yard par 4 with a slightly downsloping fairway into a green wide open in the front—and again we have a chance to be rewarded.
It isn’t a simple distance issue: It’s an understanding of the concept of reward and setting one set of tees accordingly. Golf courses are fairway width, firmness, elevations, hazards and the list goes on. That’s why I say the good folks who promote the game need to embrace the concept. Produce guidelines on how to make courses rewarding.
Years ago, I was very fortunate to be able to play a few rounds with Lee Trevino, arguably one of the greatest ball strikers of all times. He didn’t play “the tees” he picked the ones he wanted, some forward, some back. I asked why and he said, “Barnyard, I just want to be able to hit shots to the green. I always did.” I never forgot his comment, but I didn’t appreciate the genius behind it until I came upon the concept of rewarding golf. It’s exactly what Lee was doing!
Of course, I’m just one small voice. The PGA of America and USGA are the leaders and it’s up to them to turn the concept of rewarding golf into a movement designed to increase participation.