By John Gordon
Can you grow the game by shrinking the golf course?
That’s the thinking behind the Longleaf Tee System, the brainchild of U.S. Kids Golf founder Dan Van Horn and now a joint initiative of the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation and the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
Several years ago, Van Horn started “scaling” the length of courses that hosted his tournaments to make them playable for all participants, no matter what their ability or skill level.
His U.S. Kids Golf Foundation purchased Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines, N.C., in 2015. With the assistance of Bridgestone Golf, he synthesized the related data accumulated over the years and hired Atlanta architect Bill Bergin to create the first totally scalable golf course, with seven sets of tees ranging from 3,200 to 6,600 yards. Van Horn calls Longleaf Golf & Family Club “a living laboratory for growing kids and family golf.”
An essential part of the experiment is the Longleaf Tee System, which “is designed to help every player enjoy the game and help every course provide for their customers,” Van Horn said.
“Appropriate tees will mean better scores, a faster pace of play and more golfers eager to return and play more. There is no gender or an age restriction here. It is the opportunity for excellence for every player.”
After a sojourn on the PGA Tour, Bergin spent three years teaching fulltime at an Atlanta club before turning to course architecture. Many of his students were women, and he empathized with the challenges that they faced when confronted with courses where even the forward tees were too long and their location often was an afterthought. (Van Horn’s data indicate the female bogey golfer should be playing a course of about 3,800 yards, a distance that is practically non-existent at the vast majority of courses.)
“Par for most women at most golf courses is really around 90,” Bergin said. “Their enjoyment level is lessened because they have to hit too many of what I call ‘irrelevant’ golf shots between the two shots that really matter: the tee shot and the approach shot. With the Longleaf system, they can select the correct tee based on how far they hit their driver, score better, have more fun, play faster and now every shot is relevant.”
The unique range setup is integral to the Longleaf Tee System (www.longleafteesystem.com). Beginning at 100 yards and extending at 25-yard intervals, color-coded posts with numbers correspond to each of the tee decks. Players hit a few drives before their round and then match their average carry distance to the most closely associated numbered pole. That is their recommended tee deck. The gender-neutral tee decks are rated by the USGA for men and women.
The Longleaf Tee System represents, as Bergin says, the first real attempt to grow the game “by adapting the course to the player, rather than forcing the player to adapt to the course. I think it is the answer for everyone: beginners, kids, seniors, men, women. There’s the right course for every golfer.”
Bergin has included the concept in three of his current master plans. According to the ASGCA, Rees Jones plans to use a version at revered Medinah No. 2, and Jeff Blume is incorporating it at Sugar Creek in Sugar Land, Texas.
So, you can keep your Footgolf and 15-inch holes and those other gimmicky, slightly panicked reactions to golf’s participation rates. The Longleaf Tee System offers a potential long-term solution that’s measurable.
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @gordongolf