A modest proposal: eliminate total yardages from scorecards

Are golfers over-reliant on a misleading statistic?
Listing total yardages on scorecards can cause golfers to play the wrong set of tees.

At the end of January, the PGA Tour visits San Diego for the Farmers Insurance Open. The main golf venue – the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course – is, at 7,698 yards the longest track the best players in the world will take on all year. Later on, in mid-June, they play the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut. River Highlands is just 6,841 yards, making it the shortest Tour venue.

The 857 yards that separate these two golf courses are largely irrelevant, at least to players of the caliber that actually play those tees. The fact that the best golfers in the world play such a wide variety of golf courses – particularly in length - is a bit lost on fans of the game.

Interestingly, total course length and scoring don’t correlate neatly. Pros beat up some of the longer venues on Tour (e.g. Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course) and they struggle at some of the shorter ones (e.g. TPC Sawgrass' Players Stadium Course). That’s because distance is an ultimately minor factor in determining the challenge of a golf course.

Experts and lay golfers alike rightly praise single courses that provide a well-rounded examination of a golfer’s game. “Variety” has become a big buzzword as discussions of golf course design reach more mainstream golfers and golf fans. The notion that golf courses whose par threes range from a wedge to a wood are superior to those whose one-shotters all call for a six-iron has, at last, caught on.

So why, then, do golfers not look for variety in their golf courses on a macro scale? Why do millions of golfers decide which tees they’ll play on a given golf course based on one single, ultimately useless factor: total distance?

The 6,000-yard lie

When playing a new or unfamiliar course, golfers who travel extensively tend to impose some normalcy on the round by choosing a set of tees close to the total length of the one they play at home.

That instinct is understandable, but can warp the experience of playing some golf courses. I’m a lower-handicap player, capable of handling the back tees at most golf courses. In 2018, I played to my handicap from the tips at a challenging course that hosts a Web.com Tour event. Two weeks later, I failed to break 80 at a course that is more than 1,000 yards shorter and significantly easier overall.

I enjoy testing my driving and longer irons at a couple courses that push 7,200 or 7,300 yards, and at the same time I’ve been thrilled playing a couple courses that barely crack 6,400 yards, where I don’t hit many drivers off the tee and have a lot more short-iron approaches. Both sorts of courses – and all levels in between – help give me a rewarding breadth of golf course experience.

I say this not to brag about my game (there’s not much to brag about, trust me), but to underscore the fact that a range of different-length golf courses are not just playable, but fun.

And no, it’s not because I’m a lower-handicap player that I can enjoy this range of courses. If you can get the ball in play at a roughly consistent distance off the tee, your golf experience also has plenty of room for enjoyable longer and (especially) shorter golf courses.

Consider the mid-handicap golfer who seeks to play whichever set of tees is closest to 6,000 yards, by default, visiting Bacon Park Golf Course, the delightful Savannah, Georgia Donald Ross-designed muni I had the chance to play a few weeks ago.

Golfers who just look for the 6,000-yard tees at every course could find themselves in over their heads at Bacon Park.

Looking at the total distance on the card, it seems the 6,025-yard Blue set is the no-brainer choice, right?

Not so fast.

I would argue that the proper set of tees for the normal 6,000-yard golfer at Bacon Park is actually the White set, at 5,471 yards.

I would also argue that that same golfer should play a course like Streamsong Black from almost 800 yards longer.

For now, though, let’s stick to the seemingly crazy-short Bacon Park yardage. Here’s why that’s the right tee for our hypothetical golfer (who represents a large swath of the golfing public):

Why make a course unnaturally difficult?

Bacon Park, as a “championship” (a term that has lost almost all meaning over the years) course, is toward the shorter and, frankly, easier end of the spectrum. Its three par fives are among the shortest I’ve played from back tees. I’m not a huge hitter by any stretch, but I hit driver-pitching wedge into the par-5 10th.

Bacon Park is a fairly short golf course by modern standards; the main challenge comes from the greens, which I was grateful to be approaching with some short irons and wedges. Artificially and disproportionately lengthening it for yourself would pointlessly hurt your experience of playing the course.

That said, there are a couple spots where the course does feel “sneaky long,” though, which brings me to my next point…

The par-3 litmus test

If you want to quickly determine which tees you should play, instead of the total yardage, look at the par threes. From the 6,025-yard Blue set, Bacon Park’s two longest par threes are the ninth, at 187 yards, and the 17th, at 224 yards. There are a lot of 7,000-yard courses without a par three that long, much less 6,000-yard ones.

The city of Savannah's Bacon Park Golf Course is a 100-year-old Donald Ross design that has been restored since 2014.

If you’re normally a 6,000-yard player, chances are you hit your tee shots 225 yards or shorter. If so, you’ll likely be hitting a 3 wood on nine and a driver on 17. For reference, I hit a 5 iron on nine and a 5 wood on 17. If your club selections on those two holes would be significantly longer than mine, it’s an indication that you’ve selected the wrong tees. So move up to the Whites and enjoy the opportunity to make a couple more birdies. Once again, it’s the way this particular golf course is meant to be played.

Playing the same tees does not mean playing the same yardage

The White tees at Bacon Park are the third-longest of four total sets. This is another more sensible way to select tees. On courses in the 6,700 to 7,000-yard tips range with four or five sets of tees, the third set up is usually the popular, approximately 6,000-yard set. If you play the third-longest tees at home, you should probably play them on the road, too.

This concept is going to become crystal-clear when Tom Doak’s new course at Sand Valley Golf Resort, Sedge Valley, opens. It is expected to measure only about 6,100 yards from the tips, playing to a par of 67 or 68. Inevitably, many golfers who play their home, par-72 courses from a similar yardage are going to play the tips at Sedge Valley and are going to be blown away by how long the course plays. That’s because a couple long par threes and long par fours are going to force them to hit longer clubs into Doak’s famously challenging greens more often.

Certain prideful mid-handicap golfers may bristle at the idea of playing from around 5,300 yards, but they’ll wise up once they get their butts kicked from the tips at Sedge Valley. If they play the third tees up at their home courses, chances are they’ll be happy playing the third tees up at Sedge Valley once they take some unexpected lumps.

Rating and Slope: not just for show

The Rating and Slope of a golf course are much better expressions of the difficulty of a golf course than mere yardage. Going back to Bacon Park, the Rating/Slope from the tips, Blues and Whites are 71.0/121, 69.1/116 and 66.3/111, respectively. These are further evidence that the course is on the easier side, overall.

Here’s where Streamsong Black comes in. At this Gil Hanse design, the 6,000-yard player would be very comfortable playing the 6,240-yard Silver set, and might even find it shorter than anticipated. The generous, bouncy fairways there should help players hit reasonable clubs into most holes. Good thing, too, because the green complexes are some of the most hysterically fascinating anywhere – both fun and frightening.

Golfers at Streamsong Black would be justified in playing tees almost 800 yards longer than they'd play at Bacon Park (distracting scores redacted).

The Rating and Slope bear this out, too. From the Silver tees, the Rating/Slope is 69.5/125, which seems a far cry from Bacon Park’s 66.3/111. But it’s really just a stroke different, because Streamsong Black’s par of 73 is two shots higher than Bacon Park’s (71). For two courses that are 769 yards apart in length, a one-shot difference in relative difficulty seems trivial, doesn’t it?

Even if 6,240 yards seems like a reach for you, Streamsong Black's firm fairways help it play shorter.

So, the next time you’re wondering what tees to play at a new golf course, remember that the total yardage number is the very last place you should look.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
13 Comments
Default User Avatar
Commented on

I like to play courses between 6000 and 5760

I use basic math to determine this if the course is 6000 yards I have 36 shots
From the tee or fairway that are 166.66 yards to play
And 36 putts equals par so if I play 6000 yards I dont want par 3 much longer than 175

So I can play all shots with a 7 iron and by knowing this when I do hit driver I know I dont need to kill it

At 5760 all shots are 160 again all shots with 7 iron

Default User Avatar
Commented on

Playing all around Wisconsin and hit the ball 230, love to play 6000-6200, courses test my skill with the variety. Playing white tees and truly enjoying the challenge. Fantastic advice. Using it always when traveling.Thanks so much

Default User Avatar
Commented on

I served as golf committee chairman when we re routed a GC. The board insisted we had to have a 7000 yd course from the Championship Tees. They thought we would never get quality players to join if we were under 7000 yds. The team gave in to 7000 but we created a "hybrid" set of tees that played to about 6650 yds. Most everyone still plays the hybrid tees. There is no magic, but the avg player that hits it 260 has no business playing 7000 yds, 220 yd Par 3s and 475 yd Par 4s. That's no fun.

Staff
Commented on

Ken--

Your board's insistence on 7,000-yard tees is a perfect example of the disconnect between a course's total yardage and its overall quality. Since that 7,000 figure is just the sum of 18 addends, which can each vary greatly, it communicates nothing, except the board's desire to put a number ahead of actual course quality. I would argue that a golfer who refuses to join a course under 7,000 yards out of some silly principle is not a golfer you particularly want for a member, anyway.

Cheers,
--Tim

Default User Avatar
Commented on

I disagree with you about the length you should play. I will agree some shorter courses are tough. I am 79 years old and have a 20 hdp. My average drives are 175 to 180. Why would I want to play yardage that leaves me with more yards to the green than I can hit off the tee. That is never fun.

Staff
Commented on

Chuck, I wasn't suggesting you do that. I would recommend you use your driving distance as a guide. When you look at a course scorecard, play the set of tees where the longest par 3 is, say, 165 yards or so. Don't worry about the total yardage; just focus on individual hole yardages, and par 3s, in particular.

Staff
Commented on

Chuck--

I'm not suggesting you should play from tees that are too long for you - quite the opposite. If your drives go 175 to 180 yards off the tee, then you should apply my par 3 recommendation and choose the tees at a golf course where your longest par 3 is in the neighborhood of 160 to 170 yards or a little less. Just don't give much thought to the total yardage from that particular tee set if it's different than what you're used to, because there's a range of total course yardages you can enjoy.

Enjoy,
--Tim

Default User Avatar
Commented on

Slope ratings are very important to me, and yardage off the tee to green, makes it enjoyable and satisfying when you have a good score.
Robert Trent Jones courses have many tee boxes to choose from using your handicap, it pretty close.

Default User Avatar
Commented on

Why did you play Bacon Park?

Staff
Commented on

I'm interested in municipal golf courses, especially historic ones. I liked Bacon Park a lot. The greens seemed to have taken a beating from last winter but were clearly coming around. I would be very lucky to play as well-designed a course as Bacon park regularly.

Default User Avatar
Commented on

I wanted to ask the same thing.

Commented on

The one thing I appreciated most about Streamsong (and a few other places) is the fact that they give you a "combo" choice, mixing holes from two sets of tees that might be too long and too short (or difficult/easy). A golfer like me, with a single-digit index but not a long hitter, these setups give me enough challenge on one end but enough of a chance on the other. On Black, that 6400 yard option was about perfect. 6700+ would usually be too much, though 6200 probably would have been just fine in this case. Other couses often jump from 6700 to 6000 with nothing in-between.

Default User Avatar
Commented on

Same here. Short hitter, good golfer. 6200-6400 is the longest I'll play anymore.

More from the author
1 Min Read
October 15, 2021
As if golf wasn't already tough enough...
4 Min Read
October 14, 2021
More brands than ever want to help you look good, feel comfortable and spend wisely on your trousers.
4 Min Read
October 14, 2021
Comfort stations have become the new norm at exclusive private clubs like The Summit, which makes its PGA Tour debut this weekend.
4 Min Read
October 12, 2021
Golf course news and notes: October, 2021.
6 Min Read
October 11, 2021
The Grand Strand remains strong as an overall destination, but fond memories endure at these no-longer-existent links.
1 Min Read
October 8, 2021
Members of a lonely profession recently came together for a good cause.
Popular
3 Min Read
September 27, 2021
The golf course’s compelling scenery and exciting architecture made for fun viewing even as the result was beyond doubt.
1 Min Read
September 24, 2021
Subject of a new documentary, the Caddie School for Soldiers spans continents.
1 Min Read
October 1, 2021
It's hard to beat golf on Gullane Hill.
3 Min Read
October 4, 2021
The number of publicly accessible tournament venues will shrink during the 2021-22 PGA Tour schedule as the majors move to private clubs.
Load More
Now Reading
A modest proposal: eliminate total yardages from scorecards