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.
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.
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.
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?
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.