The Longleaf Initiative aims to bring fun and fairness to golf course setups

Check out an average scorecard and you’ll see teeing ground options ranging from 5,500 to 6,800 yards.

On golf courses with the Longleaf Initiative, they might range from 3,200 to 7,000 yards – depending on acreage, topography and par at each site.

“Golfers here are not forced to play from a set of tees they are not comfortable with,” says Jeff Cowell, general manager at Longleaf Golf & Family Club in Southern Pines, NC. “They can easily find a distance that suits their game.” It’s also an ideal way for newcomers and junior golfers to find a place on a golf course without feeling so intimidated.

Cowell has seen the success of the program firsthand at his golf course, which sits just down the road from Pinehurst. When U.S. Kids Golf Inc. bought Longleaf in 2012, the intent of company owner Dan Van Horn was to promote the game as an inclusive, multi-generational activity. The junior golf club manufacturer and instructional firm had enjoyed market success and sought a home facility to bolster its grow-the-game efforts.

Van Horn hired former PGA Tour player Bill Bergin out of Atlanta to undertake a comprehensive reassessment of the facility. The result has been a graduated set of teeing grounds, at circa-600 yard intervals from 3,269 yards up to 6,709. Along the way, Bergin also designed an innovative 6-hole short course called Bottlebrush and concentrated the facility’s previously scattered short-game practice elements into more centrally-located space around the clubhouse.

But it’s the teeing ground system that has really taken hold. Bergin has been implementing the teeing system at other renovations, with work completed at Druid Hills in Atlanta and underway at Chickasaw C.C. in Memphis, Dalton C.C. in Georgia and Indian Pines in Auburn, Alabama.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects has helped to propagate what it calls the "Longleaf Initiative" on an industry-wide basis. The ASGCA sponsored seminars on the program as part of regular advice to architects, consultants, and course operators. It’s also keeping track of courses that have expressed an interest in the project, with three dozen facilities in various stages of planning, development and actual operation [see list below].

The key innovation of Longleaf is dramatic differentiation of teeing grounds, providing golfers with meaningful distance options for their rounds. In an era when most courses offer four or five distinct tees separated by about 200-300 yards in total, this program provides as many as seven or eight teeing grounds, each one circa 600 yards apart.

When architect Nathan Crace sat through an ASGCA seminar on the topic at the group’s annual meeting last year, his ears lit up. He was in the initial stages of a major overhaul of The Refuge Golf Course in Flowood, Mississippi. The municipally-owned facility was set for an upgrade to a high-end daily fee under management of Eagle Golf & Athletic, Inc. But with only four teeing grounds, ranging from 5,365 yards to 6,635, it was, says Crace, “too short for the elite player and too long for the everyday forward tee and senior golfers.”

From his former life as an assistant golf professional, Crace knew that most forward-tee players were in over their heads at that distance. He also knew that most male senior golfers who should be moving up from 6,000-6,200 yards refused to play from what they derisively termed “the women’s tees.”

The Longleaf System takes care of that by basing its tee placement solely on an objective criterion – the distance you hit an average drive. “It eliminates bias for gender and age,” says Crace.

In its full embodiment, such as at Longleaf Golf & Family Club, the system starts with a series of colored poles at the practice range. They’re staggered at 25-yard intervals, ranging from blue at 125 yards (100 of carry plus 25 yards of roll) up to red at 270 (250 carry plus 20 yards of roll). Each of them corresponds to an available teeing ground on the course – blue at 3,269, up to red at 6,709. For purposes of showcasing the difference with elite players they also have a black pole set up at 290 yards (270 carry plus 20 yards roll), but with no corresponding teeing ground because there isn’t (yet) room on the course for what would need to be a tee in the 7,400-yard range.

How the Longleaf Initiative sets up for players of varying ability.

An example of how the Longleaf System works from tee to green. ( Longleaf Tee System )

The system is flexible to adjust to local conditions. Crace says that because The Refuge is landlocked for space and the range won’t be able to accommodate the full system of poles, they’ll be signage at the first tee explaining how the system works and urges players to select appropriate tees. By reversing the normal color coding and utilizing red for the back tees rather than for the forward most, men will be more likely to move up to play their swing-appropriate tees rather than rely upon ego or gender bias.

Those more forward tees are not just discs or markers placed arbitrarily in the fairway. They are just as carefully designed as fully-functional teeing grounds as any other standard set of tees, replete with drainage and level grading. Their staggered placement also allows clubs to cut down on fairway size because the start of the primary landing area can now be “delayed” on par-4s and par-5s. While an exact determination of maintenance savings has yet to be determined at Longleaf, Cowell figures the reduction in fairway grooming more than makes up for the additional mowing and maintenance of those extra teeing grounds.

Different facilities approach the teeing system as befits their unique configuration. At 54-hole Medinah Country Club outside Chicago, architect Rees Jones and his design associate Steve Weisser retrofitted the No. 2 Course with seven multihued teeing ground markers at distances ranging from orange at 1,975 yards up to gold at 6,412. The system there, called "Golf For Life," does not extend to the club’s other two courses, including Course No. 3, which has been home to three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and the 2012 Ryder Cup. Nor does the program include colored poles at the club’s driving range.

Medinah’s director of golf Marty DeAngelo explains the teeing group set up as "drawn from a number of sources, including Longleaf, the PGA’s Play It Forward and USGA recommendations for women."

Medinah's No. 2 course is used as the focal point of a step-program that enables beginners to find their comfort level on a stress-free basis while experiencing golf on a real course. “It takes a lot of the pressure away from parents and from kids,” says DeAngelo. The six tees over 3,000 yards all have slope and ratings that enable golfers of any skill level to post their scores. Experienced golfers can move up at will while beginners can move back as they achieve various target scores.

Video: Architect Rees Jones, U.S. Kids' Dan Van Horn on Longleaf system

The next time you’re at one of the courses sporting a version of the Longleaf system, head to the practice tee and take aim at the colored poles. Or, take a close look for the chart on the first tee and the scorecard for its color-coded markings. They’re sequenced by hue and distance to help you figure out the teeing grounds best suited for your game. In the process they’re transforming golf and are making it more fun.

Chances are, if you commit to the process, you’ll end up on a golf course more suited than is usually the case for the actual length you hit the ball - rather than to the distance you think you hit the ball. In most cases, that’ll be a shorter course than you’re used to, and one which you’ll enjoy more.

Golf courses with Longleaf Initiative-style set ups on tees and range

Longleaf Golf & Family Club, Southern Pines, NC
Medinah No. 2, Medinah, IL
Sugar Creek Country Club, Sugarland, TX
Pelican’s Nest Golf Club, Naples, FL
Rio Secco Golf Club, Henderson, NV*
Druid Hills Country Club, Atlanta, GA
Chickasaw Country Club, Memphis, TN*
Dalton Country Club, Dalton GA*
Indian Pines, Auburn AL*
TPC Colorado, Berthoud, CO*
Newport National Golf Club, Middleton, RI*
Schaumburg Golf Club, Schaumburg, IL*
Country Club of Birmingham (East), Birmingham, AL
Surf Golf and Beach Club, Myrtle Beach, SC
Bobby Jones Golf Course, Atlanta, GA*
The Refuge Golf Course, Flowood, MS*
Stonebridge Golf Club, Monroe, NC*

*in various stages of implementation

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
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The Longleaf Initiative aims to bring fun and fairness to golf course setups
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