Why don’t more women play golf? According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of U.S. women playing golf declined from seven million in 2005 to 5.4 million in 2010 to 5.1 million in 2011. There are no figures from 2012 yet. According to a 2010 golf foundation survey, only 20 per cent of players in 2009 were women and girls from the age of six up, and they accounted for just 17 per cent of the rounds played. The foundation’s 2007 golf consumer profile reported that 60 per cent of women were embarrassed that they didn’t play better or know more about golf, and a majority were “intimidated by other players, by the staff or by the environment in general.”
When asked for specifics, women will complain that they’re nervous playing with or ahead of men, that holes are too long, that rounds take too much time, that amenities like drinking water, clean bathrooms and healthy food are scarce, and that overwhelmingly male staffs aren’t attuned to their needs, if they even acknowledge their presence.
These aren’t insurmountable problems, and two case histories illustrate how common-sense changes can attract women. At Province Lake Golf, a semi-private club that straddles the border between New Hampshire and Maine, husband-and-wife owners Arthur Little (a former high school classmate of mine) and Jann Leeming created a women’s haven when they ran the course from 1996 to 2005.
The key to their success was proportional tee placement. Combining a 1998 survey by golf architect Bill Amick, data from a manufacturer and their own observations, Mr. Little and Ms. Leeming determined that men who aren’t pros or low-handicap golfers average 207 yards off the tee and women of similar skills 135. So they devised a so-called 65 per cent solution, enabling most women to reach greens in regulation. They built yellow forward tees that set women’s total yards at 65 per cent of men’s, with par threes under 150 yards, par fours under 280 and par fives under 350. Currently Province Lake measures 6,336 yards from the back of four sets of tees and 4,169 from the front. “Our course was the first to set tees at appropriate lengths,” Mr. Little says.
The new tees not only rewarded good play with lower scores but shortened rounds. Along with other innovations like day care and more women working in the pro shop, the owners tripled the number of rounds women played and doubled their portion of total rounds to 35 per cent. These figures have held steady under the course’s current management. The club has four women’s leagues, two of which are more social than competitive.
After selling Province Lake, Mr. Little and Ms. Leeming vacationed at what was then known as a guy’s place: the four nationally-ranked links courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Oregon coast. Bandon Dunes isn’t actually sexist, but its location and climate may seem daunting to women. “It’s remote and windy, and people always assume Oregon is northerly and cold,” says Mike Keiser, who developed Bandon Dunes after building a successful Chicago greeting-card company.
Following their visit to Bandon Dunes, Mr. Little and Ms. Leeming wrote a proposal detailing the financial advantages of proportional tee placement (quicker rounds, more golfers and especially more female golfers) and sent it to Mr. Keiser. “Their evidence came through,” he says. “I observed women, and they were playing from tees where they couldn’t carry onto the fairway. They’d hit into the waste and go look for the ball. That wasn’t a way to attract them.”
In 2010 he added royal blue forward tees to the resort’s courses and established the total yardage from them at 4,280 (Old Macdonald), 3,945 (Bandon Dunes), 3,934 (Pacific Dunes), and 3,828 (Brandon Trails) — well under the 5,200 to 5,500 typical at most courses. Because neither Brandon Dunes nor Province Lake uses the stigmatized label “ladies tees,” their forward markers also attract beginners, juniors, seniors and people who have lost distance.
“Eleven per cent of our golfers are now women, but it could easily be one per cent [without the royal blue tees],” Mr. Keiser says. “We expect the number will increase by word of mouth.” Sure enough, one overjoyed woman told the Old Mac pro: “Finally, a set of tees that fit my game perfectly.”
The Professional Golfers Association and the United States Golf Association are touting a Tee It Forward movement encouraging golfers to move up a tee and give themselves a chance to reach greens in regulation. They don’t, however, mention adding a forward tee. The PGA and USGA would do well to consider the course length recommended by Mr. Little and Ms. Leeming, ranging from 3,350 for juniors and beginners to 7,000 for low-handicap men.
Here are the distances at my home course, Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, with Mr. Little’s comments:
Gold tees: 6,815 (“This is good”).
Blue tees: 6,301 (“Average guy will play well there”).
White tees: 5,859 (“Okay for senior men and low-handicap women”).
Red tees: 4,987 (“Okay for better women players”).
To serve average women players, Mr. Little would add a new set of forward tees establishing a total length of 4,100 yards, almost 65 per cent of the distance from the blue tees.
Farm Neck is moving in the right direction. Workers hope to lengthen the eighth-hole forward tee box to accommodate new green cones behind the old red ones for the 2014 season. As a result, women will play a shorter hole and senior men won’t have to shoot over the marsh. One hopes the change will spread at least to the remaining 12 holes whose greens are being renovated and tees reconstructed. “Combo tees can lessen the distance without having to build new tee boxes,” says Farm Neck general manager Tim Sweet, who also serves as treasurer and a member of the board of directors.
Mike Zoll, the club’s PGA director of golf, understands the philosophy of shortening hole lengths. “It’s increasingly necessary with aging membership,” he says. Not to mention women who are shying away from playing.
Jim Kaplan is the Gazette bridge columnist and author of The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century (Triumph Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.