Play it Forward

Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of modern times, has recently been featured in commercials advocating amateur golfers to begin play on each hole from a forward tee. For those that do not play the game, each hole has a teeing area that includes several starting points. Each tee marks point A when measuring the total distance of the hole to the center of the putting green (the center of the green becomes point B). The tee markers are usually made up of different  colors. The tee furthest from the green (the “tips”) may be black. These tees are set for players that possess the ability to hit their tee shot the farthest. The next set of tees may be white and are located anywhere from 15 to 30 yards (not universally just usually) forward. This is the bastion of the casual golfer. Move up another 15-30 yards and you arrive at the gold/red tee. These tees are reserved for senior (gold) and ladies (red).

Why the big difference? It all comes down to math. In order for a tee shot to travel to the general area set up by the golf course architect, the club head has to be traveling at a speed great enough to propel the ball the required distance. It is not a mystery nor is it a challenge to anyone’s ego. It is a fact. A club head speed of 90-100 mph will send the ball 250-275 yards.  As the maximum club head speed decreases, the distance the ball travels is reduced. Better players generate higher club head speeds.  Younger players generate greater club head speeds.

If distance off the tee were the only factor, one might surmise the different teeing areas were to the advantage of those playing forward. That is not the case. Completion of a golf hole most often requires more than one shot. On par 4′s and par 5′s, the golfer is usually faced with a second and third shot to reach the green. This is the fact most often ignored by proponents of “everyone should play from the same tee”.  They feel that the ability to generate greater club head speed should be rewarded by having a shorter and easier shot from the fairway. They are correct regarding the challenge faced by the long ball hitter, they are missing the boat regarding those that don’t have that ability.

Swing speed is only one component of a properly executed golf shot. The actual direction of the shot is equally if not more important than the distance. Each golf hole has a “fairway” and varying degrees of “rough” on each side of the fairway. The grass in the fairway is cut shorter. A ball will sit up on top of the grass in the fairway. The rough is cut higher, often in stages (first cut, second cut and deep) to progressively punish wayward shots. In the rough the ball will settle down in the grass. The further from the fairway, the more difficult clean contact with the ball becomes. In deep rough, the ball may actually be lost. Accuracy is rewarded or penalized by the location where the shot propels the ball.

The distance from the hole is a big factor in the next shot. If a golfer with a higher swing speed were to place a ball in the center of a fairway, about 150 yards from a green, he might choose a 9 iron for his next shot. If a golfer with a lower swing speed were to find themselves in an identical spot, they may choose a 7 iron for their next shot. A senior golfer might face using a 5 iron or hybrid club for that shot.

Distance matters. It is increasingly more difficult to accomplish a shot as the club required becomes a “longer” club. As a general rule, it is much easier to hit a 9 iron than it is to hit a 7 iron. It follows that the difficulty increases from a 7 iron to a 5 iron or hybrid.

The player with a slower swing speed is disproportionately punished by needing to use longer clubs to accomplish par on any hole. Power is not skill. Power is the result of physical attributes and often age.

Speaking of age, once you pass that senior milestone your swing speed naturally decreases. Old muscles don’t move as quickly. Old hips and knees don’t turn like they used to turn. Timing of the components of your golf swing can become occasionally erratic. The game you used to play becomes a faint memory replaced by some bastardized nightmare. You play on for the few moments when things fall into place and the fellowship of friends.

Moving forward brings yesterday back once more. It gives those of us in our “golden years” the chance to occasionally have the chance to face a short iron second shot to a par 4.  Birdies, now relegated to fond memories, may become today’s joy.

Playing it forward is the thing to do. Leaving that youthful ego behind will allow yesterday’s memories to become today’s reality.

I’m moving up, care to join me?