I recently wrote here about combo tees which are becoming more and more common at golf courses across the land, especially those played by golfers experiencing a loss of distance on their shots.  I elaborate further in this month's Home On The Course newsletter (subscribe here) and get a little personal about the subject below.

Golf is a tough enough sport without those of us who play it making it even tougher on ourselves. I see this all the time at Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, my home course away from my Connecticut home. Buddy golfers on vacation, presumably to have a fun experience, often choose the wrong tees from which to play, and they almost always create a longer golf course than they can handle – and a miserable experience.

The same can be said for many aging golfers who no longer drive a golf ball farther than 200 yards. (I am raising my hand.) Many still play layouts that range up to 6,400 yards with a bunch of 400-yard holes they can never hope to reach with anything but a fairway metal club. And unless they can hit such shots relentlessly well, they too are in for a miserable experience, with no hopes of ever shooting their age, or even breaking 80, until they move up.

Brad Chambers and I – he is the proprietor of ShootingYourAge.com – offer a wide range of tips for the aging golfer in our book, Playing Through Your Golden Years: A Senior’s Golfing Guide. For me, the most important one has to do with playing a layout appropriate to your game. Brad offers a great analogy that should convince any senior golfer afraid that a shorter course will somehow mean he or she is cheating or – a male thing – that moving up will be akin to playing the Ladies tees. But, as Brad points out, PGA Tour players hit the ball so far that on 400+ yard par 4s, they mostly hit 7-irons and less to the greens. Why shouldn’t the rest of us be rewarded for a straight, albeit 200-yard-shorter drive?

The answer is that we should. This year, I have been playing my favorite course in Connecticut, Keney Park in Hartford, from the white tees at a total distance of 5,629 yards. (That is not the shortest layout; the green tees play to 4,712.) Two par 4s on the white layout play to 380 yards, one from an elevated tee box; oddly, the hole nicknamed “Long” plays to 373 yards. The three par 5s are no longer than 480 yards.

The rating from the white tees is just 66.5 with a slope of 121. With large, undulating greens, many with severe fall offs, the course even from the white tees is no pushover. But twice this year, I have been within range of shooting my age of 73, two or three bad swings having sabotaged my effort each time. And that has nothing to do with the length of the golf course. When I do accomplish my ultimate goal, I won’t be tempted to think it illegitimate because the layout wasn’t as long as what I played when I was 20 years younger.

One of the beauties of golf is that everything is relative, thanks to the handicap system. I am currently playing to an 11, which means I will need to better my average score by about nine strokes to shoot my age. When I do it, it won’t be because the course was short but because I earned it.
Keney75In July, I came as close to shooting my age (73) as I ever have, but a too-strong 9 iron flew the par 5 14th green and it took me four more strokes to get into the hole. The distances from some of the white tees at Keney Park belie the difficult greens, some of which are elevated and others that feature dips and swirls. The golf course is so much fun to play that it is almost distracting.

We all age and, as we do, our distances off tees and off all our clubheads diminish. Some of my fellow seniors just won’t accept the hand that Father Time has dealt them. They continue to play from tees that were appropriate 10 years ago but doom them to ongoing struggles over the 3 ½ mile trek they insist on playing – 6,200 yards and longer.

I was in that camp until a couple of years ago when I realized there was no fun in what awaited me after a 200-yard drive on a 400-yard hole. If the best I could do with a driver was 200 yards, I certainly was not going to reach that green with a 3 wood with 200 yards more to go. That meant that on the two or three 400-yard holes per layout, I would be chipping for a third shot and par was unlikely (especially with my faulty chipping).

I have moved up to what on most courses are the “white” tees, on others the “executive” tees. On a 5,800-yard course, for example, the longest par 4 is typically around 380 yards, and the average is around 350. A 200-yard drive and no more than an approach with a 5 hybrid gives me a chance at every green in regulation. That is a lot more fun than hitting fairway metal on half the par 4s, and it makes the possibility of shooting my age for the first time realistic.

In our book, Playing Through Your Golden Years: A Senior’s Golfing Guide, Brad Chambers and I devote an entire chapter to moving up a tee box or two. Brad compares the professional’s game to the amateur’s and makes this astute observation: Given the distance pros drive a ball on, say, a 450-yard par 4, and given that they leave themselves an eight or nine iron to the green, shouldn’t the rest of us play yardage that leaves us a similar club for an approach? I have decided to say, “Yes” to that.

Most courses in the U.S. were laid out well before the Baby Boomer generation came of age and began demanding layouts more appropriate to their shorter distances. It would have been expensive for many clubs to develop new tee boxes but, cleverly, they devised another way, by creating “hybrid” or “combo” layouts from their existing tee boxes. On courses where, for example, the “blue” tees were 6,300 yards in total length and the “whites” were 5,800 yards, many seniors with a good dose of testosterone left in their bodies thought the 500-yard move a bridge too far. But 6,000 yards or slightly less was a magic number for them, and by combining tee boxes from the blue and white tee boxes, they could play a suitable and entertaining midway layout.

Last week I played the combo tees at the fine Pete Dye designed Wintonbury Hills golf course in Bloomfield, CT. The “green” tees at Wintonbury play to 6,287 yards and the white tees to 5,778 yards; the former is a bit long for me, but the latter – whose par 4s average about 350 yards with none over 375 – is a bit short. The combo tees, however, play to an ideal 5,936 yards, with most of the par 4s reachable with a 5-iron or less after good drives, and the par 5s – with only one over 500 yards – good birdie opportunities.

Wintonbury Scorecard
             The scorecard for Wintonbury Hills, with combo tees noted.

My son Tim had treated me to a round of golf in early June at PGA Village’s Dye Course in Port St. Lucie, FL. The Standard tees on the course play to 6,250 yards with a 70.7 course rating and 133 slope rating, a little too daunting for me with five par 4s stretching beyond 380 yards. The Middle tees layout is only 5,807, perhaps a little wimpy for someone who can still reach 200 yards on his drives; that routing’s two longest par 4s are 380 yards, two other par 4s don’t even reach 300 yards. But PGA Village combines the two into a 6,010-yard layout that I found perfect, even if my score did not reflect it.
PGA Village Dye Course scorecard 1
       Scorecard for the Dye Course at PGA Village, combo tees noted.

In terms of degrees of difficulty, I’ll defer to course and slope ratings. But my scores on the shorter layouts have been only marginally better, a stroke or two. You still need to chip and putt well to score low, but there is another thing about combo tees that toughen the challenge: The angles are not as gentle as from some of the longer tee boxes. Architects did not design the course for these “accommodation” tees and, therefore, you might find some extra trouble ahead. I have played the executive tees at some courses where a tree on the left side you would hardly notice from the back tees suddenly looms large. In other cases, the distances to fairway bunkers are just short enough to reach whereas that wouldn’t happen from 40 yards farther back.

For testosterone junkies in their 60s and 70s, the challenge is still there with the combo tees; you just may need to re-channel that old energy in new directions.
Dye Course par 3Par 3, Dye Course at PGA Village, Port St. Lucie, FL