On March 16, 2001, Annika Sorenstam stepped onto the 18th tee box at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix and told her caddie, Terry McNamara, that she needed to make a par. She’d made eight consecutive birdies on the back nine to start the second round of the Standard Register Ping, and she thought a routine par might release some of the tension.
A fairway, a green and two putts later, she looked at McNamara and said, “I’m ready for more birdies.”
Two decades later, Sorenstam remains the only player in LPGA history to shoot 59, a fact that even she finds surprising. She recorded 13 birdies, hit every green, missed one fairway by six inches and needed only 25 putts on the firm and fast 6,459-yard desert course.
“It is a mental barrier,” said Sorenstam. “I feel like if somebody breaks it, it’s like well, now we know it’s possible.”
There have been 52 scores of 60 or better on the PGA Tour, including 11 rounds of 59 and a 58 from Jim Furyk. By contrast, there have been only six scores of 60 or better on the LPGA. Jessica Korda’s 60 at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January was the first 60 since 2008.
“When I saw that we’ve only had five 60s on our tour, ever,” said Angela Stanford, “it made me want to throw up.”
As the Bryson DeChambeau bomb show enraptured the golf world at Bay Hill, 80 miles north in Ocala, Florida, LPGA players were laying up with irons on par 5s and desperately trying to hold firm greens with short to mid-irons at the Drive On Championship.
DeChambeau resides in his own orbit, of course, but “Drive On and Lay Up” could be the LPGA motto.
Even Brittany Lincicome, a player nicknamed “Bam Bam,” can typically only reach one or two par 5s each week on tour, and that’s with a 3-wood from 240 yards or a 7-wood from 220.
Long to mid-irons into par 5s?
Not for the women. At any level.
Golf Channel analyst and PGA Tour winner Brandel Chamblee has long thought that LPGA setups are far too long, noting that given the roughly 40-yard difference off the tee, plus roughly the same difference on approach shots given the trajectory and spin rate needed to match proximity to hole, that an average 7,300-yard course on the PGA Tour would play the equivalent of roughly 6,000 yards on the LPGA.
The average course length on the LPGA in 2019 was about 6,400 yards. Major championship layouts often push 6,600 to 6,800 yards.
“When people tune in and say, ‘Wow, they’re hitting 3-woods into par 4s and can’t reach the par 5s, it just leads to a stereotype that is wholly inaccurate,” said Chamblee, “and it makes my blood boil.”
There is no more cost-effective way for the LPGA to immediately increase the entertainment value of its tour than to set up more courses that are conducive to low scoring. No one wants a pitch-and-putt every week, but of the dozens of players with whom Golfweek spoke for this article, nearly all believe that more reachable par 5s and more drivable par 4s for the majority of the field – during all four tournament rounds – would make the product stronger and their jobs more fun.
“I know how much they’re raving about Bryson’s shot,” said former No. 1 Lydia Ko, “imagine having that kind of setup for us and watching Anne van Dam. That would be so cool.”
Two years ago, when a 19-year-old Patty Tavatanakit made her fourth start as a professional, Golf Channel broke into its re-airing of the Irish Open to show Tavatanakit flirt with a 59 at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic, one of the rare tournaments on tour that regularly produced low scores because it didn’t limit long female hitters off the tee as so many do. (Tavatanakit shot 61 that day; Thornberry is no longer on the schedule.)
Does anything get fans to a TV faster than a “59 watch?”
Laura Davies believes course setup is to blame for why a tour so deep in global talent fails to go deep into the red. Every week she writes the same thing on player surveys – par 5s too long, par 4s too short and similar, par 3s too much the same.
“The setup of the men’s courses,” said Davies, “they love the risk/reward element of it. If there’s no risk/reward, there’s nothing.”
The concept of fewer scoring opportunities for women is hardly limited to elite professional golf. It’s the reason Carnegie Mellon coach Dan Rodgers petitioned the NCAA to shorten the mandatory course length Division III schools must play from 5,800 yards to 5,600.
“We would never ask the guys to hit their longest clubs into a par 4 over and over again,” said Rodgers, who coaches both the men’s and women’s teams at Carnegie Mellon.
Why make the women do it?
For three decades, Arthur Little and his wife Jann Leeming have been preaching the gospel of shorter tees for average, beginning and aging golfers. More teeing options give more people – particularly women – the opportunity to have more scoring clubs in their hands for approach shots. Ultimately, to play the course as it was originally designed.
Little is Senior Trustee of the Royal Little Family Foundation, which provides the golf industry advice on tee placement and other course setup guidance to help make golf more enjoyable for all.
“It’s hurting the entire industry,” said Leeming of golf’s focus on lengthening courses rather than providing enough forward teeing options.
The perception that women must play from a certain yardage to prove themselves is as nonsensical as people failing to understand that a woman playing from the forward markers might hit it 20 yards closer to the green, yet still require a longer club for her second shot than her male counterpart.
“I think it’s time for the whole world to be re-educated about the proper placement of tees for the LPGA tour and women in general,” said Chamblee.
Players call for LPGA to up risk, showcase talent
The 12th hole at Golden Ocala, a tribute to the 13th at Augusta National, was the designated Aon Risk Reward hole at the recent Drive On tournament. The season-long challenge hands out a $1 million prize on both the LPGA and PGA Tours. Because the back tee was used for the first two rounds, however, the majority of the field didn’t even have the option to take a risk mimicking the one men face at Amen Corner.
What’s the point in a risk/reward hole where players can’t even take on the risk?
“I think sometimes the way we set golf courses up discredits our tour as a whole,” said LPGA winner Ally Ewing, “and the caliber of play that we have.”
Mel Reid ranks 31st in driving distance on the LPGA and said there’s usually one par 5 per week that she can reach in two on tour. She’d like to see the par 5s shortened and a few par 4s lengthened to benefit the ballstrikers and longer hitters more, similar to the men’s game.
“I remember talking to Rory (McIlroy) about this,” said Reid, “and he said he can pretty much get on three par 5s every single week. I don’t know if (tour officials) are scared to hit 6-irons (into par 5s), but the boys hit like 8-irons in. I just don’t understand.”
Caroline Masson, who ranks 77th on the LPGA in driving distance, said she didn’t see anything wrong with a longer player being rewarded with a 7-iron into a par 5. At least then it would be reachable for everyone.
J.T. Poston, a middle-of-the-pack driver on the PGA Tour, can typically reach three to four par 5s each round in two shots. Davies said she looked up the eagle counts between the men’s and women’s tours and found it embarrassing.
Ariya Jutanguarn actually recorded more eagles (23) in fewer rounds (107) than anyone on the PGA Tour in 2019. But only 10 players on the LPGA had 11 or more eagles in 2019; there were 47 players on the PGA Tour who had 10 or more. On the LPGA, 62 players had at least five eagles in 2019. On the PGA Tour, that number with five ballooned to 144.
The cut lines on the LPGA fall higher on a weekly basis. On the PGA tour, 62 percent of all 36-hole cuts were under par in 2019 while only 26 percent were under par for the women.
When Ashleigh Buhai set up a U.S. base in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, last year, she also set up money games with fellow South African tour pros such as her idol Ernie Els and Branden Grace.
“Obviously it’s difficult to lengthen a course for them,” said Buhai, “but I get to a par 5 and they’re like, ‘What you doing playing only one tee in front of us?’ Well, this is where we play from.”
Sue Witters, LPGA vice president of rules and competition, said the tour’s goal is to have a maximum of two reachable par 5s each day so as not to negatively impact pace of play. Drivable par 4s are kept to the weekend for the same reason. At next week’s Kia Classic, for example, the par-4 16th will likely be moved up on the weekend.
For reachable par 5s, Witters said they try to keep them around the 480-yard mark “so everybody has an opportunity to go for it.”
The average player on tour, however, hits the ball 250 yards off the tee, which means a ripped 3-wood might get to the front of the green. A reachable par 5 on the LPGA should instead be set up around 450 yards, giving the longest hitters a 7-iron and putting hybrid in the hands of average-length hitters, assuming the fairways are running.
Stacy Lewis’ two biggest criticisms of LPGA setups echo the thoughts of many: The fairways are too soft, and the greens are too firm. And, as was often the case this month at Golden Ocala, where the greens had recently been redone, sometimes holes aren’t set up to be played the way they were designed.
For example, No. 6 at Golden Ocala, a replica of the 16th at Augusta National, played downwind on Friday and Lindy Duncan hit a soaring 7-iron that landed pin high into a firm green and released 40 feet. The tee had been moved back, and the hole location was up front. There was virtually no way to get close.
Witters admits they got that one wrong.
“We never go into it with any malice,” she said, “It’s just you envision the way you think it will play, and then you realize you missed the mark on it.”
As for courses playing too soft, Witters said the goal is to play fast and firm – “We want to see that ball bounce” – but that factors beyond weather, such as occasional overwatering, the size of the maintenance crew and asking a club to condition or stress its course with a lower height of cut, doesn’t always work out as planned, even with an advance official in place.
“We’re a fan of the birdies,” said Witters. “We know bogeys are boring. We’re a fan of making it exciting. I feel like we’ve been going in that direction.”
Katherine Kirk believes tour officials often don’t give enough consideration to the apex of an LPGA player’s approach shot. A female player’s 8-iron, for example, won’t reach the same peak height as with the men. That, Kirk said, comes down to speed and forearm strength.
Ko believes the tour’s week-to-week setup has improved in recent years, but she’d like to see officials ask for input more during practice rounds rather than after the fact in a survey.
“Obviously we want to showcase talent,” said Ko, “and sometimes I don’t think we’re showcasing that because of the way the holes are set up.”
Cheyenne Knight won the 2019 Volunteers of America Classic in October at 18-under par. Last year, the Dallas-area event was moved to December, and Angela Stanford won at 8 under. The cut fell at 8 over.
“They set it up like the golf tournament was being played in the summer,” said Stanford, who, despite being the winner, was frustrated that rules officials seemingly didn’t take into account the freezing temperatures and different winds when setting up the course.
The average cut at an LPGA event was 3 over last year; it was 2 under on the PGA Tour, where the slogan is “Live Under Par.”
Lewis, a former No. 1 and two-time major winner, always goes back to the 2014 men’s and women’s U.S. Opens at Pinehurst as a model for course setup. The women played Pinehurst No. 2 at 6,253, around 1,137 yards shorter than the men. The women made 931 birdies that week; the men made 959. Three players finished under par on the men’s side, and winner Michelle Wie was the only woman who broke par, finishing two shots ahead of Lewis.
“They literally tried to make sure we were hitting the exact same clubs as the guys,” said Lewis. “It played short, but scores were still high.”
The USGA used volunteers and paid caddies a stipend during the 2014 U.S. Open to collect over 50,000 data points to determine how players approached each hole on No. 2. On average, there was a 25-yard difference between the men and women in terms of approach shots.
They set out to create similar hole locations and green speeds for both championships. But green firmness was the biggest change from week to week, given that women, as Kirk noted, do not hit the golf ball as high or create as much spin.
Meg Mallon, who in 2003 became the first woman to shoot 60 on the LPGA, recalled walking into a media room 22 years ago after carding a record-tying 63 in a major championship and fielding questions about the course length. Is the course too short? You hit a lot of 8-irons and 9-irons.
It begs the question: Why can’t low scoring in the women’s game be celebrated rather than questioned?
Course conditions vary more week to week on the LPGA than the PGA Tour and course design often forces long hitters to keep driver in the bag. They simply run out of room.
If, for example, a penalty area comes into play around 150 yards, said Golf Channel analyst and 2004 AIG Women’s British Open champion Karen Stupples, players will lay back to 160, which is a 6- or 7-iron for most women. But 160 yards is a 9-iron or less for the men, making it easier to attack any hole location.
“Most golf courses are not designed with good women golfers in mind,” said Stupples. “That’s the cold, hard truth of it.”
Witters said the LPGA’s setup philosophy can be summed up in one word: variety. They’ve listened to player feedback, she said, and tried to mix it up more on the par 3s.
“We want to make it as exciting as possible,” said Witters, “keeping the integrity of the hole.”
Some players believed the tour had indeed improved in recent years in terms of variety, particularly on the par 3s. Others told Golfweek they were bored wearing out the same clubs.
It’s difficult to tell the story of an LPGA players’ game beyond the final score because only the most basic stats exist on the women’s tour, making the jobs of rules officials, broadcasters and players all the more difficult.
Santiago Carranza, a former software engineer who now makes a living in finance, started a detailed stats project out of necessity to help girlfriend Gaby Lopez look for areas of improvement. It has since turned into ABX Tour, a Golf Analytics system aimed at helping the entire tour.
Carranza, who doesn’t work with the tour but met with officials late last year, collects round-by-round data from dozens of players, including nine 2020 winners, to create a benchmark of standards so that players can put context to their own personal stats.
Carranza’s data helps paint a better picture between the men’s and women’s tours as well. For example, Dustin Johnson and Sei Young Kim – both 2020 Player of the Year on their respective tours – perform nearly identically when they have a 6- to 5-iron in hand, with Johnson’s proximity to the hole at 33.4 feet and Sei Young Kim’s at 32.5 feet. They were similarly accurate from 100 to 125 yards as well last year, with Kim’s proximity to the hole at 20.2 and Johnson at 20.6.
Carranza’s par-5 stats are particularly startling given that both Sei Young Kim and Xander Schuaffele led their respective tours in 2020 in par-5 scoring averages (both at 4.45), yet the average length of an LPGA par 5 is only 46 yards shorter than the men’s tour.
“I am not a short hitter,” said Sophia Popov, who ranks 40th in driving distance on tour “and if I have one par 5 that I reach in a tournament, that’s a lot. I think that has to change.”
After studying the effect of distance on the game, the USGA determined in its Distance Insights Report, released in 2020, that distance gains have put golf on an unsustainable path. In the women’s game, however, that’s not a concern as historical distance gains have been small.
Golf has become a numbers game, but with so few numbers available on the women’s side, the quality of play on the LPGA has been reduced to a subjective discussion rather than one that’s rooted in facts. Carranza’s sampling of data shows how quickly that can change.
“When you get actual physical numbers that tell you how good these players are,” said Stupples, “people have to buy in. They can’t just dismiss figures.”
Make college golf more user-friendly, less U.S. Open
When SEC college golf returned to action last fall, Arkansas hosted 28 men’s and women’s teams at the Blessings Invitational. It was a 54-hole stroke-play event, televised over three days.
From the start, Arkansas women’s coach Shauna Taylor wanted to make sure the difficult Blessings Golf Club would be set up to produce similar scoring from the men and women. She worked closely with men’s coach Brad McMakin to make sure both genders had a similar scoring experience.
The par-3 13th, for example, was set up so that most men hit 5-iron and most women hit 6-iron. Everyone played the same tee on the par-3 eighth, hitting varying wedges from 120.
When the dust settled, the Razorback women, at even par, topped all teams and the Alabama men finished four shots back. Taylor and McMakin had achieved their goal.
“You want to see the talent of the men,” said Taylor, “but you want to showcase the same thing on the women’s side by setting up a golf course in a way that fits our game. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?”
For years, Washington women’s coach Mary Lou Mulflur set up the Huskies’ home event at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington, to produce a winning score around even par. In time, however, she realized that players weren’t having any fun. It grew increasingly tougher to draw a good field too because teams were intimidated by the golf course. Mulflur adjusted to have more reachable par 5s and shorter par 4s.
“We went less U.S. Open,” she said, “and more user-friendly.”
When the pandemic canceled the 2020 spring season, Carnegie Mellon’s Rodgers went to work gathering data from DIII teams across the country. Not every coach, however, was in favor of Rodgers’ mission to shorten courses. One colleague accused him of “trying to dumb down women’s golf.”
Rodgers looked at the average length of courses that men and women play across Division III and how far players hit each club. He determined that on average, most men in the division hit wedge or 9-iron into par 4s, while most women hit 5- or 6-iron.
It’s no wonder that DIII men’s teams had 159 rounds under par in the 2018-19 season while the women’s teams posted two.
“Most of our girls are going to shoot 85 (now),” said Jim Owen, director of men’s and women’s golf at Oglethorpe, “just because they can’t reach four of the par 4s, and all four of the par 5s are three-shot holes.”
It should come as no surprise then that non-scholarship players who can’t break 100 due to oversized courses want to quit. Rodgers found the scoring average for all of Division III women’s golf in the 2018-19 season was 95.2.
The NCAA approved shortening the maximum distance to 5,600 yards for regular-season events beginning next fall. The NCAA Championship, however, will still be played at 5,800, regardless of conditions.
“All of a sudden we’ve brought the game back to what I call a skill level,” said Owen, “instead of a physical level.”
The elite players in Division III will start breaking par on a regular basis, Owen predicted. The Nos. 4-9 players in the lineup now have a chance to break 80. More players are likely to not only stick with college golf, but also continue playing the game long after graduation.
More forward tees, more participation
When Arthur Little and his wife Jann Leeming first purchased Province Lake Golf in Parsonsfield, Maine, out of bankruptcy in 1996, they took their chairs out and observed general play from the original red tee markers. In most cases, the women had no hope of reaching greens in regulation.
“We could’ve shot a cannon across the whole course in the afternoon,” said Leeming of the slow customer traffic.
To overhaul things at the struggling club, Little and Leeming built a new teeing system that included four sets of tees, with two forward tees at 4,169 yards and 4,957 yards. (They recommend six tees but didn’t have the land for it.)
The results were significant: Rounds increased from 8,000 to 22,000; women began to represent over a third of play; junior play increased from 1.5 percent to 7.5 percent; speed of play increased 15 to 30 minutes, even on packed days; tournament and outing business tripled; the bottom line improved by $200,000.
After Little and Leeming sold Province Lake in 2005, they reached out to developer Mike Keiser with their findings on more forward tees. Keiser immediately responded, and it wasn’t long before his Old Macdonald Course at Bandon had a new royal blue tee that played 4,258 yards. Soon every Bandon course had a gender-neutral royal blue tee.
Six years ago, the PGA of America put together a booklet, authored by Little and titled “Setting Up Golf Courses for Success.” The booklet, aimed at attracting more women to the game, asserts that the average swing speed of a female golfer is 65 mph, and her average drive goes 140 yards.
Therefore asking a woman to play a 5,200-yard course is equivalent to asking the average male to play from 7,500 yards.
It’s no wonder female participation in the game, though rising, still lags so far behind.
For PGA of America past president Suzy Whaley, it’s simply about having more options available. When clubs have days that they don’t put tee markers out, Whaley said, it’s often the most fun day a membership can have, because where do they go?
“They go where know they can reach the green in two,” she said.
Jan Bel Jan, owner of Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design, created the concept of scoring tees and put them in place at Pelican’s Nest in Bonita Springs. The Scoring Course, a course within a course, at Pelican’s Nest tops out at 4,062 yards and fits within the existing Hurricane Course, which has six additional tees. Nearly a third of the rounds at Pelican’s Nest, a 36-hole facility, are played by women, and the nine-hole women’s league that goes out every Wednesday plays foursomes in two hours or less.
“It’s not the beginner’s tee,” said Dan Gawronski, Pelican’s Nest director of golf. “It’s not the golden tee, not a gender-specific tee, not age-specific tee or skill-specific. You can really challenge yourself with scoring clubs. It suits all parties, and that’s the beauty of it.”
It’s time to find the sweet spot for scoring
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ANA Inspiration, and Laura Davies has always thought the forward tee should be used all four days on the iconic par-5 18th at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course. With the absence of a grandstand or sponsored blue wall this year, the most recognizable hole on the LPGA will go back to its original island roots.
Lindy Duncan said that if she ended up with a hybrid in her hand on the 18th at ANA, she wouldn’t think twice about going for it. If it’s a 5-wood, she’d check her lie, consider the firmness of the green and give it some thought.
Global competition has pushed the depth of the LPGA to new levels. In 2000, only 20 players averaged under par. In 2019, that number grew to 99. But when 186 players do the same on the PGA Tour, it’s worth questioning the size of that scoring gap.
The men’s game is deeper from top to bottom. Full stop. And from a young age, that competition helps breed a more aggressive style of play that leads to lower scores.
But can more still be done to lessen the gender scoring divide?
Chamblee believes shorter setups would allow power players to dominate, giving the LPGA its own Tiger, Rory or Dustin. At the height of her career, Sorenstam consistently ranked inside the top 4 in driving distance on the LPGA.
“If I were in charge of course setup on the LPGA tour and I’m competing for mentions on the air and inches in a column,” said Chamblee, “and the PGA Tour was outscoring the LPGA, I would look for that sweet spot to where we had just as many or more LPGA players averaging under 70. … It’s not manipulating it to an unfair advantage or manipulating it to an entertaining advantage at all, it’s just getting it more parallel to the other option that people have to watch golf.”
The National Golf Foundation reports that more than 6 million women played golf in the U.S. last year, nearly half a million more than the previous year.
If more of an emphasis and education were to be placed on understanding proper setups for women and girls of all levels in relation to swing speed, perhaps more would stay invested in the game.
There’s a common belief among amateur women—even pros—that when they move up to a shorter tee that they’re somehow “cheating.” That suddenly having a wedge or 9-iron in for approach shots means it’s too easy.
Did anyone ask a then-46-year-old Jim Furyk if his 58 came too easy after he hit three 8-irons, six 9-irons and three wedges into par 3s and 4s and nearly drove a par 4 at the Travelers Championship?
If they did, it wasn’t on the transcript.
Stanford coach Anne Walker didn’t fully appreciate the difference in how men’s and women’s events are set up, particularly when it comes to what clubs are used on the approach, until the NCAA Division I Championship, now televised, started being held in back-to-back weeks on the same course.
“It was eye-opening,” said Walker, who led the Cardinal to the title in 2015 at The Concession Golf Club. USC won the women’s stroke-play portion of that event with a 40-over total; Illinois won the men’s equivalent at 3 over.
Walker said she looks at the PGA Tour slogan “These Guys Are Good” and believes the women’s equivalent would be “These Women Are Resilient.”
“Our tour has the power and length to entertain at an even higher level,” said major champion Angela Stanford, “and we’re not set up to do it.
“Let them light it up.”
original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/03/16/how-misguided-course-setups-are-holding-back-womens-golf/