Tee It Forward

Dave Tutelman  -  July 19, 2019

I've tried the Tee It Forward program being pushed by the PGA and USGA. I like it. A lot! Here's why I think it could be a big step forward, and what still has to be done to make it a reality.

In 2011 (perhaps earlier; 2011 is the earliest reference I can cite), the PGA of America and the USGA started to push a new initiative called "Tee It Forward". The reasoning is that people will enjoy golf more if they play from the proper tees.

Fair enough. But what constitutes the "proper tees"? Instead of being hidebound by "white=men, gold=seniors, red=women" or some similar set of assumptions, Tee It Forward is based on a chart that says, "If your typical good drives go this far, then here is the length of the 18-hole course you should be playing. Choose a set of tees of the appropriate course length." The chart, copied from the PGA web page, is at the right.

 
If you prefer graphs to tables, here's the chart in graph form. Same information, different presentation. The red curve is the upper yardage and the blue curve the lower yardage. You should be playing a course whose total, 18-hole yardage is between the red and blue curves.

I write this in 2019. I had heard about Tee It Forward for several years, but didn't pay much attention to it. My local courses were putting in senior tees, and I'm a senior, right? I just turned 78. That's very senior. Most courses have set the threshold age for senior privileges between 55 and 65, and I'm well above that. But I have been losing distance since I was 65; that is well over a decade at this point. In 2006, when I was 65, I could drive it 250 yards routinely, and I hit a 5-iron 175-180 yards. Today, my better drives are about 190 yards, and a well-struck 5-iron is 150 yards.

I took a hard look at the chart early this year. I was coming off a whole year (all of 2018) with no golf at all for health reasons. Health is better this year, and it seems reasonable to set fresh goals for my golf as I return to the sport. The chart says I should be playing a course of 5000-5200 yards.

According to the chart,  the "senior tees" at most of my usual golf courses are too long for me. (More detail below.)

I tried playing my TIF (Tee It Forward) tees wherever I could find them. It was an experiment; I was not committed to it for my golf game going forward. But I soon discovered I like it. A lot! Here are the reasons -- followed by the reasons I blame for its not taking off. My conclusions section is a set of essential steps the golf industry must take in order to make Tee It Forward happen for real.
 

Tee It Forward -- Why?

The first thing I noticed when I switched to my TIF tees at courses where I was very familiar with longer tees was not that it was easier. Yes, it was easier -- but that was not what struck me. The real difference was that golf was more like the game I played in my early sixties. The table was right, at least for me.
  • My second shot at most par-fours is back to an approach shot. I had gotten to the point where I could not reach par-fours in regulation, if I played from my "traditional" tees.
  • My approach shots are with the clubs I could remember from my early sixties. If a really good drive on #10 at Charleston Springs North used to give me a 6-iron to the green back then, today's really good drive gives me today's 6-iron to the green.
  • If I make no mistakes, I should get a par. Before TIF, par had become a reward for outstanding play. With TIF, it is a reward for executing the shot I intend reasonably well. Outstanding play is rewarded with birdies. (And I got my first eagle in years this week: par five, perfect drive, very good 2-hybrid, and a pitch-in from 30 yards. That is one way I could earn an eagle 15 years ago, and this had a similar feel.)
  • Golf is back to a thinking game. I have to think on the tee before I pull a club for my tee shot. My game from the white tees at most courses had become, "It's not a par-3, so let's hit driver. Grip it 'n' rip it!" No more. Most are still driver holes, but there are plenty of holes where a 3-wood or even a hybrid or iron is called for off the tee. I'll give examples below.
  • It seems almost paradoxical, but the challenges are actually more meaningful. I can think about breaking 80 again. Hey, at age 78, I can think about shooting my age. Up until TIF, I thought continuing loss of distance would make my scores balloon faster than my age. But, from my proper tees, my score is once again related to skill more than power. (In fact, I finally did shoot my age. A week after my 78th birthday, I shot a 77 from the 5071-yard tees at Charleston Springs North.)
  • It's just more fun! From time to time, I still play an occasional round from the whites. It's a slog, hitting nothing but driver from the tee, and still looking at 3-wood and perhaps a long iron after that. Not the case from my TIF tees; I have a decent chance at a green in regulation, as long as I hit solid, straight shots. Obviously, some holes are more challenging than others in this regard -- but it was also that way when I was 65 and the whites were my TIF tees.
  • Last -- but far from least -- it could help grow the game. Many reports have golf shrinking as a pastime, in the United States and perhaps worldwide. Tee It Forward could help stop this trend and even reverse it, in two ways. (1) As noted in the last point, it makes golf more fun. (2) One of the big knocks on golf, in the surveys to assess the allegation that golf is shrinking, is that it takes too long to play a round. One thing that contributes to slow play is playing from tees too long for your game; Tee It Forward would speed things up.
 

Why not?

If Tee It Forward is such a great idea, why is it not catching on? Why are so few golfers adopting their TIF tees? There are a bunch of factors, but I think most boil down to ignorance, ego, and opportunity.

Ignorance

I am a public course golfer, not a club member. Most of the golfers I encounter have never heard of Tee It Forward, and almost all who recognize the name have never seen the tables. Some of them ask me what rules allow me to play the red tees -- which they usually think of as "the ladies' tees". When I tell them about the TIF chart, their eyes open in surprise.

It is also well worth mentioning that many, perhaps even most, of them should not be playing the course any longer than I do; they do not hit the ball farther than me.

What should golf be doing about this?
  • Obviously, the PGA and USGA have not gotten their message across. They should be finding ways to encourage Tee It Forward in places that people other than serious golfers would see it.
    • The publicity should include TV spots where golfers are likely to see them. Tournament coverage. Golf Channel programming.
    • The publicity should include respected golfers pointing out that this is the way to play the course as it was designed.
    • The publicity should make every effort to dispel the notion -- the stigma -- that the red tees are the "ladies' tees". (See below.)
  • Clubs should be encouraging their members to play their TIF tees.
    • The instructors, the pro shop, and signage in the clubhouse should urge them to try it.
    • Some of the events and competitions should "level the field" using tee choices instead of handicaps. I have been in a few match-play contests where this worked very well. It became a test of skill, with power removed from consideration. This is distinct from handicap, where the determining factor is not skill, but rather how well you play compared with your usual performance.
  • The golf courses should... Well, I'll hold that for the "Opportunity" section. But the golf courses are not helping matters.

Ego

Entirely too much of the reluctance of male golfers to tee it forward is ego. It involves making uncomfortable admissions and discarding long-held assumptions.
  • I had enough trouble just getting my golf buddies to play the "senior tees" (gold tees at most courses in my area). They didn't want to admit that their game was limited due to their growing older. That's a reality, but one few of us are anxious to face.
  • Almost every male golfer I know grew up in golf thinking of the red tees as the "ladies' tees". In order for them to enjoy golf from the red tees, they need to shake this assumption. Even more important is the social assumption; they don't want other golfers, who still hold the "ladies' tees" assumption, to apply the label to them. The assumption is perpetuated and reinforced by lots of golf courses that only rate the red tees (course rating and slope) for women. I'll have more to say on that point later.
  • If you ask most male golfers how far they drive the ball, they will give you an overestimate. And usually it's one they believe. They remember that one huge drive they hit last August, and think of that as their driving distance. If you use that philosophy, the TIF tables will tell you to play a longer course than you should be playing.
These constitute an emotional combination that is hard to overcome.

Opportunity

There may well be golfers who have heard of Tee It Forward and would like to try it, but the courses they play don't have an appropriate set of tees. For examples of this, let's look at the Monmouth County Parks courses, the courses I play the most, considered against my recommended Tee It Forward distance of 5000-5200 yards.

Course Par Year
built
18-Hole Yardage
Blue White Gold Red
Shark River 71 1922 6507 6177 (new) 5598
Hominy Hill 72 1964 7049 6456 6007 5793
Howell Park 72 1970 6964 6321 5779 5561
Charleston Springs - North 72 1998 7011 6374 5758 5071
Charleston Springs - South 72 2002 6953 6377 5899 5153

Only two courses, the "new" courses at Charleston Springs (post-1990) have any tees at all short enough to match my distance. The other courses are 350-600 yards longer. And I am hardly the shortest hitter on these courses. Of the 10 regulars in my golf group (in our late sixties to late seventies), only two drive the ball longer than I do. So all but those two should be playing a course not much over 5000 yards. But fewer than half of them join me at the red tees on any of these courses.

Let's get back to what the golf courses can do to improve the opportunity to tee it forward:
  • Publicize and announce Tee It Forward. But it isn't clear this overcomes either the ignorance nor the ego problems. Shark River has a Tee It Forward sign on the rest room door, where everybody goes at least once per visit to the course. But Shark River has also been a place where I encounter golfers who claim to never have heard of Tee It Forward. So the publicity needs to be better. So far, their publicity has only been lip service. In order to go beyond lip service, the course must...
  • Provide Tee It Forward tees for their expected clientele. If they get any traffic from, for instance, aging golfers who hit the ball 150yards, they should have a set of 3500-3700 yard tees. If they expect women who are the wives of the regulars, and who hit it 125 yards at best, they need a set of 2800-3000 yard tees. Similarly, if they expect to host a women's league. I just don't see this happening. Not at all!
  • Rate the tees, even the shortest tees, for both men and women. This can be surprisingly important. One of my regular golf friends drives the ball 170 yards, and would love to play his TIF tees. But his higher priority is maintaining a USGA handicap, in order to play in events that require an official handicap. The handicap system requires course rating and slope to be different for women and men. In order to keep a handicap, he has to play tees rated for men. Too many courses, including my county's public courses, rate the red tees only for women -- and the other tees only for men. Here's a typical excerpt from one of their scorecards. Look at the progression of course rating; it is high (74.2) for the blue tees, and is progressively lower (that is, easier) for the whites and golds. That makes sense. But now look at the red tees; the rating has jumped up again, to 74.0. The only way it makes sense is if the reds are being rated for women, and women only. If you ask in the clubhouse, they will tell you that is exactly what is happening.

    The county has started with both-gender ratings, but they are taking it in the wrong direction for Tee It Forward. Here is the corresponding snippet from one of the courses where they are doing this. (Ignore the fact that the gold and white tees are inverted from their usual sense.) Only the white tees (generally considered the "senior tees" at this course) are rated for both genders. That is, they support "tee it back" for longer-hitting women, but still do nothing to encourage "tee it forward".

Other reasons

Here are a few more reasons I have heard from people I have played with, people whose distance indicates they should be playing from tees more forward than they do.
  • "I want to play the course as it was designed." They think that by playing from the full-length tees, they are playing the course as the architect intended. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we shall cover in the next section.
  • "I don't like thinking; I just want to hit the ball." They don't say this in so many words, but it is clear that two of my regulars feel this way. In fact, one of them tried the red tees just once and turned in a pretty bad score. He just hit driver on every hole, and hit the ball into the dangers the architect built into the design. (The next section will cover examples.) Nothing good came of that strategy -- or, more accurately, lack of strategy. Different people play golf for different reasons; if your reason is to hit the ball as far as you can and then do it again, Tee It Forward is probably not for you.

Thinking your way around the course

For most holes, the difference in tees is just distance; it means that I stand a chance to have an iron approach for a green in regulation. But for some holes, it's also a change in strategy. It is no longer just, "Pull out the driver, grip it 'n' rip it!" On those holes, I have to think about my tee shot. And that thinking is often the same thinking I did when playing the white tees in my early sixties. Here are a few examples from courses I played then and still play. For each of the cases, I'll discuss:
  1. How I played the tee shot from the white tees in my early sixties, when I could drive it 250.
  2. How I play the tee shot from the white tees today -- and often even the gold tees. I now drive it 190.
  3. How I play the tee shot from the Tee It Forward tees today. TIF happens to be the red tees for most of the courses in the examples.
Shark River, 5th hole
This one is obvious and classic; you don't want your drive in the cross hazard.

The hole is a short par-4. If I hit a good drive, even from the white tees today, I might have an iron for an approach. I have shown the location of the white and red tee boxes. But there is a water hazard, a ditch about 6 feet wide represented by the blue line. It is about 170 yards from the red tees and a little over 200 yards from the whites.


 Here are the [a], [b], [c] of how to play the hole:
  1. I can drive it 250, but from the whites it's only 210-220 to the hazard. Better take a shorter club and lay up, because a less-than-solid driver strike would not carry the ditch. I usually used a 7-wood or 3-iron. If I did it well, it's a PW or SW to the green.
  2. Grip it 'n' rip it! Can't reach the ditch.
  3. A drive of 190yd will be wet. Throttle back to a 4-hybrid or 5-iron.
Note that I'm playing the hole very much as I did 15 years ago. I'm playing it as the architect intended.
Charleston Springs South Course, 13th hole
Here is a similar concept, but with a strategic choice. It is a par-5 around a lake. From short of the lake, it is a three-shot hole. But it might be reachable if you can drive it in the narrower neck to the left of the lake.


  1. I can drive it 250, but that will run out of fairway if it is to the right, or even in the middle. And "run out of fairway" means tall grass or the lake. To get close enough to go for the green on this par-5, I have to drive it into the narrower neck of fairway on the left. Risk-reward! And if I don't want the risk, I can use less club and put it anywhere in the fairway (#2 arrows). But that means at least three shots to the green.
  2. Grip it 'n' rip it! Can't run out of fairway.
  3. Same choices as [a]. If I hit a solid drive middle or right, it will be in the high grass or even the lake. If I'm not hitting my driver straight today, straight enough to risk the neck on the left, I should back off a club or two. Feels like 15 years ago.
Charleston Springs South Course, 2nd hole
Another type of risk-reward, where the risky shot not only has to be straight, but far enough to carry a bunker.


  1. If I hit my driver down the middle of the fairway I see from the tee, it will run through the fairway and very possibly into the lake. I can either throttle back to a shorter club down the middle, or I can take on that big (and intimidating from the tee) fairway bunker and put my drive longer and lefter in the fairway. Is there a reward for that risk? You bet! First of all, it's several clubs closer -- PW or SW vs 7-iron. Just as important, I don't have to take on the lake for my second shot, unless the hole is cut on the right side of the green; and even then there is a lot less water intervening. The risk? If you are short and in the bunker, you probably don't want to go for the green -- and risk the lake if you miss. And, of course, your drive might miss right (that was my miss 15 years ago) and wind up in the lake anyway.
  2. Grip it 'n' rip it! Can't reach the lake.
  3. Same two choices as [a]. But now there's even more reward if you make it. That's because the driver isn't my only club where I've lost distance; the #2 strategy leaves a long iron or hybrid over water for the second shot. Unless I'm very confident that day, I'll lay up short left of the green (dotted red arrow), turning this relatively short par-4 into a par-5.
Howell Park, 11th hole
Howell Park, more than the other courses I play regularly, reminds me how much distance I have lost. It has several holes that are sharp doglegs, and on several I can no longer count on driving the ball far enough from the white tees so I can even see the green. But the hole that reminds me the most sharply is the eleventh. It is a par-5 with a pair of traps at the dogleg, one on either side.


  1. If I hit a good drive -- or even a good 3-wood -- I should be able to clear the right-hand bunker and be out in the fairway in the position labeled '1'.  If my driving was unreliable that day (it's the eleventh hole; I should know by then), I could back off to a lofted fairway wood (5- or 7-wood) and aim at the left bunker. I couldn't reach the left bunker with that club, and would wind up at position '2'. Why would I risk the bunker? If you look at the aqua centerline towards the hole, you'll see that going over or right of the bunker is worth a lot more yards than just the difference in drive distance. I got my first eagle here, with a big fade (my shot shape then) over the right side of the bunker; I hit a 5-wood onto the green, and made the putt.
  2. Grip it 'n' rip it -- towards the left bunker. I can't reach it. And I can't fly the right bunker any more, even from the gold tees.
  3. I have to decide whether my driving is good enough to challenge the right bunker. If so, go for it, position #1. If not, back off to a 3-hybrid to position #2. If I hit driver toward the left bunker (accidentally or intentionally), I will be in the bunker (or worse, the trees beyond the bunker). The decision is exactly the same as it was fifteen years ago.
Charleston Springs North Course, 6th hole
A much more complex strategy than most holes, but it was designed to be a strategic hole.

It is a relatively short par-4 with a split fairway, a wide and elevated right fairway and a narrower left fairway. The fairways are separated by a ridge and deep pot bunkers in the slope between the fairways. The bunkers between the fairways will cost almost a full stroke; it is hard to advance the ball very far from them. The approach shot from the right fairway is over greenfront bunkers; from the left fairway, you can run your approach up to the green.


  1. I did not have much confidence in the exact direction of my 250-yard drives; my miss was a slice and I could not draw a drive at all. So my only choice from the whites was the wider upper (right) fairway. I would aim just left of the target bunker and try to hit it straight. A slight pull or fade was not bad, but a big slice could go across the cart path into the tall rough. If I was missing too badly with my driver, I could hit a 3- or 5-wood on the same line but shorter (position #2). My iron shots back then were long enough that I could still keep it on the green from a little farther back.
  2. Grip it 'n' rip it at the right (upper) fairway. That's the best I could do, and I'd need a long iron or hybrid for the second shot.
  3. Lots of strategic choices from the TIF (red) tees. Let's consider them by number in the diagram:
    1. Aim the driver at the target bunker, just as I did 15 years ago. Works if it goes at position #1, which it usually will.
    2. If I'm hitting my driver unusually long, it might find the bunker -- that's a close thing. So I could back off to a shorter club and go for position #2. The shorter club would also be better if my drives are "directionally challenged" that day; it's a wide fairway at that point. But... A shorter tee shot means a longer second shot (the dotted yellow arrow). The direction from the upper fairway takes me over the right front bunker to a green that is shallower than it is narrow. You really want a shorter iron, but strategy #2 leaves me with a long iron or hybrid which will usually wind up in the front right bunker or over the green.
    3. If my reason for considering strategy #2 is that I am hitting big, reliable drives, I might think about starting it at the target bunker and drawing it back to the fairway. Some days I'm hitting the driver well enough to get away with this, and it makes the second shot much easier. The only ways this goes wrong is if the draw is a quicker hook (into the pot bunkers), or not only straight but long enough to find the target bunker.
    4. Here's a completely different strategy -- go for the lower (left) fairway. I couldn't ever do it with a driver from the white tees; from that angle, it required a draw and my shot shape was a fade. But it works much better from the red tees; the angle is different -- straight down the left fairway -- and I'm close enough to the target to use a more accurate hybrid. The reward is a second shot (the dotted green arrow) that doesn't have to carry any bunkers at the green, just be straight enough to be within the confines of the green. That means a longer club works, as long as I can control the direction.
Colonial Terrace, 2nd hole
Let's finish with one where tee choice isn't even an issue -- but thinking is. In fact, it's the sort of situation the TV color commentators are always pointing out. The landing area for a driver is much tighter than a shorter tee shot would face, so the smart pros often take less club off the tee to make sure they have a clear second shot from the fairway.

Colonial Terrace is my town's muni, and is only 5000 yards from the white tees -- so let's just look at it from the whites. The second hole, a longish par-four, is the #1 handicap hole on the course. The thing that makes it hard is a stand of big trees on the right, starting 210 yards from the tee and continuing for about 60 yards.


 If I hit driver from the tee (the white #1 arrow), I am most likely to be at the right edge of the fairway. That means my second shot is through the trees -- or more likely a pitch-out to the fairway 100yd from the green. (And many golfers hit driver even further right; this is not a highly-skilled golf population, and slicers are common here.)

So why not just aim a little left, at the middle of the fairway? That strategy is dangerous. Even a small pull goes into the woods on the left, and you won't find it. (Please don't ask how I know.)

But there is an alternative. If I hit a hybrid on the same initial line (the red #2 arrow), it stops well short of the trees and I have a clear shot to the green. And, since my most solid hybrid shots have a little draw, I might even be in the middle of the fairway (red #3 arrow).

I have plenty of other examples, but this should give you an idea of why you have to think. And, if your reason for teeing it forward is losing distance to age, you are likely to be playing and thinking as you did when you were younger.
 

Details about the tables

Here are a couple of considerations that won't be interesting to a mathophobe. But for you techies out there...

Linearity

Take a good look at the graph form of the Tee It Forward chart that was presented at the top of this article. If you look closely, you'll see that it is not linear, not a straight line. It's not even a simple convex or concave curve; it has several inflection points, and goes concave to convex to concave again.

Let's look at that shape in a little more detail. In the graph at the right, the blue curve is the middle of the TIF range for each driving distance. It is the shape of the TIF prescription. The red curve is a straight line with the same endpoints as the blue curve. A few features worth noticing:
  • For low driving distances, the two curves are the same. Not just the same value, but just about the same slope.
  • For the middle population of golfers who drive the ball between 160 and 260 yards, the chart recommends a course length significantly longer (by as much as 500 yards in the middle of the range) than a linear recommendation.
  • For high driving distance, the curves come together again, though they do not seem to merge asymptotically. (I told you this section is not for mathophobes.)
I have no idea of the reasoning for this shape of curve. I would have expected a linear recommendation, but that is on the basis of intuition, not solid analysis. It would be very interesting to know the reasoning. I would hope for some transparency on the part of the PGA and USGA who are recommending Teeing It Forward. So far, I have not seen any, but I have not tried digging yet. If I find out the reason, I will edit this article to include it.

Alternate formula

I have seen an alternate chart for teeing it forward. It is a very simple linear formula:

Total course length  =  36 * 5-iron carry distance.

I did a quick sanity test of this formula. My 5-iron is my 150-yard club, of which the first 140 yards are carry. When I plug 140 yards into this equation, I get a recommendation of 5040 yards for the 18-hole course. That is remarkably consistent with the PGA/USGA chart; 5040 is between 5000 and 5200, the recommended yardage range for my driving distance.

Here is a slightly more exhaustive test that the brief sanity test based on my own yardages. I initially suspected the two recommendations would not be far apart, but I have changed my mind. Remember that this formula, unlike the TIF chart, is a linear relationship. In fact, it is proportional. We can easily graph this if we assume most golfers have the same ratio of driver distance to 5-iron carry distance that I do (190 to 140, or 1.36). Here is the previous graph, with an additional curve -- the proportional line that matches the TIF curve at 190 yards driving distance. It is a direct proxy for the alternate formula. Notice how the recommendations diverge at longer and shorter driving distances. The difference between the curves at the extremes is almost 500 yards.

Conclusion

I have found playing from the Tee It Forward tees rewarding, challenging, and fun. The challenge and the fun come from having to play the golf course instead of just trying to hit the ball farther than I am capable of. But very few golfers, especially male golfers, are accepting this challenge and being rewarded with the fun.

Here is a summary and emphasis of the recommendations in the article, the things that golf -- especially the governing bodies and the courses -- should be doing to encourage more golfers to tee it forward.
  • The entire golf industry must, first and foremost, dispel the stigma associated with shorter tees, specifically:
    • They are not the "ladies' tees".
    • They are the way to play the course as the architect intended.
    Without removing the stigma, any other efforts will be useless.
  • The PGA, USGA, and other stakeholders should be finding ways to encourage Tee It Forward in places that less-than-serious golfers would see it, like TV spots in golf tournament coverage.
  • Golf courses must provide tees of appropriate distance for all the golfers who play there. This is sadly lacking today!
  • Golf courses should rate even the more forward tees for both men and women golfers, so anybody can report their score for handicapping.
  • Clubs should be encouraging their members to play their TIF tees.
    • The instructors, the pro shop, and signage in the clubhouse should urge them to try it.
    • Some of the events and competitions should "level the field" using tee choices instead of handicaps.


Last modified 7/27/2019