New USGA Research: Forward Tees for the Future
By George Waters, Senior Manager, Green Section Education, USGA
This article is repurposed from 4/2023, Vol. 61-06 of the USGA Green Section Record. Copyright USGA.
- The forward tee yardage at most golf courses in the U.S. is too long for many players based on their hitting distance and preferred hole lengths.
- Shorter hitters and players with slower swing speeds are a critical part of the golfing population that has been growing rapidly in recent years.
- A forward tee distance that is closer to 4,000 yards than 5,000 yards is a better fit for far more players – including the average female golfer and many others with slower swing speeds.
- Design, presentation and course rating adjustments can help reduce some of the stigmas around forward tees and encourage their use.
The need for forward tees that provide a better experience for shorter hitters has long been discussed in golf industry circles, but widespread change has been slow to arrive. Forward tees are often too long for the players using them and their location and presentation may not receive the same attention as other teeing areas. This creates the risk of a bad experience that can deter beginning golfers and shorter hitters from playing a particular course or cause them to give up golf altogether.
The fact that many forward tee players frequently cannot reach greens in regulation with even their best shots and repetitively hit their longest clubs is clear evidence that forward tees on many courses should be farther forward. Reluctance among some golfers to use forward tees even if they might be a better fit for their game is another issue. Golfers and people who work in the golf industry routinely observe the problems related to forward tees, but there has been a shortage of hard data to help us better understand the scope of the issues, the potential remedies, and the costs and benefits associated with improving forward tees.
Recent USGA research took an in-depth look at the issues surrounding forward tee availability and usage to help courses improve their forward tees, encourage golfers to use forward tees and ultimately improve the overall golf experience for many players.
Why do forward tees matter?
The most obvious reason why quality forward tees are important is because a lot of players rely on them to have an enjoyable round that presents a reasonable challenge. Typical forward tee players include beginners, many female golfers and others with slower swing speeds. These groups make up a critical part of the golfing population that has been growing rapidly in recent years.
According to National Golf Foundation (NGF) data, a record 3.2 million golfers played on a course for the first time in 2021, the second-straight year where that number was higher than 3 million and the eighth-straight year above 2 million. In addition, 3.1 million juniors played on a golf course in 2021, a number that has held steady following a 24% jump in 2020 that was the largest increase since 1997. In that group of juniors, 36% were girls – a proportion that has more than doubled since 2000. Females now make up 25% of the on-course golfing population, with 6.2 million female players reported in the year 2021. These are large numbers of players who typically have slower swing speeds and shorter hitting distances, so effective forward tees are a critical part of their enjoyment and the long-term health of the game.
Golf course owners and operators express a strong interest in attracting female players, juniors and families to their courses. They also express a strong desire to retain golfers as customers throughout their golf-playing careers, from junior to senior golfers. Providing forward tees that meet the needs of these players is a key part of achieving those goals.
Pace of play is another potential benefit of improved forward tees – for both the golfers using them and others on the course. USGA research shows that pace of play improves when golfers use a set of tees that is a good match for their playing ability and pace of play ranks among the most important factors in golfer satisfaction. Improving pace of play is also a priority for a large majority of the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) members we surveyed. This is not surprising since faster rounds mean happier customers and more rounds per day, which both translate directly into increased revenue.
Do existing forward tees meet golfer needs?
A central focus of this research was understanding the current inventory of forward tee distances, how those locations match with golfer ability, and how frequently forward tees are used. The information for this study came from several key sources, including the USGA Course RatingTM database and approximately 55 million scores posted during 2020 through the World Handicap SystemTM. These large data sets provide robust and reliable information that paints a clear picture of the current state of forward tees in the United States.
The median forward tee yardage for 18-hole courses in the U.S. is 4,952 yards. More than 40% of U.S. courses do not have a forward tee yardage less than 5,000 yards. Based on score posting data, we see that when forward tees are longer than 5,000 yards, they are used by female golfers at least 70% of the time. When they are between 4,400-4,600 they are used by female golfers 37% of the time. This shows that a significant number of female golfers would move forward from a set of tees that is 5,000 yards or more if another option was available.
On an 18-hole, par-72 golf course with the current median forward tee yardage of 4,952, players who drive the ball 150 yards on average will typically hit approach shots with a 5-iron or more on 17 out of 18 holes assuming they hit a typical drive. Clearly, this sets the table for a repetitive and excessively difficult round. As a point of reference, the average female golfer with a Handicap Index has an index of 27.5 and an average driving distance of 148 yards.
What is a good forward tee distance?
When contemplating better forward tee locations, it’s important to identify the desired outcomes from a golfer experience standpoint. What will make playing from the forward tees as enjoyable as possible? In a survey of 20,000 golfers, more than 80% said that playing a balance of different shots during a round and having the holes fit with their driving distance would have a “significant positive impact” or an “extremely positive impact” on their experience. In this same survey, golfers stated that their preferred approach shot length was around a 6-iron, with holes feeling too long when approach shots are hit with a 3-wood.
The PGA of America document “Setting up Golf Courses for Success” recommends that players with driver swing speeds near 65 mph and a driver distance of 140 yards should play a set of tees between 4,000 and 4,200 yards. The PGA of America and USGA initiative “Tee it Forward” suggests a yardage between 3,500 and 3,700 yards for the same players, and the ASGCA-supported Longleaf teeing system recommends 3,800 yards for those players. While there is room for debate on these recommendations, they certainly point toward locating forward tees closer to 4,000 yards than 5,000 yards, which would be a significant adjustment for approximately 70% of U.S. courses.
Combining data on what golfers are capable of – i.e., their hitting distance with various clubs – and their stated desire to hit a range of clubs on their approach shots is another way to derive what constitutes a suitable forward tee yardage. Based on data from a USGA field study of 300 golfers, someone who averages 150 yards with their driver averages 110 yards with a 6-iron and 80 yards with a 9-iron. If you set a target for the average approach shot to be played with a 6-iron across 10 par 4s and four par 3s, and a 9-iron for four par 5s – meaning some holes require shots longer and shorter than the average approach after an average tee shot – then the total course yardage should be approximately 4,400 yards to be good fit for that player’s hitting distance and desire to hit varying clubs on their approaches.
A forward tee length in this range would represent a good fit for the average female golfer and a small percentage of male players based on our golfer performance research and tee selection data. However, it is important to remember that a large number of golfers don’t hit the ball as far as the average female player. A set of tees even farther forward would be necessary to fully accommodate those golfers, but those tees would likely receive less use. Score posting data shows that forward tees shorter than 4,200 yards on an 18-hole golf course receive 12% of rounds played by female golfers and essentially no rounds from male players.
Offering a forward tee between 4,200-4,600 yards is a good place for courses to start. Tees in this range are a good fit for a large number of players and will receive a significant amount of use based on current score posting patterns. Tees farther forward than this can still be beneficial, but they should probably be viewed as complementary to a set of tees in the 4,200 to 4,600 range rather than as an alternative.
Encouraging golfers to use forward tees
Providing forward tees that are a better fit for more players falls on golf facility owners and operators to address. However, golfers must also be willing to use forward tees to realize the benefits of improved options. Users of existing forward tees can be reluctant to move farther forward, even if doing so allowed them to reach more greens, hit a greater variety of clubs during a round, or to play the course in a way that more closely matches the architectural intent. Golfers who have not used forward tees in the past often have some reluctance about moving forward, even if the forward tees might be a better fit for their hitting distance or playing ability. Our research confirmed that various stigmas and attitudes among golfers can be an obstacle to making good choices in tee selection, especially when it comes to using forward tees.
Tees with a gender or age identifier in the name would be an obvious issue, but golfers also associate certain tee colors or locations with particular groups. In a survey of 20,000 golfers, 76% identified red tees with women, 64% identified white tees with men, and 79% identified blue tees as being for men or experts. In a survey of more than 700 PGA and LPGA professionals, 91% felt that stigmas related to tee selection prevented some players from choosing a tee that is a good fit for their ability.
There are also situations where the forward tee is not rated for both male and female players. Not only does this deter players from using forward tees from a score posting perspective, it also influences the messaging around forward tees. If they are not rated for male players, that reinforces the stigma that forward tees are “ladies’ tees.”
While gender and age stigmas related to forward tee use have proven stubborn over the years, there are things golf courses and organizations can do to promote change. Having all tees rated for both men and women is an easy starting point that the vast majority of golfers and industry professionals we surveyed supported.
Changing tee colors and names is another easy way that many courses have diminished stigmas and increased use of various tee sets. Some courses have simply altered the traditional order of their tee colors to help golfers feel freer in their choices. If the forward tee is no longer red, that can decrease the perception that it is exclusively for female golfers. Others have gone away from colors like red, white and blue to entirely different options that don’t seem to carry the same gender or age identification that has become associated with more traditional colors. Tee markers also don’t need to have a color at all, many courses use a number or symbol system to identify their tees.
Forward tee presentation
Anecdotal evidence and results from our quantitative survey research suggests that golfers expect a comparable level of presentation and conditioning across teeing options. 78% of respondents in our survey of 20,000 golfers said that consistency in tee box construction and quality would have either a “significant positive impact” or an “extremely positive impact” on their satisfaction, which likely translates into their willingness to use various teeing options. Our survey of PGA and LPGA professionals confirmed the importance of forward tee presentation and the potential impact presentation could have on overall use. Of the 742 golf professionals surveyed, 82% felt that offering comparable presentation and conditioning on all sets of tees made it more likely that players would choose the set that best fits their game.
While comparability is an important consideration in the eyes of users, it is important to recognize that providing a comparable experience does not mean that all tees need to be given an elaborate level of presentation. A course can just as easily scale back the accessories, plantings and ornamentation around all their tees to create a comparable experience that is less visually and financially impactful throughout. The best way to have tees meet the standard of comparability at a given course is going to vary, but the key takeaway is that “comparable” does not necessarily have to mean “more.” Indeed, the trend at many golf courses is to decrease unnecessary maintenance and setup costs associated with elaborate tee presentation.
A challenge related to the issue of achieving some level of “comparability” between forward tees and the other tees on a course is the fact that establishing a forward tee distance that more closely matches the capability of potential forward tee players will often mean that forward tees must be located past the start of the existing fairway line. This raises the issue of forward tees being located within the fairway perimeter. While this situation is not unusual, and can be found on some of the most highly regarded courses in the world, many in the golf industry have heard complaints from forward tee players that markers located in the fairways seem like an afterthought or that they aren’t “real” tees. In a 2021 USGA survey of 20,000 golfers, 53% said they would have an issue with playing from tee markers located in the fairway without something to physically distinguish the teeing ground from the surrounding area.
This issue can be resolved in several ways. Elevating the tees slightly above the surrounding terrain in a more distinct tee structure has a positive effect on perception. 76% of the survey respondents who said they would have an issue with tees located at-grade within a fairway also said their opinion would be improved if the tees were elevated above the surrounding fairway. As long as the slopes leading up to the tee remain mowable by a fairway unit, there would not be an additional maintenance cost associated with elevating the tee surface slightly. Locating forward tees in the rough alongside the fairway facilitates a more typical presentation, but this may create awkward angles or additional maintenance expense.
Another way to resolve the perception issue around forward tees located within the fairway is to shift the start of the fairway to a point beyond the forward tee. In most cases, golfers using the tees farther back still won’t have an issue reaching the fairway and shifting the fairway line can allow the forward tee to be surrounded by rough if this is a more appealing presentation for golfers at a particular course. Reducing fairway area at the start of holes can also offer significant cost and resource savings as fairways typically receive more mowing, water, fertilizer and plant protectants than rough areas.
The final analysis
The mismatch between current forward tee locations and the capabilities of the golfers those tees are intended for is a significant issue facing golf today. Players with slower swing speeds and shorter driving distances make up more than 25% of the current population of golfers, which translates to more than 6 million players. This group has also been growing as a proportion of the total golf population, which means they are becoming an increasingly important part of the customer base. The fact that less than 30% of 18-hole U.S. golf courses currently offer a forward tee yardage that is a good fit for most of these players clearly has negative implications for golfer satisfaction, golfer retention and the willingness of people to take up golf in the first place. It’s no surprise that shorter hitters and female players tend to be among the least-satisfied golfers if they don’t have tees that set the stage for an enjoyable experience.
The reality is that many forward tee users have become accustomed to a version of golf that is more difficult and less varied than what the average golfer experiences. Many forward tee players cannot reach greens in regulation with even their best shots, they repetitively hit the longest clubs in their bag, and they seldom have a good opportunity to make par. Like all golfers, players using forward tees want to feel challenged and want to improve their game, but if forward tees are simply too long for them there is no amount of improvement that will yield good results.
The shortcomings in the current supply of forward tees is detrimental to the experience of many golfers and to the bottom line of many golf courses. The good news is that adding new forward tees is a minimally disruptive and cost-effective way to increase golfer satisfaction. More than half of NGCOA members we surveyed said they planned to invest an average of at least $50,000 per year over the next five years in capital improvements to their golf course. This level of investment would easily accommodate forward tee projects that can produce a solid return.
Golf Course Builders Association of America (GCBAA) data from more than 200 construction projects performed in 2019 and 2020 shows that tee construction costs an average of $5.52 per square foot when using a contractor. If you assume 600 square feet for a typical forward tee, which would be adequate for most courses, the cost to build one new forward tee would be between $3,000 and $3,500 dollars. There would also likely be $1,000-$2,000 in irrigation adjustments for each new tee. Therefore, a budget of $40,000-$50,000 would allow for the construction of 10 new forward tees. While tee construction projects can be more expensive than this based on site-specific factors, forward tees tend to fall in the lower end of the cost range. Forward tee construction can also be a reasonable in-house project for the golf course maintenance team, which can lead to additional savings. As we’ve already demonstrated, forward tees have a much larger potential user group than back tees, and they are typically less expensive to build, which means a quicker return on investment.
With the understanding we have today about golfer performance and hitting distance, and the importance of forward tee golfers for the current and future health of the game, every course should make an objective assessment of their forward tee options and consider improvements where issues are present. As is always the case when considering modifications to a golf course, the best results will be achieved by consulting with a qualified golf course architect, the course superintendent and the golf professional. Together, these experts can identify suitable forward tee yardages, adapt the placement and construction of tees to fit the terrain and course design, and ensure that the tees can be presented and maintained in a way that makes them appealing for players without having a negative impact on the maintenance budget. Many courses have already made improvements to their forward tees and many more have plans to do so. This trend will be a significant benefit to the game as a whole.