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Are Today’s Golf Courses Unfair to the Average Golfer?

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For the past two decades, there has been little movement of in the scoring averages, driving distances and handicaps of the average golfer. The average score still hovers around 100, the average drive is still in the 200-yard range and for those who keep handicaps 16 remains the average.

However, in those 20 years golf equipment has evolved exponentially. Advancements include the cavity back iron, vast improvements in the casting process, higher moment of inertia, aerodynamics, lighter/better graphite shafts, center of gravity, better materials such as titanium and tungsten, 460cc heads, hybrids, the evolution of the golf ball and even the lowly golf tee.

So what gives? If lessons aren’t helping the average golfer, technology isn’t helping the average golfer and all those gazillion tips he reads in the golf magazines, not to mention all those Golf Channel and You Tube lessons, where is our average golfer faltering?

  • Is golf really that hard?
  • Is the average golfer really that inept?
  • Are golf instructors really that bad?
  • Are the OEM’s really just selling the average golfer a bill of goods?

Is it any one thing, or a combination of a lot of things? Here’s another theory to add fuel to the fire: maybe today’s courses are simply too hard — too long with too many hazards.

A little over a decade ago, a new course opened up in our area to all kinds of acclaim. It was a beautiful course that received many awards. But for the average golfer it was virtually unplayable. I never heard so many golfers complain about a golf course and how many golf balls they lost per round. Sure, it was beautiful. But, you better hit the ball straight — perfectly straight. How many average golfers hit the ball perfectly straight? The course had to make a number of adjustments to accommodate the average golfer, i.e., the paying customer.

Now, that was an extreme example, but I’ve played a number of newer courses that makes me ask, “What was the designer thinking?” I’ve heard of a few other courses in my area that are user unfriendly, and as a result are struggling. Who wants to go play a course where you lose a bunch of balls, and post a score somewhere north of the Arctic Circle?

Even my home course punishes good shots, e.g., you can hit a good shot and still end up in a hazard (basically you better hit the ball in the fairway or your toast). I’ve played TPC Boston three times and have never lost a ball (the slope I’ve played was 146), however at my home course I average two to three lost balls a round.

So here you have the average golfer. He steps up to first tee, excited to be out on the course, away from the office, away from any of those cares that may be consuming him otherwise. Eighteen holes later, as he puts his clubs in the car, he wonders why he even bothered. Every hole was surrounded by bunkers. What was that creek doing running across the middle of the fairway? Who the heck would put hazard right behind No. 8 green, or right in front No. 12 green? What’s up with that dogleg? There was only one place to put the ball and no where to miss?

That wasn’t a golf course, that was an obstacle course!

Okay, we have better equipment, all those extra years of analysis to further understand the swing, yet we continue to struggle. Well, some of us anyway. So, why don’t designers build courses with the average golfers in mind? And, I’m not talking about Pete Dye, who said:

“Golf isn’t supposed to be fair.”

Build a course and they will come? I don’t know. Maybe. But at the very least make it fair for the average golfer. Do you really need all those hazards? Really? Does that green really require a long, towering iron shot or hybrid? Why not a thinned one? Do you really think the PGA Tour is going to come to your course for four days?

For those you who like a challenge there are plenty of golf courses out there to test you (there is another course in my area that is 8325 yards from the back tees). But, golf should be more fun for the average golfer too. He should walk off No. 18 with a grin on his face, a few golf balls left in his bag, a bit of swagger in his step and maybe a circle or two on his scorecard.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd, Hey Designer, leave those golfers alone!

Click here for more discussion in the “Golf Talk” forum. 

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Sean Foster-Nolan was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and has lived all over the United States. He picked up the game of golf at the age of 50, and currently plays at Harmon Golf & Fitness Club in Rockland, Mass. Sean is passionate about all things golf and has been a member of GolfWRX since 2007. He is a retired counselor, where he last worked with high school kids who had severe emotional and behavioral problems in an alternative high school. His philosophy is treat all people with kindness and respect.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Sean

    Dec 13, 2012 at 12:12 am

    Some excellent comments here. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. Hans

    Dec 1, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    I agree that many of the newer course are built too hard for the average golfer. There was a course in northern Ohio that opened a few years back to a lot of acclaim. Most people that played it once said they’d never go back. Way too many blind shots, hazards placed to punish a slightly mishit ball, etc. That course is now closed. There’s another course that is trying anything to get play. They built a ” championship” course, looks great, but OB is just a couple yards from a very slightly wayward shot. It’s just not fun to play. We’re average golfers, we play for the fun and the challenge. We’re going to hit more shots off the heel, toe, thin, etc and to be punished with a penalty for being OB when you missed the fairway by 10 yards does not make for an enjoyable round.

  3. BigD

    Nov 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Golf course difficulty is not entirely down to length and playing the forward tees does not always ensure a more enjoyable experience irrespective of handicap. I live in Johannesburg, South Africa and my 2 favorite courses measure 6950 yards and >8200 yards. We are 1600m above sea level so the ball flies about 10% further, so an 8000 yard course will play like a 7200 yard course. Difficulty relates far more the design than to length. Deep fairway bunkers, deep bush just off the fairway, large water hazards, heavily undulating greens and deep and lush rough affect playability and difficulty more than sheer length.

  4. TK

    Nov 30, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I don’t think that golf courses are unfair – unless you play from the wrong t-box. A high handicapper should NEVER play anything other than the tees just before the ladies’ t-box (forward tees, I believe). I think you will find that courses are great when played from the appropriate tees. This would also alleviate the 4.5+ hr rounds…

    God Bless,
    TK

  5. Pingback: GolfWRX.com – Are Today's Golf Courses Unfair to the Average … | Golf Grip Instruction

  6. Sean

    Nov 30, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I agree Tom, but sometimes even playing from the correct tees isn’t enough.

  7. Sean

    Nov 30, 2012 at 1:08 am

    Thanks Nate. I also like your idea! It would make it a lot easier for golfers looking for a place to play.

  8. tom

    Nov 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    most courses have several different tees you can play from. You should try playing from the front ones if you don’t have the handicap to play at the back ones.

    • Craig

      Nov 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm

      Amen. If a course is too hard for a player, get better. It’s just that simple. I worked hard to be a low single digit handicap. On a difficult course I usually shoot a little higher and I don’t complain.

  9. Nate

    Nov 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Honestly, I think you flushed an iron with this one. Most courses are too difficult for the average golfer and more people would play if it wasn’t so difficult. Maybe a rating system that is easier to understand like a “star” rating. 5 stars professional down to 1 star being beginner. Different handicaps look to different star levels to pick a course that is the right amount of challenge with a higher degree of fun.

  10. Sean

    Nov 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Well Max, I hope you find what you are looking for. 🙂

  11. Mr. Blair M. Phillips

    Nov 29, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Unfair? Not a chance! The only thing that annoyes me about any golf course is “critical golfers and golfers that don’t use garbage recepticals or recycling bins”
    I wish though I had “a few more shekels” so I could play more “strategic” golf courses that were designed by some of the “earlier” strategic golf course designers like H.”Harry” Colt, Mac Macan and Dr Alister MacKenzie and the like. Around here, golf courses designed by men like H. Colt are “impossible to get on” because of the cost. (sigh)
    Max
    Canada

  12. blake

    Nov 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Were u talking about The International being the 8000+ yard course

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Courses

Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf

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We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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Podcasts

Geoff Shackelford and Louis Oosthuizen join our 19th Hole podcast

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Louis Oosthuizen and Geoff Shackelford join our 19th Hole this week. Oosthuizen talks about his prospects for the 2018 season, and Shackelford discusses Tiger’s setback at the 2018 Genesis Open. Also, host Michael Williams talks about the PGA Tour’s charitable efforts in the wake of tragic events in Parkland, Florida.

Listen to the podcast below on SoundCloud, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Honda Classic

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It’s off to Florida this week for the Honda Classic, as the lead up to the year’s first major continues. PGA National has been the permanent home of this event since 2007, and it has proved to be one of the most demanding courses on Tour since then. The golf course measures just under 7,200 yards, but it is the often blustery conditions combined with the copious amount of water hazards that make this event a challenge. There is also the added factor of “The Bear Trap,” a daunting stretch of holes (Nos. 15-17) that are arguably the most difficult run of holes we will see all year on the PGA Tour.

Ball strikers have excelled here in the past, with Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy all boasting fine records at PGA National. The par-70 golf course contains six long Par 4’s that measure over 450 yards, and players will be hoping that the wind isn’t too strong — when it does blow here, the course can turn into a brute. Last year, Rickie Fowler posted 12-under par to win the event by four strokes over Morgan Hoffmann and Gary Woodland. It was the first time in the last five years that the winning score reached double digits.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Rickie Fowler 8/1
  • Rory McIlroy 10/1
  • Justin Thomas 11/1
  • Sergio Garcia 18/1
  • Tyrrell Hatton 28/1
  • Tommy Fleetwood 30/1
  • Gary Woodland 30/1

Previous champions Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy are sure to be popular picks this week, but it’s Justin Thomas (11/1, DK Price $11,300) who I feel offers slightly more value out of the front runners. Thomas has begun the year well, finishing in the top-25 in all four events he has played. The numbers show that his game is getting better all the time. His iron play has steadily improved, picking up more Strokes for Approaching the Green week by week. Last week he gained six strokes approaching the green at the Genesis Open, which was fourth in the field.

At the ball strikers’ paradise, Thomas fans will be glad to know that he ranks fourth in the field for Ball Striking over his last 12 rounds. He is also ranked fourth for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green and second in Strokes Gained Total. Comparatively, neither Fowler nor McIlroy rank inside the top-50 for ball striking and the top-40 for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green over the same period.

Thomas’ accuracy on his approaches has been sensational lately. He leads the field in Proximity to the Hole for his past 12 rounds, and on a golf course that contains many long par 4’s it should play into Justin’s hands, as he’s been on fire recently with his long irons. He is third in the field for Proximity on Approaches Between 175-200 yards, and second in the field for Approaches Over 200 yards in his last 12 rounds. Thomas has a mixed record at PGA National, with a T3 finish wedged in between two missed cuts, but I like the way his game has been steadily improving as the season has progressed. It feels like it’s time for the current PGA Champion to notch his first win of the year.

On a golf course where ball striking is so important, Chesson Hadley (55/1, DK Price $7,700) caught my eye immediately. The North Carolina native has been in inspired form so far in this wraparound season with four finishes already in the top-5. The way he is currently striking the ball, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see him get his fifth this week. Hadley is No. 1 in the field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and Ball Striking, while he is No. 2 for Strokes Gained Total over his last 24 rounds.

Having taken last week off, Hadley returns to a golf course where he has finished in the Top-25 twice in his three visits. Yet there is a sense that this year he’ll be aiming even higher than that. Chesson is fifth in this field for Proximity to the Hole from 175-200 yards and fourth overall over the past 24 rounds. With that level of accuracy on such a tricky golf course, Hadley will be confident of putting himself in position to claim win No. 2.

My next pick was a slow sell, but with the number so high I couldn’t leave him out. Adam Scott (55/1, DK Price $7,700) has been struggling for some time now. He has slipped out of the World’s Top-50, changed his putter from the short putter to the long putter and back again over the winter break, and he doesn’t have a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since the FedEx St. Jude Classic last summer. Despite all of this, I don’t feel Scott should be as high as 66/1 with some bookmakers on a golf course where he has excelled. To put it in perspective, Scott is the same price to win this week in a modest field as he is to win The Masters in April.

There are also signs that Scott blew off some of the rust last week in LA. The Australian was 12th in the field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, which indicates that things might slowly be coming around for a man who is known for his prodigious ball striking. Scott’s achilles heel is the flat stick, and I wouldn’t expect that to change this week. He’s been very poor on the greens for some time now, which must be incredibly frustrating for a man who gives himself so many looks at birdie. But average putters have performed well at PGA National in the past, where it seems that excellent ball striking is the key for having a good week. Scott won here in 2016, and on his two other visits to PGA National in the past five years he twice finished in the top-15. If he can continue to improve his iron play the way he has been, I feel he could forge his way into contention.

My long shot this week is Sean O’Hair (200/1, DK Price $6,800). The Texan hasn’t done much so far this year, but he is making cuts and he arrives at a course that seems to bring out the best in him. O’Hair has five top-25 finishes in his last seven appearances at PGA National, which includes a T11 at last year’s edition. At 200/1 and with a DK Price of as little as $6,800, there is little harm in taking a chance on him finding that form once more this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Justin Thomas 11/1, DK Price $11,300
  • Chesson Hadley 55/1, DK Price $7,700
  • Adam Scott 55/1, DK Price $7,700
  • Sean O’Hair 200/1, DK Price $6,800
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