Use course design to speed up play

When was the last time you were able to complete an 18-hole round of golf in less than 4 hours? This has become an almost impossible feat on weekends at most public golf courses. The recent Speed of Play Research Report by the Professional Golfer's Association indicates that the average round of golf takes 4 hours and 6 minutes at private facilities, and 4 hours and 27 minutes at public courses. If you are like most players, enjoyment of the golf experience deteriorates when you must wait several minutes between shots and you are out on the course for 4.5 or 5 hours. Of course, the operators also would like to see players move through their rounds as quickly as possible to ensure maximum revenues and player enjoyment. Keeping the golfer happy translates into repeat play.

Several design and maintenance factors have a significant impact on the speed of play. However, other factors, such as player skill level and knowledge of the game, slow play habits and play management also greatly influence the pace of play. Club management and golf-teaching professionals are responsible for educating golfers on the fundamentals that promote a reasonable pace of play as well as monitoring players on the course to ensure that groups do not hold up play.

The courses that play faster than average are most likely to: * Have a clientele that practices the concept of "ready golf" or have a majority of low-handicap players * Be shorter in length and less difficult, with fewer obstructions such as tall grass or brush that require lengthy searches for lost balls * Have tee times spaced no closer than 10 minutes and monitor the pace of play on the course.

Starting holes and course routing The starting holes in golf are like the start of the Indianapolis 500: The likelihood of mishap is much greater coming out of the starting blocks in both cases. Tension and anxiety are high during the first couple of holes, and this often translates into disappointing high scores and slow play. Golf is indeed a masochistic sport, exemplified by the fact that the first hole's tee shot on almost every course dictates the use of the driver, inarguably the most difficult club for the average golfer to hit. A spacious and receptive 45- to 55-yard-wide fairway landing area, void of hazards, is a sure way to relieve anxiety and promote brisk play on the opening hole.

Beginning the first two or three holes with short- to medium-length par-4s or medium-length par-5s also promotes a quick and comfortable start. The pace of play almost always suffers when the first or second hole is a medium-to-long par-3, or when two consecutive par-3s occur within the first four or five starting holes.

Because most players are right-handed and most right-handed players regularly fade or slice the ball off the tee, starting on a dogleg to the right often helps position golfers along the intended direction of play. However, adhering strictly to this rule would be foolish if the holes then did not fit the terrain, so consider this as a guideline only. The terrain and property configuration ultimately dictate the par sequence and individual hole length, and take precedence when laying out the routing of any course.

Other simple factors help speed play: * Circulate golfers quickly and efficiently from green to tee by avoiding long walks back against the flow of play. * Minimize distances from green to tee--this can noticeably shave minutes off the round. * Proper signage directing golfers from green to tee is important, especially on resort courses (where vacationing guests are unfamiliar with the layout), between holes that criss-cross other parts of the course and on courses that circulate through residential areas and streets. * Marking sprinkler heads with the distance measurement to the center of the green reduces time spent questioning shot lengths.

Types of hazards and their placement The thoughtful golf designer carefully locates most hazards to test the low handicapper. Average golfers, for whom bogey golf is the goal, are able to move along briskly if they have an unobstructed and less-difficult route. Before denuding a course of all interesting obstacles and unfriendly hazards to create a fast-playing course, realize that you can go too far. This would yield a lackluster playing experience on a course that resembled a wide-open pasture. A well-designed course tends to have a variety of hazards located in strategic rather than penal positions. Under a strategic-design philosophy, the player's reward is proportionate to the amount of risk he or she takes with a properly executed shot. Holes that are penal in design often penalize both good and bad shots, causing frustration and delay.

Robert Tyre Jones, one of golf's finest ambassadors and most remarkable players, once said, "The great value of a hazard is not that it catches a shot that has been missed, but that it forces a miss upon the timid player; its psychological worth is greater than its penal value." Hazards and obstacles such as bunkers, water, out-of-bounds, trees, shrubs, rough, grass hollows, severe contouring and waste areas are design features that spawn fear in golfers and challenge both the intellectual and physical side of their game. When the physical demands outweigh the intellectual, the course reveals perhaps too many penal design elements. This ultimately translates into slower, more exhausting and less enjoyable play.

The overall quantity, location and severity of hazards greatly influence the speed of play and enjoyment level. Research by the National Golf Foundation indicates that the average male golfer hits a drive about 200 yards including roll, while the average female hits her drive approximately 130 yards. Providing a spacious fairway area in the average player's targeted landing zone while positioning most hazards beyond the range of the average player's tee shot helps move golfers swiftly through the start of each hole. When placing bunkers, grass hollows and mounding on the right, their size should be small and the slopes surrounding them should be gentle enough to offer a relatively easy recovery shot. Minimize the number of water and out-of-bounds areas in play on the right. Placing a sand bunker or grass depression near the edge of an out-of-play area or water hazard is effective in collecting or containing a miss-hit shot before it has a chance to enter a worse fate.

Too many forced-carry areas on the course slow play and aggravate golfers. Forced-carry areas should be no greater than 65 to 75 yards to play across for the average female golfer and no longer than 100 to 115 yards for the average male.

Bunkers Factors that determine how difficult a bunker plays include height and slope of the bunker face, the quality of the sand, maintenance and drainage conditions. Fairway bunkers and other bunkers more than 15 to 20 yards from the green typically have gentle side slopes and low mounding to allow for a comfortable recovery. Bunkers positioned close to the green, intended to protect a particular pin area, tend to be more severe in terms of depth and side slope.

Avoid the use of fine, rounded sand particles because this type of material generally produces a soft, loose surface that results in undesirable "fried-egg" or buried lies. Angular sand with a majority of particles ranging in size from 0.25 to 1.00mm compacted in place at a depth of 5 to 6 inches produces better results.

Maintain good bunker drainage. Poorly drained bunkers can create saturated lies every time the irrigation system cycles, hampering recovery shots for even the best players.

Eliminating sand bunkers or converting them into grass hollows is one way that many courses have made the playing experience less difficult and time consuming. Many poorly designed courses repeatedly position bunkers in areas where they catch the average player's miss-hit shot. For example, you might see several holes in a row with bunkers placed front right of the green or short and right of the intended fairway landing area. In such cases, relocation or elimination of a select few bunkers can do wonders to enhance playing strategy and interest and speed up play. At the same time, you can reduce maintenance costs. However, the trade-offs you make to squeeze a dozen or so additional players through per day often include a loss of design integrity and playing challenge. Before removing any bunker, consult an experienced golf architect to help determine the specific value of each bunker as it relates to strategy, safety, enhanced playability and aesthetic appeal.

Tee, green and grading design considerations Providing at least three or four tee positions per hole that offer playing lengths measuring 75 to 95 percent of the back-tee playing length will comfortably accommodate all skill levels. In addition, position the forward tees at less severe angles on dogleg holes and have a level surface from which to play tee shots.

Greens that are wide open in front and receptive to the run-up shot are more conducive to fast play. "Punchbowl" greensites are effective in containing the approach. Conversely, inverted saucer-shaped greens tend to repel shots, causing players to add chipping strokes. Minimize dramatic slopes and undulations through the putting surfaces to avoid 3- and 4-putt situations.

Design fairway and rough areas with subtle hollows and mounding to contour the slightly miss-hit shot. This especially is important on hilly sites where errant shots have the opportunity to quickly roll out of play. Laying out and grading the course so that it is free of blind-shot situations not only guarantees quicker play, it also prevents potential liability problems.

Drainage and maintenance Trends in maintenance have changed dramatically over the years. Fast greens, tight fairway lies and the use of several turfgrass species on the course seem to have become the standard in the late '80s and '90s. Unfortunately, playing conditions comparable to the U.S. Open--greens measuring 10+ on the stimpmeter, narrow fairways mowed at 0.25 to 0.375 inch and thick 5- to 6-inch roughs--spells disaster for the average player. Golfers can achieve the fastest pace of play when green speeds stimp out no higher than 8 or 9, and mowing heights are 0.5 to 0.75 inch on fairways and 1.5 inches in the roughs.

Thinning dense stands of trees and brush to the right of the tee-shot landing area helps golfers find their balls and play their recovery shots more easily. Also, prune trees closest to the fairway to a height that allows the golfer to make a full swing from beneath the tree canopy.

Drainage also can affect speed of play. All-weather courses with proper drainage systems and permeable, sandy topsoils offer firm, playable conditions following rainy periods. Golfers can get back onto the course quickly and generally won't have to waste time searching for plugged balls in the fairway.

Cart paths When a course requires golfers to use carts, play proceeds much faster if you allow them to drive to the location of their next shot. However, holding golfers to the paths is almost always necessary under wet conditions or if the turf is not mature or healthy enough to withstand the traffic. Thus, locating most of the paths on the right side of the hole and slightly above fairway level usually helps lead golfers to their ball more quickly.

Designing the course to play at a reasonable pace offers only part of the solution in preventing slow play: Both golfers and course management must practice good habits in keeping up the pace of play. The continued growth of the game and enjoyment of the golf experience depends on golfers, club managers, operators and architects all taking greater responsibility in combating the problem of slow play.

Richard Elliott is a senior golf architect for the GolfPlan--The Ronald Fream Design Group Ltd. (Santa Rosa, Calif.).

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