Swing speed should dictate course design

November 16, 2012

During last spring’s Golf Writers Association of America tournament in North Carolina, we enjoyed playing the Dormie Club, a Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore design in the rolling hills north of Pinehurst.

Their unique approach to course design, with limited earthmoving and challenging greens, also earned them the additional assignment to prepare Pinehurst No. 2 for the 2014 United States Open.  Several golf writers took a look at the Donald Ross classic during our tournament weekend, and the handiwork of Crenshaw and Coore respected the traditional design.

Nonetheless, while Dormie Club is a beautiful course, I would not recommend it to all golfers. That’s because there are a number of forced carries off the tees we were using. In addition, there are cross hazards and gullies that present significant challenges to players with slow swing speeds.

In that respect, Dormie Club was similar to a few of the golf courses our regular golf gang played several years ago in the Williamsburg, Va. area. On some tee boxes, golfers were expected to clear some sizable ravines. Some of us weren’t quite up to the task.

In the aftermath of our Williamsburg experience, we decided to pay closer attention to the tee box recommendations for players with our handicaps, as opposed to relying solely upon the overall yardage for the 18 holes.

I was reminded of these experiences when I read “The Facts of Swing Speed and Distance.” Written by Arthur D. Little, a golf business consultant, it appeared in the fall 2012 online edition of By Design, the journal of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

Little discusses some of the study data regarding ball flight characteristics at slower golf swing speeds, regardless of age or gender.  From his review of the data, Little suggests, “The industry must present golf courses that are significantly shorter and less intimidating to players whose driver swing speeds are in the range of 55-75 mph. This group, which represents a large part of the current and potential market, includes most women, senior men, juniors and many beginners.”

The study gathered ball flight data with test strokes performed in 10 mph segments, running from 55-125 mph. Little said the reviewers were surprised at the difference in results, to which he argues course designers and course superintendents should pay close attention.

For example, nearly 20 percent of the total yardage achieved with a 55-mph swing is derived from the roll after initial carry, compared to 5 per cent for the 125-mph golfer.  The slower-swinging golfer’s drive will also typically fly over 30 yards lower than the fast-swinging golfer's, which is significant.

Based on the study, Little makes several suggestions for course owners and operators, emphasizing the elimination of “as many forced carries from tees as possible.”

“This includes rough that must be carried to reach the fairway. Given the large percentage of yardage that slower swing speed players get from roll, not being able to reach the fairway is punishing and unfair.”

Little also says the fronts of greens should be made open, to permit “an unimpeded entry that accepts low rolling shots.” For Cape Region golfers, think of the par-3 fourth hole at Rookery North at Shawnee, or the par-3 second hole at Rookery South.

The article also suggests, “Carefully considered tee placement will position slower swing speed players with a fair chance to clear or play around” cross hazards such as bunkers, ponds and gullies. As Little notes, these hazards are much more difficult for these golfers and may require a forced layup.

During the winter season, Cape Region course superintendents often do a bit of tweaking of their layouts while tending to other off-season chores. There are quite a few holes throughout the Cape Region that might benefit from this study. A large number of local golfers would also welcome a few course changes of the type Little suggests.

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