Hundreds of people call the United States Golf Association every day. They have questions about the Rules of Golf. They want to buy tickets for the U.S. Open. They are curious about the standards for equipment.
No matter his or her question or comment, nearly every caller has a passion and love for the game – even the Hall of Famers. Not long after The PGA of America and the USGA launched TEE IT FORWARD, the national initiative encouraging players to play the set of tees aligned to their driving distance, Amy Alcott called the USGA to offer her support for the movement.
The winner of two USGA championships, the 1973 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville, N.J., and the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open at Richland Country Club in Nashville, Tenn., Alcott has been a longtime member of the USGA’s extended family. Now mostly retired from tournament golf, the 55-year-old Californian has been a consultant at many clubs and is an advocate for making courses more accessible and playable, especially for women.
Recently, Alcott worked with architect Gil Hanse on a restoration of Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., and one of the changes they wanted to implement was the addition of a shorter set of tees for women. Hanse was having trouble convincing the committee until Alcott joined the discussion.
“When Amy walked into a room, there was an instant sense of authority,” recalled Hanse. “All of a sudden everybody changed their minds and they were all very enthusiastic.”
Enthusiasm certainly is one of Alcott’s best qualities, and she repeatedly uses the word “fun” to describe what TEE IT FORWARD is all about. So if any golfer wants to enjoy the game more, there are few better examples than Alcott. After all, she is the woman who first leaped into the lake after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship, starting one of the best – and, yes, most fun – traditions in golf.
USGA: I guess the obvious first question is, which tees do you play from?
Amy Alcott: I play from the men’s tees or sometimes a little more forward. It’s never been an ego thing for me. I go by the distance of the course, and it’s all about being able to hit a par 4 in two.
Is the ability to reach the par 4s comfortably a reasonable standard in choosing a set of tees?
I think that’s what the game is all about. At the same time, there should definitely be some challenge to it. What makes a great golf course is continuity and variety: right-to-left holes, left-to-right holes.
I’m a big believer in short par 4s. Holes like No. 10 at Riviera Country Club [in Pacific Palisades, Calif.], where I grew up playing. At Ridgewood there’s a short 4 [the Center nine’s 291-yard sixth, known as the “Five and Dime”]. Those are great holes.
Isn’t there also a place for long par 4s?
I also think that there should be holes where you have to hit two amazing shots. And if you don’t, you’re chipping. That’s part of the art of improvement, learning how to get the ball up and down around the greens.
But if there are more than a couple of those from the tee you’re playing from, then you might be stretching it. If you’re having to really dig deep and the only way to make par is to get the ball up and down, it’s not really fun.
You mentioned Riviera’s 10th, perhaps the most famous drivable par 4 in golf. As a player and architect, do you find that short holes are more interesting than long holes where you just have to hit it as hard as you can?
Oh, yeah. I like to stand on that tee during the Northern Trust Open and watch the guy pros play the hole. Some of them drive the green or they just hit the perfect lay-up shot. But if they miss on the wrong side, they’ll make five or six on a hole where they had a shot at making two.
That’s the uniqueness of the game – not the length factor, which has taken a lot of the artistry out of the game. I’ve suggested to a lot of good men players that one out of 10 rounds they go play the forward tees. They come back and tell me how much their short games have improved.
You’ve played with a lot of men of all abilities. Are a lot of them playing the wrong set of tees?
I think sometimes when people are excited to play a famous course, they want to play as far back as possible. It’s never been to me about how long the course is. A great course is a great course regardless of where you play from. The goal is to get past the macho aspect that length is what the game is all about. In Scotland and England, it’s a ground game and distance is not as important.
One of the developments of the past few decades has been the addition of more sets of tees. There used to be two or three, but now there are five or six.
You almost can have too many. I believe that four or five sets of tees are reasonable, provided they are applicable. I just did some consultation with Gil Hanse at Ridgewood. They have a very active women’s group there, and we outlined several new tees that made the course more playable.
At most golf courses, I think the women’s tees have been almost an afterthought. They are too long for the average woman golfer. In that category, I would include also higher-handicap males, junior golfers, senior golfers. So you don’t just want to call them the women’s tees.
Is there a different attitude between men and women when it comes to distance?
I don’t think the philosophy really changes between men and women. I think golf courses need to become more distance-friendly overall. I think golf courses almost need to develop a more generic set of tees instead of calling them black, blue, red or whatever. So people can look at the scorecard, just see the length – 5,500 yards, 6,400 yards, 7,000 yards – and decide what they can handle. Ultimately, that would be more fun for more people.
Is playability for all levels of golfers one of the biggest challenges of designing a course?
That’s what you have to keep in mind. Most golf courses have been built from the back going forward, and women really have never been considered. And not just women, but juniors and half the men who should be playing more forward anyway.
I think you can still make the course challenging from the most-forward tees. You want the bunkers to come into play. You want the landing area where the fairway turns. You want to create something that’s fun for everybody.
Are there any other ways to make golf more fun?
I always suggest it at courses that I’ve gone to, but I think a fun one-day tournament would be to convert every hole into a par 3. For example, if you turned every hole at Somerset Hills into a par 3, you could make some great golf holes.
You could do that with a lot of courses.
Golf isn’t just about hitting a lot of drivers. I grew up playing on my front lawn, chipping and putting into soup cans, out of the ivy and over rose bushes and hedges – the little Alcott Golf and Country Club. I just loved having a wedge in my hands.
Is there any value in playing a long course?
You could argue that if the average golfer plays a golf course with 430-yard par 4s and they always miss the green, that’s good practice. It’s definitely great practice to play a course that’s too long for you.
But as far as the enjoyment of scoring, playing it forward is definitely the way to go. You’ll have more fun.