MOORPARK, Calif. – Mark Choi knows full well the inherent challenge that golf provides. Choi, who plays to a 15 handicap, is helping a friend learn the game and sees first-hand how daunting it can be.
“The game is very challenging for a beginner or just an occasional player,” said Choi, 36, of Los Angeles. “When a friend tells me they want to take up golf, I almost feel a little bad for them, because I know how much effort it’s going to take to become a reasonable player.”
Choi was playing at Tierra Rejada Golf Club last month with his girlfriend Aya Kawahata, 31, also of Los Angeles, who took up the game three years ago. Choi could appreciate how the 5,600-yard Players Course provides a more manageable challenge for the average player.
“I moved up one set of tees, and it was more comfortable,” said Choi. “This course setup gives the average player a little encouragement, a little less stress. You don’t have to hit an A-plus drive every time – on some courses, even when you do hit one, you still have a hybrid into the green.”
Mark Peifer, the director of golf at Tierra Rejada, takes every opportunity to encourage players to move up to the Players Course. He estimates that for weekday play, up to 25 percent of male golfers and 5 percent of female golfers play those white tees, and it drops to 10 to 15 percent on the weekend.
“I think it’s the ‘getting my money’s worth’ mentality,” said Peifer. “If you’re playing on weekends in Los Angeles, that’s probably the only time you get to play. Guys who only play one round a week say, let’s go as far back as we can, and they hack their way around the course.”
Glen Benton, of Agoura Hills, plays Tierra Rejada at least once a month.
“The Players Course brings in a little more creativity and some choices,” noted Benton, a self-described 14 handicap. “From the back tees, you don’t have a lot of options. I’ve got to try and smoke a driver, and if I miss it a little, I’m left with a utility wood in. On the Players Course, I can choose the distance that I’m hitting my second shot from. You get some choices that amateurs don’t ever get when they’re playing the back tees.”
Benton wonders why more players wouldn’t want to try the Players Course.
“My friends who don’t play every week are always willing to move up,” he said. “Why do they want to get beat up playing the back tees? We can all go to work and get beat up at our jobs. When you’re out on the golf course, you want to relax and enjoy your day.”
After a steady diet of playing the back tees, Benton found himself questioning his ability.
“There was a point where I thought I lost my game,” said Benton. “But I didn’t lose it – I had just been playing these courses that are so difficult, and I started to lose confidence. I came out on the Players Course and shot a good round, and I felt good. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment, right?”
Benton’s son Jake has played the game since he was 8, and he can hit his driver nearly 200 yards. He has only played a handful of times on a full-size course.
“Until recently, they didn’t have tees for juniors – many of the courses still don’t,” said Benton. “When they have a tee to play from, we’re more likely to bring our kids out. If he plays a long par 5, it’s going to take him a while to get there. When you move up, you start moving along.”
Local resident Erica Lee took up the game two years ago and has played a couple of times at Tierra Rejada, where she said she felt welcomed as a beginner.
“It costs a lot of money to play, right?” said Lee. “So if you don’t have a good time, that’s the worst.”
It’s usually the experienced player who needs to change his mindset.
“We’ve had this ‘macho-ism’ where it’s all about how far back you played – people boasting about playing from the tips,” said Benton, 47. “That’s been the prevailing idea for years and years, since I was in my 20s.”
“On a good day, a PGA Tour pro will hit 14 greens – those are the best players in the world,” said Peifer. “Most amateurs play outside the spectrum of their abilities. If you’re not hitting an 8-iron, 9-iron or pitching wedge into a par 4 on a regular basis, you’re playing too far back. Golf is a beautiful game and people need to enjoy it more than they are.”
Sometimes, players need to play as if no one is watching.
“I was out doing some work on the course one evening, and two guys who looked no more than 23 years old were playing from the white tees,” said Peifer. “Ego clearly wasn’t involved. They were right where they belonged. They were having fun.”
What a concept.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.