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USGA GOLF JOURNAL
The 7-Iron Solution October 9, 2023 By Nick Pietruszkiewicz

New USGA research, combined with a growing effort by golf facilities, reveals a formula for an improved golfer experience

This content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

Golf has its own soundtrack, noises distinct to the sport. There is the roar, like the one Matt Fitzpatrick heard a year ago at The Country Club after a dramatic bunker shot on the 72nd hole won him the U.S. Open. There is the universal begging – from scratch players to weekend hackers – as a tee shot on a par 3, pure and true, makes its descent. Close your eyes and you can hear yourself or your playing partners saying, hoping, praying – “Go in!” – as it comes in for a landing.

There is another type of sound, too, one less favorable but oh so common. It is a low grumble, a deep breath, an annoyed sigh. It isn’t because you left a 15-footer for birdie short. It isn’t because the ball found the hosel – no, we would never type the actual word or say it out loud.

This sound is saved for the moment when you arrive at your ball in the fairway or walk up to the next tee and see the painful sight of another group standing still. It means this is going to be a long day.

Few if any things in this game do more harm to the golfer experience than slow play. The problem does not discriminate – it annoys professionals and
amateurs, men and women, young and old.

The circumstances differ, of course. The pros really do play a different game than the rest of us.

“We’re not playing, like, the local muni that the average Joe compares our time to,” said Xander Schauffele. “We’re also playing for $3.6 million [first-place money]. If you’re going to spend an extra minute to make sure you put yourself in the right spot, we’re going to do it.”

Being realistic matters, especially as it pertains to, say, the U.S. Open.

“If you’re going to put 156 people on a golf course, playing for $20 million, and you think they’re playing in three hours and 55 minutes, you’re kidding yourself,” said USGA CEO Mike Whan.

Still, even for the world’s best, pace of play is a problem – a big problem.

“It’s truly appalling,” Fitzpatrick told Sky Sports earlier this year. “The problem is this conversation has gone on for years and years and no one’s ever done anything, so I feel it’s almost a waste of time talking about it. I have strong opinions, but no one’s going to do anything about it.” 

Well, that part isn’t true – not even close to true, at least on the amateur level.

“I’ve been talking about this topic for eight years,” said Matt Pringle, managing director of the USGA Green Section. “It’s a simple mathematics and traffic flow issue.”

Over and over, he hears the same thing.

“Golfers end up blaming the group in front of them,” Pringle said. “As round times climb from 4 hours to 4½ hours to 5 hours to 5½ hours, they still are blaming the group in front of them – knowing, of course, the group in front of them is doing the same thing.”

All of this negatively impacts golfer satisfaction, which was the inspiration for the extensive work and research conducted by the Green Section, led by Pringle and David Pierce, the USGA’s director of research. It turns out there is a solution to improving the golfer
experience – a rather simple one.

While there are many factors that impact pace of play – course design, setup, tee time intervals – there is one factor fully in golfers’ control. It’s a question posed before the opening drive: “What tees do you want to play from?”

The answer is usually wrong.

According to the USGA’s research, 57 percent of players decide on tees that are too long and 10 to 20 percent choose tees that are too short.

“Picking the correct tees is a great way to put it,” Pringle said. “It’s not just picking, you know, forward tees, because if you’re too far forward, you can actually negatively impact pace, because then you could end up waiting to reach par 5s in two, or drivable par 4s.”

So how do you make the right decision? The answer rests with one club. Surprisingly, it’s not the driver – it’s the 7-iron.

How far a player hits a 7-iron, according to the research, determines which tees to choose.

“I didn’t really know that until the research team took me through it,” Whan said. “Initially I thought, that can’t make sense.”

Sounds weird, right?

It actually makes perfect sense. Ask a player how far they hit driver and either they exaggerate, or the margin is significant. But almost every player – from a single-digit handicap to a 20-something hoping to break 100 – knows how far they hit 7-iron.

“With driver, I am probably plus or minus 20 yards,” Whan said. “If I say I hit it 240, I know that I can hit it 260. And I know that there’s plenty of 220s in my bag. So, if you ask me how far someone hits their driver, you get the 220 answer, you get the 240 answer, you get the 260 answer. Now, ask how far I hit my 7-iron, and I’m going to say 160. You ask any player, and they will give you a definitive answer.”

 7-Iron Distance

Best Course Length

80 yards or less

3,500 - 3,700

95

4,100 - 4,300

110

4,800 - 5,000

125

5,400 - 5,600

140

5,900 - 6,100

155

6,400 - 6,600

170 or more

6,700 - 6,900


And that simple answer – how far you hit 7-iron – can positively impact not only the golfer’s experience but also the time it takes to get through 18 holes. Not buying it? Let Pringle explain, based on the responses the USGA got when it surveyed more than 20,000 golfers.

“The fascinating thing about the research was when we asked them ‘What’s too short, what’s too long, and what’s just right for you?’” Pringle said. “We found consistently, within a pretty narrow range for most of those 20,000 players, that if you divide those distances by their 7-iron, you keep coming up with the same answer. People will say – no matter whether they hit their 7-iron 100 yards or 180 yards – the most enjoyable holes are medium par fours where they hit driver, then 7-iron.”

At one club in Florida, according to the USGA, pace of play improved by 15 minutes when a tee selection system based on 7-iron distance was instituted.

“The USGA with several industry partners is currently field-testing an innovative system to provide customized and accurate tee selection guidance for all golfers playing any golf course to improve pace of play and provide a better overall experience,” Pierce said.

Sure, there are the players who want to go beyond what the 7-iron formula tells them. There are those who want to see how they would fare from 7,300 or 7,700 yards. There are people who show up to Bethpage Black in New York and ignore the warning sign on the first tee that reads “The Black Course is an extremely difficult golf course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.” They don’t just want to play the two-time U.S. Open host course, they want to play it from where the pros play.

“If that’s how you want to play the game, then that’s how you can play the game,” Whan said. “It will be slower, it will be harder, it certainly will be more frustrating. And if that’s what you’ve signed up for, that’s what you’re coming to the golf course to do, OK.”

But choosing the right tees, altering the yardage just a little, could change the experience altogether.

“I think you’ve got about a 90 percent likelihood of the golfer walking off the golf course saying that was a better day because of the tees you chose and the pace of play,” said Whan.

Those small differences – the decision in many cases will be between 300 and 400 total yards – add up (360 equals 20 yards per hole).

“First, it takes you time to hit a shot,” Pringle said. “It takes time to walk [or ride] that extra 400 yards, so that adds to it. If I was unimpeded, even if I was the first group out in the morning, that’s going to add to time spent on the course, walking farther and hitting more shots.

“Let’s say, because of the tees I’ve picked, from the time the group in front of me clears the green, it takes me 11 minutes to finish the hole. And if the tee time interval was 10 minutes, but it takes me 11 minutes to clear the green, then I’m going to add a minute. One minute … no big deal, right? If that keeps happening for 40 groups, that’s 40 minutes.”

The USGA Green Section has supplied the research and evidence. But how does it get implemented? On whom does the responsibility fall?

“I’ve said many times pace of play is completely solved at a lot of local institutions,” Whan said. “It’s just whether or not you want to solve it. Pace of play is really in the hands of the people who manage their facility.

“You can go to the highest-end clubs in the world. And the members will tell you, we’re going to finish this round in four hours. I’ve been to Merion before where the member says on 17, ‘Hey, we gotta go.’”

Pace of play impacts the overall golf experience. If you like a restaurant, you are likely to return. But if the service isn’t good, you likely won’t, no matter how good the food. If you like a golf course, you’re likely to return. But not if it takes 6 hours to play it.

“We have spent a lot of time talking to people who understand the hospitality industry very well,” Pringle said. “They’ll talk about features at a hotel that satisfy their customers, delight their customers, and then features that, if you get it wrong, will frustrate and dissatisfy their customers. In golf, when you are spending a ton of time waiting, it detracts from the experience, and it leaves players feeling frustrated and less likely to come back.

“We have research from a few years ago that showed that golfers are willing to pay more for improved pace on the course.”

Those getting paid to play golf, the professionals, get frustrated, too.

“We’ve had a pace-of-play problem since I’ve been out here,” said veteran Tour pro Billy Horschel. “I don’t think we should ever take more than five hours to play. In my years out here, what I’ve seen is guys just aren’t ready to play when it’s their turn, simple as that.” 

Only their fix may be more complicated. 

“What’s the solution?” Horschel asked. “I don’t know. We’ve increased fines. We haven’t fined anyone or penalized anyone a shot. We haven’t taken away any FedExCup points.”

The amateurs, trying to sneak in a round on the weekend, get frustrated. The fix on the amateur level, though, starts with focusing on your 7-iron.

“Little things matter when it comes to pace of play,” said Pringle.

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