By John Lafoy, ASGCA Past President
We begin every round of golf from the teeing ground or tee. Once called “tee boxes” where they were literally a square box containing sand, which was used to form a platform for the ball, we now think of them as a golf feature. As such, certainly it is important that they present a positive image. Although not as dramatic as the green complexes, the tees can have a dramatic impact on a round of golf.
Historically, most of the older golf courses, many of which are candidates for a renovation or restoration, originally had only one or two tees. Not only were the tees designed for 5,000 to 10,000 rounds of annual play, very few women played in the early years, and, were sometimes ignored completely. Also, golfers more advanced in years, were not considered when the tees were originally located and built. Therefore, it is very common to see many older courses with tees that have been added over the years. For the most part, many of these forward tees are very poorly built, too small and improperly located. Same with the “senior” tees if, indeed, the course has them.
One of the biggest complaints heard at country clubs and public courses alike is the alignment of the tees. How many golfers have blamed an errant shot on the tee “aiming me toward the woods?” Architects hear it all of the time. Certainly it can be a distraction, even if you are capable enough of lining up a shot without the aid of the tee alignment. A comprehensive tee renovation gives you a chance to correct this problem. If it were the only problem, it might not be worth the effort, but quite often, it is just one of a myriad of problems.
For some reason, which is easy to understand, golf club members do not like to cut trees. If you look at some of the photographs of many of the famous courses in their early years, you see very few or immature trees. You would not recognize the aerial photograph of the Augusta National taken soon after it opened in the 1930s. The huge southern pines that we associate with the course were very small. Now most of those same pines are protected with lightning rods and are considered invaluable. Indeed many of them are because they do define the holes. What would the 17th at Augusta be without the huge oak tree in the left center of the fairway? Unfortunately, trees cause many problems with the teeing surfaces. It would be hard to name a single golf course that does not have problems with tees due to shade. In the sunbelt, it is critical that Bermuda grass, the dominant tee turf, receive ample sun. Therefore, if you want viable turf on tees, you must consider some tree removal and/or pruning.
In addition to the shade problems, most older tees are just too small. They offer practically no flexibility in moving the tees’ markers around and are susceptible to excessive wear. It is not uncommon that the tee is also poorly built, with the top being “turtlebacked,” or rounded off, so as to shed water quickly. The result is a 600 sq. ft. tee, with 300 sq. ft. of useable surface. That is just not adequate.
Now days, laser leveling the tee tops is a becoming standard construction practice. A laser-leveling box installed on a small farm tractor will put a flawless grade on a tee top. Generally, a slope of 1/2% to 1 1/2% is built into the platform. The naked eye cannot detect such a small grade, yet the top sheds water quite nicely. Once in a while architects will visit a course that has adequate tees that only need laser leveling.
Tee locations, especially for the ladies, are quite often lacking. All too often, the ladies’ tees are located on the wrong side of the fairway, usually to place them closer to the cart path. I am sure the thinking is that the ladies would rather be more convenient to their cart than to the playability of the hole. As a general rule, the ladies’ tees should be located on the outside of the dogleg, so as to not over exaggerate the dogleg, and to allow them to get their balls to the corner. Of course, there are exceptions, and a good architect, along with representatives of the ladies’ golf association should be able to fairly locate the ladies’ tees.
Quite often a club will have several lady members who play in local, state and national events who require a longer course than the average player. It is grossly unfair, however, to penalize the average player by stretching out the course to 5,800 yards. I usually recommend that the better ladies play a course using the front of the men’s or senior’s tees on the shorter par four holes, and the ladies’ tees on the rest of the holes. Some newer courses are now being built with five sets of tees, with the two forward tees being used by ladies and/or seniors.
Ultimately, whether building a new course or renovating an older course, it is prudent to consider building multiple tee complexes. The exception may be some of the older traditional courses where a large expansive complex would look totally out of scale. On those courses, many of which use two or even three sets of markers on one tee, it may be best to expand the platform as much as feasible, while still keeping it at a proper scale. This is where the experience of a skilled designer can help. If it is feasible to build multiple tees, you will not only add to the enjoyment of the course for all caliber of golfers, but you will be able to spread out the wear and create a much more aesthetically pleasing facility.
Another fairly common complaint from golfers about tees is that they can hardly press their tee into the turf. This is more prevalent on courses build in locales with clay soils. As a standard practice, many architects specify using the sand from the old greenside bunkers to plate the top four inches of the teeing surface. Of course, that assumes that you are also renovating the green complexes. It’s a toss up as to whether you should till the sand into the topsoil or not. It really depends on the composition of the topsoil and should be considered on a course-by-course basis.
It will always be a matter of taste as to what types of tees look better – traditional rectangles (or rounded rectangles) or “free forms.” Part of the answer depends on the golf course. Is it a traditional course or it is a modern course? Either of those scenarios are easy to determine, but it is the course that is somewhere in between that creates the difficult decision. If “free form” tees are selected, you have to make sure that they are built to a large enough scale to be really effective. Small “free forms” may look like bananas and create poor alignment. They look out of place. Although it may not be wise to do extensive tee renovations without professional help, you would probably be better off using rectangles, if no help were available.
When renovating tees remember: