What's your 'birdie yardage'?

It has taken me years to figure out by rigorous calculation what instinct told me all along. I’m most comfortable and having the most fun when I’m playing tees in the 6,200-yard range. 

My bet is that I’m not alone in wanting to enjoy rather than suffer through a round. I’d also bet that most players in my index range (9.4 trending to 12) are starting from tees that are way too long. From what I see, too many golfers think of their games not in terms of what they usually do, but in terms of what they rarely achieve. If they’ve birdied the occasional 440-yard par 4, they think it’s OK to play courses that are 6,800 yards.

It’s like the player who tries to carry the bunker 240 yards because that’s how far he hits his drives – conveniently not calculating how much ground roll goes into those drives, and overlooking the fact that many drives travel only 185 yards in the air.

Kudos to clubmaker Barney Adams for speaking out last year and suggesting that golfers play courses at yardages they actually could handle. His “Tee it Forward” guideline, based on average driving distance, helps players select tees better suited to their abilities so they can hit shorter approaches into greens.

That brings me to a measurement that I call “birdie yardage.” The concept is simple. I’m now in my eighth season of tracking every birdie (and eagle), and compiling a running list each year of the hole, yardage and par. I then figure out my average birdie yardage for par 3s, par 4s and par 5s. From that, I construct a composite layout comprising a par-72 course with four par 3s, 10 par 4s and four par 5s.

Last year my birdie yardage was 6,228. That’s based on an average of 163 yards for par 3s, 358 yards for par 4s and 499 yards for par 5s. What’s amazing is the consistency, which is, after all, the beauty of a statistic over time. In five of the past seven years, my birdie yardage ranged from 6,204 yards up to last year’s high of 6,228. Scattered in between were two anomalous years when the birdie yardage plummeted to an average of only 5,912.

By comparison, last year on the PGA Tour, World No. 1 Luke Donald registered a birdie yardage of 7,148. Long-hitting Dustin Johnson barely outdid him, at 7,186 yards. Tiger Woods clocked in at an impressive 7,418 yards, based on an average of 214 for par 3s, 429 yards for par 4s and 567 yards for par 5s. Of course the guys on Tour make a whole lot more birdies than mid-handicappers. They make three to four per round; I average one every other round.

I hear from too many people who think that to evaluate how a golf course is designed, they need to play it like the pros, which means from the back tees. But pros don’t play a 480-yard par 4 by hitting driver, 3-metal, lob wedge. They hit driver, short iron. So to play it like the pro and to be in position with a comparable approach shot, the average 10-handicapper would need to start from about 380 yards.

Architects will tell you that the spread today between pro golfers and everyday players is greater than ever. It’s a headache to design accordingly, and it’s also a headache for course operators to set up courses for realistic play. It might help not to set up the back tees at all, but rather let the 2 percent of golfers qualified to play them find them on their own. I’ve also seen courses that print scorecards that don’t list back-tee yardages; when golfers approach the first tee, the longest course they see listed is 6,800 yards. That way, if they play one tee box forward, they likely are playing closer to their true comfort zone, or “birdie yardage.”

That’s a less-stuffy variant of the British model, which allows play only from the medal tees in competitions – unless you can present the curmudgeonly club secretary certification of your prowess.

The golf industry is just starting to emerge from a 20-year delusional haze. Egomaniacal owner/operators vied to outspend and out-flower bed their competitors with the longest, toughest golf courses. Testosterone-addled golfers duly complied, trying to outmuscle their buddies by showing they could compete with Tiger. 

Those days are over. It’s time to play real golf. It’s time to play from your birdie yardage.

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