“Have you ever seen a birdie tree?” architect Jan Bel Jan asks.
She’s not surprised when there is silence on the other end of the phone line. And so Bel Jan, who made her bones working for Tom Fazio for more than 20 years before hanging out her own shingle in 2009, explains the concept to her dumbfounded inquisitor.
It turns out that a birdie tree can be found in women’s locker rooms all around the world. (Bel Jan has the pictures to prove it.) When a woman makes a birdie, a new leaf is added to the tree, with the date and hole on which the birdie is made. At the end of the year, the woman member with the most birdies wins a prize.
“What I’m saying is that birdies are so celebrated and so infrequent that this became a big thing,” Bel Jan explained.
Bel Jan wanted everyone – women, men, juniors, seniors, novices – to make more birdies and have more fun. That led to her development of Scoring Tees, which she has been building on courses, often as part of course-renovation projects.
In simplest terms, the Scoring Tees shorten the golf course; Bel Jan thinks the ideal 18-hole length for these tees is between 4,000 and 4,400 yards. But her idea is more fully developed. She’s not simply placing tee markers in the fairway in front of the forward tees, as have many courses for juniors and families.
It starts with the addition of full-blown tee boxes, just like the back tees. “They look like they’ve always been there (and are) respectful of the people who want to play there,” she said.
She considers ball trajectory and angles of play, and what it would take for every player to get on, say, a par 4 with two well-played shots. Pace of play is a big consideration; she wants all players to reach a par 4 in two or three shots, not five or six.
The beauty of the idea lies not just in the design execution, but also the marketing. Bel Jan noted that the industry has used many terms for forward tees – ladies tees, junior tees, speed tees, express tees, fun tees. “But those words will exclude somebody because people will self-exclude,” she concluded.
The term “Scoring Tees” gets past that problem.
The appeal to new players or those with especially slow clubhead speeds is obvious. But Bel Jan believes the idea holds appeal for better players.
Bel Jan was intrigued by the fact that college coaches sometimes have their players use the forward tees in practice. The reasons are three-fold: course management (“Just because you can drive the green, is that the smart play?” she asks); working on the short game; and learning how to go low.
If it makes sense for top amateurs, she reasons, why shouldn’t it appeal to all players?
“Now you’re talking about being able to play the game and you don’t have to be the longest hitter,” Bel Jan said. “It’s like a shootout.”
The idea has been embraced at Pelican’s Nest Golf Club in Bonita Springs, Fla., where there are scoring tees rated for men and women. The course even has a separate Scoring Tees scorecard.
“We encourage better players to challenge themselves on it …” said Dan Gawronski, director of golf at Pelican’s Nest. “They can stand on a tee at 240 yards and might try to hit it on the green (or get in jail). Ultimately it puts the short clubs in their hands, and they find out maybe they’re not as good as they thought they were.”
Pelican’s Nest has Scoring Tees on its Gator and Hurricane courses, which Bel Jan renovated in recent years. Gawronski said 3.5 percent of scores posted at his club are played from the Scoring Tees, though that number actually is higher because some of the weekly games employ formats that prevent posting of scores. (Bel Jan encourages clubs to set up games on the Scoring Tees – for example, “Three-Club Thursday” or “Five-Iron Friday,” in which a player’s longest club is a 5-iron.)
Gawronski said some of his club’s best male players have weekly games using the Scoring Tees. Even his staff sometimes play an emergency nine on them.
Scoring Tees help golfers of all stripes
But he also has seen the value of Scoring Tees for players who are on the downside of their golf careers.
During a recent pro-am with members, Gawronski said he was riding with an older member who had lost his enthusiasm for golf and was contemplating giving up his membership, selling his home and moving closer to his grandkids. The scoring tees, Gawronski said, reignited the man’s love of the game.
“With the advent of the scoring tees . . . he is like a little kid on a golf course,” Gawronski said. “It’s hugely rewarding to watch that.”
At Green Valley Golf Club in Greenville, S.C., Bel Jan has installed Scoring Tees on 10 of the most difficult holes, and owner Mike Kaplan hopes to have her do the remaining holes this year. Kaplan bought the course out of bankruptcy and interviewed various architects, but liked Bel Jan’s vision for his club.
“I pretty much embraced everything she brought to Green Valley,” he said. That includes a three-hole short-game area Bel Jan created “at a very small investment,” he added.
Kaplan said he appreciated how efficiently Bel Jan operated – for example, using material gathered from renovations of greens and bunkers to build the Scoring Tees. “There are ways to do this economically,” Bel Jan said.
Green Valley women members who couldn’t break 90 now are shooting in the mid-80s, Kaplan said.
“They’re just ecstatic,” he said. “Golf should be fun for them, too.”
But he sees the concept gaining acceptance among all of his members.
“Play the front tees, who cares? Just have fun,” Kaplan said. “I think it’s being embraced by all different skill levels, which is what Jan wanted.” Gwk