Golf course length and the 50 shades of grey of women golfers

Image of woman teeing off from redsHAVE WOMEN GOLFERS simply gotten used to being beaten up? Is it possible that we are so used to golf being hard that we would not value a golf course length that’s short enough that the average among us could reasonably make pars or, gasp, birdies?

When the Pacific Women’s Golf Association polled its nearly 11,000 public course club members in February to find the “Top 5 Women-Friendly Public Courses in Northern California,” commenters lauded beautiful scenery, personable staff and an inviting shop. Golf course length did not seem to be a priority among the nearly 400 women who voted.

Considering that the average woman hits her driver about 140 yards and therefore has no chance to stand over a birdie putt on par 4s and par 5s on traditional forward tees of 5,200 yards and up, why wouldn’t women golfers favor courses set up at under 5,000 yards?

Jane Sullwold, the elected president of the PWGA, thinks we should start to value the courses who set up more kindly to the average among us.

“What surprises me is how few responses discussed what is most important to me in selecting ‘women-friendly’ courses — the playability of the course for the average woman golfer,” said Sullwold, an attorney who considers herself an average woman golfer at best. “In my opinion, most courses are set up to be much too long for all women, even the low handicappers.

“The game was designed so that (male) players can reach the greens in regulation with a medium to short iron. For average women a par 4 requires driver, 3-wood, and then maybe a hybrid into the green; better women players hit driver then hybrid, but never need as little as a wedge for their second shots. For me, therefore, the women-friendly courses are short courses like Dublin Ranch that are reachable but still interesting, and secondarily courses like Mare Island with at least several reachable par-4 and par-5 holes.”


Image of Haggin Oaks signVoters definitely did not miss on the course voted No. 1. Haggin Oaks in Sacramento has carved a place as a community hub, with a historic Alister MacKenzie course as the centerpiece and a golf course length to suit every level. The par-72 MacKenzie course has forward tees at 4,552 yards and 5,368 yards, then 6,006 yards, 6,561 yards and 7,030 yards. It also has the two Arcade Creek nine-holers, with forward tees at under 2,000 yards each.

But wait, there’s more. Haggin Oaks adheres to a customer-centric service philosophy instilled by CEO Ken Morton Sr., who says, “Everyone’s job is to make sure every golfer’s day at the golf course is a special experience throughout every point of contact regardless of which of our 150 employees and volunteers the golfing public comes in contact with.”

Haggin Oaks has five women’s clubs, a golf ambassador who happens to be a woman, several women teachers, a casual, historic 19th hole and the amazing Super Store, which might have the biggest selection of gear and garb for women in the entire state. You can read all about Haggin Oaks and the rest of the Top 5 in the PWGA announcement here.

PWGA Executive Director Caroline O’Brien was pleased to see Haggin Oaks run away with the poll, which she hopes to convert into an annual award recognizing the PWGA’s top courses. “Women appreciate a well-maintained facility and a course that is challenging, but not punitive,” she said. “They also place high marks on facilities with a friendly staff and a well stocked pro shop.”

Research conducted nationally in 2009 for The Right Invitation, a report on women’s participation in golf, found that the factors most important to the golf experience included, in order of importance, “the condition of the course, available tee times, a welcoming attitude toward women, the people they play with and available restrooms.”

The most common criteria in PWGA responses had to do with the natural beauty of the course environment. “Views are just breathtaking,” one player said of Pebble Beach. “A beautiful, natural setting,” another said of Tilden Park. “Beautiful surroundings,” said Northwood member Barbara Seymour. “Canyon setting, no houses,” said a player about Redwood Canyon. “Full of trees and wildlife,” De Laveaga’s Barb Roetiger said of her home course. And of Half Moon Bay, one woman said: “Beautiful in good weather, challenging in bad.”


Image of Haggin Oaks scorecards

The Haggin Oaks MacKenzie Course scorecard

Image of Haggin Oaks scorecard frontNow back to our point: About as many women cited their favorite for its easy tee placement as for its challenge. Some women just like a challenging golf course length, others like to have birdie opportunities. At No. 1 ranked Haggin Oaks, it’s a good bet that most of the women play the second set of tees, not the first.

Only a few women cited the top factor from the 2009 national survey, course condition and maintenance. Course layout drew comments for either shortness or difficulty, and also for walkability. Cleanliness and convenient restrooms warranted the praises of a few voters.

Available tee times did not seem to be much of a factor at all in the PWGA poll, but “a welcoming attitude toward women” came through in many comments about “accommodating staff,””incredibly friendly staff,” and “the staff treat men and women golfers all the same.” Affordability and value also were considerations, as well as the clothes.

Praise of shopping opportunities gushed forth in comments about Haggin Oaks, Half Moon Bay, Dublin Ranch, Callippe, Rancho Solano, Bing Maloney, Las Positas, Castle Oaks, Bidwell Park, Paradise Valley, Indian Creek, Gray’s Crossing and San Juan Oaks.

Dublin Ranch, a beautifully tended par-63 course just east of Oakland, did not get nearly the votes that nearby Callippe did. The latter does have forward tees at 4,788 yards but does not seem short, particularly when finishing with one beast of a par-5, 449 yards from those forward tees with a creek and then a barranca to carry en route to an elevated green.

“Callippe I think is much too long for women,” said PWGA president Sullwold. “So it turns out that what most women golfers see as ‘women-friendly’ attributes have to do with the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff in the pro shops and restaurants, and the quality of the merchandise for sale. Those are quite a bit farther down on my list, but are certainly things that golf courses should be interested in hearing about.”

The places with forward tees set at a golf course length of 5,600 yards and longer obviously do need to hear about that. Maybe if the staff smiles nicely at us when we plunk out our cash, we will continue to grin and bear the ensuing punishment.

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