Larry, look, who are all these smiling golfers?
Oh, sorry, I forgot. They are members of your fan club.
The world according to Larry Gilhuly always seems to be populated by overjoyed golfers – women, senior men and juniors foremost among them – all singing the praises of a form of the game that has historically received little more than snarls and an occasional smirk.
Gilhuly has emerged as one of golf’s leading evangelists for shorter courses. His philosophy is simple enough: courses are too long. Regular golfers, that is, those who don’t hit 7-irons 200 yards and fly bunkers situated 280 yards from the tee – in other words, mortals, including you and me – need shorter courses.
“We have absolutely killed our industry by making golf too hard. … We should always be on the lookout for ways to improve golf courses, such as the addition of shorter tees.” – Larry Gilhuly
Sure, there are egos to consider. But every week is not the U.S. Open. Golf is a recreation, a game. Those who play it should want to have fun.
Gilhuly can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t a golf guy. In 1970, he received a Chick Evans Scholarship for caddies, earning a bachelor of science degree in agronomy and turf science from Washington State University. Next he became assistant superintendent at Seattle Golf Club for eight years before joining the USGA Green Section in 1983 as director of the West Region.
Now, 36 years later, he has retired from the USGA and continues to follow his dual passion for golf course construction and playability. “We have absolutely killed our industry by making golf too hard,” he reflects. “A lot of good people are working hard to bring it back.”
Gilhuly’s turfgrass dedication extends to all. He wants players of every skill level to have a fighting chance at hitting greens in regulation. To get there, he is preaching the virtues of new, expansive, low-profile, unobtrusive tees that are closer to the greens. From the forward tees, a course might chop 1,000 yards or more from its figure, without sacrificing character or playability.
Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, often cited as one of America’s top courses, was flying mostly under the radar with a project that added 11 new forward tees. The yardage for the forward tees went from the mid-5,000 range to the mid-4,000s.
In Idaho Falls, Pinecrest Golf Club dropped nearly 1,300 yards with 14 new tees. Many if not most senior men moved up. And pace of play sped up substantially.
Around the country, the average driver distance for women has been pegged at about 140 yards, while the average for men has been calculated at about 210 yards. Gilhuly has used not only driver distance but also driver swing speed to help golfers find the proper tees for their games. He is a proponent of showcasing launch monitors at all golf clubs.
Repeating his message, Gilhuly wants golfers to have more fun on the golf course. He wants them to putt for birdies, not suffer the indignity of coming up short or missing green after green with a fairway wood or hybrid.
Gilhuly sees a way to make the best courses even better. “I think Willamette Valley (Canby, Ore.) and Royal Oaks (Vancouver, Wash.) are among the best-kept secrets in the Northwest,” he says. “We should always be on the lookout for ways to improve golf courses, such as the addition of shorter tees.”
Gilhuly likes to call attention to an article more than 100 years old that focuses on three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Alexa Stirling, arguably the greatest female golfer in the world in the years immediately before and after World War I. The article is entitled Women Handicapped by Men’s Courses.
From his soapbox, Gilhuly raises an argument: “We need to shorten the courses to make them proportionally challenging. Alexa Stirling knew what the problem was. It’s all about swing speed. We all see the struggle of those with slower swing speeds. For average women, or kids, or senior men, we see the disproportional challenge.”
Gilhuly’s self-defined mission is to explain all the course options to golf clubs, without telling them exactly what to do. He wants the clubs to make the final decisions. That being said, Gilhuly invites key personnel at golf courses to contact him.
“People are talking about shorter golf courses,” he says. “It’s been a long time since this topic has been around. It’s a big deal. It’s flipped, and it’s flipped big. This is what’s going on right now,”
Gilhuly is involved in another industry-wide movement – the substitution of numbered tee markers (often 1 through 4 or 1 through 5) for colored markers. Elimination of red and other colors can erase the stigma that is sometimes present with colors.
“Red is dead,” said Gilhuly, explaining how an entire senior men’s group at one club switched to the numbered markers and, in the process, ended up playing a shorter and more enjoyable golf course. A test case for tee numbers instead of colored tee markers can be readily found at the Oregon Golf Association course in Wilsonville, Ore.
Under the leadership of executive director Barb Trammell, the OGA switched this year to numbers (1 through 4). “It has taken some education,” Trammell observes. “There can be some ego involved. Some golfers just don’t want to change.”
When they do change, the decision usually results in happier golfers, Gilhuly says. “Their swing speeds slow down, just as it does for all of us. So they will make the natural transition to shorter tees. It happens all the time.”
As mentioned previously, the OGA also has been aggressive in measuring driver swing speeds, then matching those speeds with the correct tee markers. “Shorter tees are here to stay,” Gilhuly envisions. “We’ve had enough suffering on the golf course.”
Larry Gilhuly says courses are simply too long for the average golfer. Photo: Steven Gibbons, Copyright USGA
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