Last spring, I traveled to the wilds of central Wisconsin to play in a small event to mark the opening of the new Mammoth Dunes course at Sand Valley, noted course developer Mike Keiser’s latest creation. Designed by David McLay Kidd, Mammoth was the second track to come online at that resort. There was a lot about it to like. The deft routing. The sandy soil that drains so well and allows ample fairways to run firm and fast. The rugged blowout bunkers. The big greens, many of which are cut on top of dunes or tucked into natural bowls.
Strangely, I was also drawn to another feature of Mammoth Dunes: a set of very forward tees that were described on the scorecard as “Royal Blue.” They were one of six sets on the par-73 layout. What set them apart was the overall length the course played from those markers (just 4,010 yards) and the fact that they were simply set in different parts of the fairways, not on formal tee boxes.
Only once before had I seen anything like that – Pine Valley, which some years ago had installed super-senior markers on several holes so golfers of a certain age did not have to carry the course’s famous waste areas with their drives.
Though I never hit a shot from the Royal Blues at Mammoth, I could not help wondering why they had been added. After my game, I asked Keiser and Kidd.
What I learned intrigued me, for those tees and the ones that just play a tad longer (Silvers at 4,699 yards) represent a bold new trend. Kidd goes so far as to call it “a great movement” and a key to the future prosperity of the game. “They keep the aging golfer enjoying the game and playing longer,” he said. “They make courses more playable for women, too.” Keiser is a fan as well, and after installing Royal Blue markers at all four of his 18-hole courses at Bandon Dunes, he added them to the tracks at Cabot Links and Sand Valley. “And I will use them wherever I go from here,” he added.
Keiser told me that the idea for the short tees came from a septuagenarian from New Hampshire named Arthur D. Little. The grand-nephew and namesake of the MIT chemist who founded and then ran the international management consulting firm that bears that same appellation, he and his wife, Jann Leeming, were venture capitalists who got into the golf business when they bought the Province Lake Golf Club on the Maine-New Hampshire border in 1996.
“Jann and I had been involved in running multiple businesses and didn’t think it would be that hard to run a golf course,” he said. “But we were dead wrong about that.”
“By giving golfers multiple tees and ones that realistically fit their swing speeds, we were able to increase their enjoyment of the game – and the frequency with which they teed it up.” – Arthur D. Little
An avid golfer who possessed an appreciation for course architecture and had grown up playing many of the best layouts in the land with his father, Royal, Little came to realize that the track he now owned did not “fit” most of his customers. “It played too long and with too much difficulty for senior players, and also for women and juniors,” he explained. So, he and Leeming gave each hole five different sets of markers, using swings speeds as the determining factor as to where to place them. “We figured out how far golfers with swing speeds of 65, 75, 85, 95 and 105 miles per hour hit their drives, and adjusted accordingly,” he explains, adding that the average tour professional is up in the 115-mph range.
“The idea was to get everyone to hit more or less the same club on their approach shots and to give them a better chance to get onto greens in regulation.”
After that, Province Lake measured 4,169 yards from the shortest markers, and 6,336 yards from the tips.
According to Little, the results of those changes were immediate, and eye-opening. “Rounds played jumped from 8,000 one year to 22,000 the next,” he said. “The percentage of those played by women rose from 15 percent to 35 percent, and we went from having literally no junior play to youngsters making up nearly eight percent of the rounds.
“Senior golfers happily moved up a tee or two, and as a result, their numbers increased as well.
“By giving golfers multiple tees and ones that realistically fit their swing speeds, we were able to increase their enjoyment of the game – and the frequency with which they teed it up,” he added.
Little and Leeming sold Province Lake in 2005 but that did nothing to stem their interest in short tees. In fact, they only became more deeply involved in the concept, writing a paper a couple of years later called “Tee Positioning” that recounted their experiences and suggested that golf course operators needed to think more deeply about tee setup so their layouts “fit” the widest possible spectrum of golfers.
“We saw it as a way for them to grow their revenues as they also helped grow the game by getting more people to play golf, and getting those already playing to play more and to play longer,” Little said, adding that the cost of doing so was minimal to the course owner.
Among those who read that report was Keiser. He became so enthralled by the concept that he installed short tees on his Old Macdonald course at Bandon Dunes when it opened in 2010. Soon after, with Little’s help, he put in similar markers on the other three 18-hole courses at the resort. By that time, Keiser had given the shortest ones a name, Royal Blue.
“I did not want a color that connoted old age or frailness,” he said. “And I liked that Royal was Arthur’s father’s name.”
While the Royal Blue markers have attracted much of the attention, Keiser appreciates the value of other tees and the distances that they play.
“I’m playing all of my golf from markers that range from 5,550 to 5,700 yards, and I’ll do whatever I can to get others in my group to do the same,” Keiser said.
There were lots of things about that concept that appealed to Kidd.
“I liked giving golfers places to hit their drives that were relevant to their swing speeds and then giving them the opportunity to hit approach shots with clubs that the greens were designed to accept,” Kidd said.
The architect demonstrated his appreciation for “tee positioning” by walking the entire Mammoth Dunes course with Little before it opened and sorting out where the Royal Blues should be placed.
“David wanted to be sure that we retained the strategic intent on each hole,” said Little, who does not charge a fee for his work and asks to be reimbursed only for his expenses.
While Keiser is his best-known client, Little says that to date, he and his wife have consulted on just fewer than 40 courses across the country.
Given the very positive reactions the Royal Blues are having, that number is sure to grow.
No. 15 at Bandon Dunes. The par-3 15th plays 80 yards from the Royal Blue tees. Photo: DMK Golf Design
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