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Finding the Landing Zone

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


After conceding that most golfers prefer to hit driver, and providing for that on most holes (unless environmental constraints encroach or are otherwise impossible) we need to determine where most shots will land. Golf course architects usually design from the back tees (mostly to assure that in real estate developments, property lines are preserved), but also because it's presumed that mostly better players can and will use the intended strategy.

From the back tees, we draw golf hole centerlines, which show average back-tee drives of 800, 850, 875 or 900 feet, mostly to ease construction staking, which sets pegs every 100 feet. This assumed landing zone depends on course function (i.e. tournament course vs. seniors' course) and the altitude. (It's well known that shots fly 15 percent longer in the mile-high Denver altitude.)

In most cases, I use 850-875 feet (283-292 yards) because 292 is still the average tee-shot distance on the PGA Tour, and a good proxy for the best amateur players. (I firmly believe that very few of us have the distance we think we do . . .) I place multiple forward tees at 20- to 30-yard increments (or 100'/33-yard increments, which is simple to draw). On courses shorter than 7,000 yards, 20-25 yards makes sense, while 25-33 yards is required on longer courses. I use 15-20 yard "splits" on par-3 holes, and 35-40 yard splits on par-5 holes. (The forward tee on a par-5 should rarely be much longer than the 405-yard minimum par-5 for women.)

These splits correspond very nicely with the typical yardage of players at "good," "average," "middle-age," "senior/athletic female" and "recreational female" play levels, according to industry statistics. They get all players roughly to the same landing zone, and experience similar tee-shot strategy using just one set of strategic hazards. However, there is a move to design forward tees to reduce course length proportionally, allowing each level of player to hit, say, driver and 6-iron, on the same hole.

To compare the traditional 20-33 yard tee differences, to proportional tees, based on percentage of swing speed/tee shot distance of shorter players, would require the following:

As seen, for tee-shot design purposes, also extends the "typical" landing zone from one compact area to one stretching from 80 to 178 yards from the green. Even with traditional tees, somewhat extended landing zone are required if we wish to challenge all players. The "typical" back-tee driving distances shown in the table actually consist of drives from 270-320 yards anyway, whether by differing skills or differing shots from individuals (i.e. no one "stripes it" every time, leading to distance variations over the round). Prevailing wind, uphill/downhill tee shots and landing-zone slope affect how far typical tee shots travel and roll.

I use the following general rules to estimate where actual tee shots might land, realizing that 160 tee shots get far less benefit and harsher treatment from almost all conditions.

Elevation Effects on Tee Shots - In general, the effect is a foot per foot in elevation, or 22 yards more (or less) if playing downhill (or uphill) 66 feet. However, your experience is correct - you get slightly less extra distance downhill than you lose uphill.

Of course, longer flying shots usually also fly more to the side than a level one, and fairways on elevated tees should be enlarged proportionally in most cases.

Wind - I trust wind about as much as I trust gamblers on the first tee but, to generally figure wind effects, I predict about a yard extra or less per mph. If local wind averages 10 mph, I figure plus or minus an extra 10 yards for head and tail winds. Obviously, a lot goes into the actual differences - high shots vs. low shots, etc., but it's a start.

Slope - Uphill slope in the landing zone kills roll almost completely, and downhill slope promotes it. From 1 to 5-7 percent, I add a yard percent of slope. On steeper downhill slopes, a ball is likely to continue running until slowed down by rough (or pond, trees, etc.).

With all these properly estimated, I can start designing tee-shot strategies with confidence!

Jeffrey D. Brauer began his career as an apprentice in the Chicago area in 1977. His first project was Kemper Lakes, which shortly after hosted the 1989 PGA Championship. He formed GolfScapes in Arlington, Texas, in 1984. In the last 29 years he has designed and consulted on a wide spectrum of projects, ranging from partial renovations to international resorts. His recent work includes teaming with the design team of Pascuzzo and Pate on a remodel of the world-famous La Costa Resort & Spa in California, and renovations at Superior National Golf Course in Lutsen, Minn., and Mesquite Municipal Golf Course in Mesquite, Texas.

He has been a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects since 1981, serving as President during its 50th Anniversary year in 1995-96. Jeff still studies the classic works - both old and new, and has played more than 75 of the best courses in the world.

Jeff gives many presentations and is a regular architecture columnist for many publications and websites, including Golf Course Industry and Cybergolf.com. He has also been a strong advocate for the "Tee it Forward" campaign and strives to make his courses fit the description of "fun to play every day."

Jeff's work has been spotlighted in most of the world's major golf magazines. Golf World ranked him as one of the top-20 golf course architects and Golf Inc. ranked him as the world's fourth-best value in golf architecture in 2010. Jeff's portfolio and reputation keep him at the forefront of desired designers for new courses, reconstruction and renovation projects. For more about Jeff, visit http://www.jeffreydbrauer.com/sites/courses/layout.asp?id=859&page=48451.