Golf for Women on Purgatory Golf Club

“What Makes a Women’s Course?

“Tired of having to carry 100-yard hazards on par 3s and go on safari to find a ladies’ room? So are we. As one mid-handicapper explains (okay, vents), what makes a good course for women begins with the right yardage and ends with, well, a big smile.

By Betty Cuniberti
Golf For Women

July 2005

“A decade or two ago, toting years of anticipation, I arrived all atwitter on the first tee of venerable Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, perennially ranked as one of the top courses in America. I’d read about it. I’d seen it on TV. I’d dreamed about it. But after some 130 strokes and 5,831 yards of bruising length from the forward tees, I felt I’d been taken for a ride and mugged. The testy, crowned greens, rolling terrain and yawning sand bunkers would be reasonably challenging if not tagged to a layout that was just too damned long.

“This is the kind of information women need before spending precious vacation time, not to mention money, on a course’s big reputation. Not all courses men adore are designed with the kind of thought, skill and care it takes to replicate the transcendent golf experience from the back tees for women playing from the forward set.

“Which is why we at Golf For Women continue to come up with our own course rankings. Never mind that women make up about a quarter of all golfers, and more than 40 percent of new ones. Believe it or not, at a golf course you are entitled to find more than a well-stocked women’s locker room, socks in the pro shop and your tee freshly mowed. Every now and then, you should be able to hit off the forward tees and have your ball land in the area the designer intended, not get caught in a literal no-man’s land, where clearing a stream or making a dogleg turn on the next shot is next to impossible. We should be able to swing a fairway wood and reach a green in regulation. Not once in a lifetime–a few times a round. It’s that thing they call “golf” that we’ve heard so much about, but don’t find often enough–even with rankings in one hand and a global positioning device in the other.

“Mothballing our Miss Congeniality crowns for just a moment, most course designs and rankings should make us mad as hell and not willing to take it any more. To us, it seems that courses are not only designed almost entirely by low-handicap men for low-handicap men, they’re also rated by low-handicap men. From tee to green, the average man plays a different game than the average woman. They hit the ball higher and farther, and they can put more spin and control on a ball coming into a green.

“Men may be stronger, but we’re smarter–we have to be if we’re going to traverse their Louisiana Purchase layouts and get home before dark. Women are so used to coping with Mars’ dimensions on Venus that if we actually blunder onto a golf course where we need a 5-iron instead of a 5-wood on our second shot, we’re not sure we have one in the bag. Oh, here it is–the clean one! In shock, we snicker that the course is dumbed down. Too easy! At some clubs, when the subject of moving the forward tees up is debated, it is women who often oppose it most fiercely. Even I have felt guilty if I post a terrific score on a course that didn’t bear a striking resemblance to the Lewis and Clark trail.

“We have weighed many factors when putting together this list, but design is the most critical. This is why we assign the most importance to design fairness, from multiple forward tees that give the shorter hitter a second shot comparable to that of golfers playing from farther back.

“Length is not the only issue, but it’s the key one. The National Golf Foundation has calculated that the average woman player hits her drive 140 yards and her fairway wood 120 yards–75 percent of the average man’s distance. Based on that, a course that measures 6,300 yards from the white tees–a very common yardage–should be around 4,725 for the average woman. In other words, playable.

“But many courses don’t have a forward set shorter than 5,500. That’s the equivalent of more than 7,300 yards for men–hairy even for the Tigers and Vijays of the world. A 5,900-yard course for women would equal an almost 8,000-yard monster for men. Impossible. Yet there are still courses in the U.S. that are designed that way. You won’t find them on our list. Our top pick, The Boulders’ South Course in Scottsdale, measures 4,684 yards from the forward tees and 5,119 yards from the second set of markers. Pretty ideal.

“The distance difference trickles down to all the clubs, even those nasty little ones. Where a man is lifting a soft wedge to the green, a woman might be muscling a low 5-iron. And nothing explodes an average woman’s score like large ponds, canyons or bunkers parked directly in front of a green, requiring a sky-high 120-yard shot to land softly as a butterfly and take a butterfly step backward. As Curtis Cup co-donor and three-time Amateur Champion Margaret Curtis wrote about the strength difference in a 1949 article in the USGA’s Golf Journal, “The crux of this problem isn’t the drive but the shot to the green and the trajectory (isn’t it a grand word) of the ball. What club should be used and what club is used by the Good Women for that shot?” Meaning we should be hitting a 7-iron but we’re grasping a 5-wood. One hole demanding a long, soft carry to a green is tolerable. Several are a day-wrecker.

“Rather than just work from numbers on paper, for the first time this year, we enlisted the aid of certifiably sane, low- to mid-handicap women golfers to help us refine our list. Our course-raters, all of whom play more golf in a year than we could hope to play in a decade, gave us their thoughts on the courses that were nominated for this list, and we listened.

“Our Top 50 Courses raters, including Mary Ellen Hegarty, a 16.9-index from Annapolis, Md., are aware of what to look for. “As a child,” Hegarty told us, “I was raised on a course where women were not (and are still not) permitted to play before 1 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and where the women’s tee is on the same box as the men’s. As an adult, I have enjoyed some of the most beautiful courses in the world, most of which have been extremely hospitable and welcoming toward all women. The difference has not been lost on me. As the number of women enjoying this fabulous game increases, it will be imperative for those willing to try new courses to have information on which to base their decisions.”

“Another of our course-raters, Lisa Hutchins, a 12-handicap from Blakeslee, Pa., believes golf course design has hampered the growth of women’s participation in the game when it should, in fact, promote it. Jean Hudgins, an 11-handicap from Henderson, Nev., agrees.

“”The game no longer becomes fun,” she says, “if a woman is required to hit a 220-yard, all-carry shot over a gorge to reach a 420-yard par 4. Golf is much more fun when the course has a design that challenges the better golfer without totally frustrating the 25-handicapper.”

“It’s a widely accepted generalization that women hit the ball short and straight, while men hit it far but have much more trouble keeping it in the fairway. This is a trade-off that makes the length of a course’s rough more important to women (we have slower swing speeds, so it’s tougher for us to hit the ball out from the tall grass) than how far it comes in to narrow the fairway, which men fear because of their accuracy issues.

“When evaluating a course for our Top 50 list, we also consider the environment for women. Are there at least two sets of tees rated for women? Are the forward tees as well tended as the others? Are they level? Are there ball washers on all the tees? If your glove has worn out, can you buy a new one that will fit you in the pro shop? Are there enough bathrooms on the course? Are there women on the teaching and pro-shop staffs? Are you treated as an equal, or does the marshal seem to stalk you (and only you) to make sure you’re not holding up the half-drunken men behind you, all earnestly plumb-bobbing putts they’ll miss by 10 feet?

“We look at other things, too, such as memorability and conditioning. Is the course a visual treat? Does it offer up a varied, intriguing playing experience? Are there flowers? Do they pull the weeds? Do they pick up the trash and cigarette butts that can be spotted off to the sides?

“The good news, as you’ll learn from reading our list, is that there are plenty of courses that treat forward-tee players as first-class citizens. Even an older course can become a wiser one. At Pinehurst No. 2, the course that defeated me two decades ago, the former red tees were painted green in 2001 and have become “senior” tees, and the reds were moved forward, shortening the course by nearly 800 yards and relieving the layout of two par 5s.

“May they rest in peace.

“And may you avail yourself early and often of our effort to find the glorious spots where it all comes together for all players, women and men.

> the average 18-hole score for women is 114> GFW readers played an average of 52 rounds in 2004> the first universal course-rating system was created in 1893 by a woman, Issette Pearson, of the U.K.

> the average woman’s drive is 140 yards

> 64% of women golfers have handicaps over 28

> California has the most GFW Top 50 Courses with 8, followed by Florida with6 and Arizona with 4

Travel, What makes a Woman’s Course?, GFW Top 50 Courses for Women, Golf for Women, July 2005.