Jonathan Gaunt, who is responsible for the design of over 35 golf courses, offers his views on how golf courses should be set up to suit both men and women to maximise enjoyment - shorter might be the answer!

By Jonathan Gaunt

Recent research from Syngenta on female participation suggests that shorter golf courses, including the development of 9-hole/6-hole options, is a possible solution for encouraging lapsed players and non-golfers to start golf.

Given the fact that golf as a sport is generally considered to be in decline, the option to offer greater variety in course length and numbers of holes may be essential to guarantee its future. In fact, this may also apply to men’s golf and many men might actually prefer shorter courses.

To give some background, in the 1980’s to 2000’s hundreds of 18, 36 (and some 45) hole golf courses were built in the UK. Many of these courses were built by one-time developers without much of a reference or acknowledgement to the fact that 51% of the population is not male.

In general terms, the resulting courses were built to a higher standard than many of the existing courses, and had far better practice and academy facilities, but, many focused on male golfers and in this respect, there was a premium placed on designing “Championship” and “Tournament” courses, often with only a cursory concern for female golfers. The “Pay & Play” and municipal courses would continue to provide a “mid-range” golf opportunity and affordable golf for men and women.

In the UK there remains a core 2,000, or so, golf courses which have survived successfully for 60 to over 100 years, but there is a standard flaw in the design of the majority of these courses and this relates to the playability and challenge of golf courses when compared between men’s and women’s tees. Greens Committees are mainly run/managed by men and greenkeeping teams are primarily populated by men. So, how the course is set up is, generally, directed by men, and often by better golfers who have a low handicap. This is why so many courses are set up to benefit the male golfers at the detriment to female golfers.

As a young golf course architect I studied for a Diploma course being administrated by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and as part of my education I was taught to design golf courses (in the masterplanning stage) that would be equally fair and challenging for men and women to play, depending upon the club they have in their hand and how far they can hit the ball with that club. I’ve designed over 35 golf courses following this method.

There are a number of ways in which this parity can be achieved, for example, by the careful and strategic (not penal) placement of hazards and designing around natural features. Also, by the calculated positioning of “ladies” tees in relation to fairway alignment and length of the hole. In relation to this, the Decimal Par Score System was devised in the 1980’s by Tom Macauley, an inspired golf course architect from Northern Ireland, who recognised that there was an imbalance in fairness between the courses that women played the courses that men played.

The DPSS is used to calculate the length of a proposed hole from the men’s and women’s tees. For example, on a par-3 which measures 145 metres/158 yards from the men’s (back) tee, the ladies tee would be positioned at 129 metres/141 yards, 16 metres/19 yards further forward, which equates to about 11.20% shortening in length;

The reasoning behind the need for this is related to the handicapping system that is adopted in continental Europe. Men and women play in the same competitions and they are all handicapped on the same basis. This means that a woman playing off a handicap of 28 could happily (and fairly) play a man off a handicap of 3 and potentially beat him in a match. I know that this happens anyway, playing the courses as they are already set up, but in a number of cases I’ve seen holes where hazards and obstructions come into play for the women and not for the men.

The way many golf courses are set up in the UK is that there are 2 separate courses in one – one for the men and one for the women. In fact, if the DPSS was adopted throughout the UK, it would be possible for men and women to participate in the same competitions, playing from whichever tee colour is designated as being in play for that particular day.

This would mean that Saturdays wouldn’t always be “reserved” for the men and Tuesdays would not always be “reserved” for the women. Men and women could play golf together, competitively, in the same competitions.

The Standard Scratch Score Handicapping System has been used in the UK for many years without too much complication or argument. The Slope Rating System came into force in England from 1January 2014, but the County Unions are slow in taking up this method of rating the difficulty of golf courses. It works extremely well in the USA and Australia and it will soon transform the game in the UK for the better.

There is a need to find a new way of making golf more attractive to not just women alone, but to families, and by introducing a universal handicapping system and courses that are playable for everyone, could just be the answer!

This article appears in the March/April issue of Women & Golf. If you would like to read more articles like this, subscribe and also receive a free gift!