Handicap Hub: Don't Tell Me Where to Go!

By Gretchen Yoder, Manager, Handicapping & Course Rating

Before getting into this article, we’d like to remind everyone that there is no such thing as “Men’s tees” or “Women’s tees.” Any person can play any set of tees. The golfer needs to remember to post to the proper rating, which IS based on gender. {steps off soap box}

While the World Handicap System (WHS) enables golfers of different abilities to play and compete on a fair and equal basis, sometimes golfers want more than just the correct number of strokes to make it equitable. They want a similar experience.


Hitting fairway woods into the same green where your opponent is hitting a wedge gets old after a while. Maybe after playing for 30+ years, the golfer can no longer carry the 170 yard pond to reach the fairway. Beginner golfers shouldn’t be forced to play longer tees because of a predisposed notion that men are supposed to play the White tees. For these reasons and more, the Tee it Forward notion was brought up several years ago.

Add the fact that there are plenty of female golfers, amateurs or LPGA and PGA Pros, who can bomb a tee shot, there is nothing stopping them from playing further back.

There are several different concepts on how a Course or a Club will base which tees a golfer should play:

Based on Course Handicap: Any course can suggest which tees to play based on Course Handicap, or possibly Handicap Index. This might be listed on a scorecard or posted on a sign near the first tee or pro shop.

Here is a basic concept of how the tees might be broken down based on Handicap:

  • Back tees: low or single-digit handicap men
  • Middle tees: mid to high handicap men and low-handicap women
  • Forward tees: mid to high handicap women, senior men, beginners

Not bad for a course with 3 sets of tees, but what if there are 6 sets of tees? There are quite a few factors to think about when making the choice of where to start. What is the total yardage? What is the elevation? How many water crossings are there, and how far is it to carry? Is it a Retirement community? Is it a resort course?

Reminder that every Red set of tees is not created equal: a person with a 20 Course Handicap might not enjoy playing the Red tees, the shortest set, at Bethpage Black. At over 6200 yards, it’s quite a challenge!

Based on Age: Senior players should play the ‘senior’ tees. Right? What age is senior? Is it 60? 65? 70? What if it is more of a retirement aged course where just about everyone is a Senior? How would you decide who goes forward? If a person has been playing golf for many years, but now they don’t hit it quite as far, maybe their short game is spectacular. Their Handicap might not have changed more than a few strokes over a few years, but their shot lengths might be changing drastically.

Here’s the thing with many courses. The Senior Men, can play the forward tees, but Senior Women often don’t have a place to move forward. Quite a few courses are now adding a more forward set of tees. Those tees may be earmarked for beginner golfers, but for Senior golfers having a place to move forward is wonderful. Quite a few courses who host high school teams are adding more forward sets of tees so that girls are able to reach some of the par 4 holes in two shots. OGA is adding official Course/Slope Ratings to these tees as they are being added.

If choosing a tee is based solely on age, it would be quite silly for Pat O’Donnell to be forced to play a forward set of tees. Mr. O’Donnell, who has earned our OGA Senior Amateur (6 times), Oregon Senior Stroke Play Championship (12 times!!), along with other PNGA and PNWPGA titles, is currently playing to a +2.2 (yep, that is a plus) Handicap Index. While he might have a bit of fun playing forward tees on occasion, being forced to play shorter tees just wouldn’t make sense based on Pat’s ability. Setting a tee by age would be okay, but make it a choice for the golfer, don’t force the issue. 

Based on Clubhead Speed: OGA Golf Course took a two pronged approach and switched two things a few years ago. First, the Tee names were changed from colors to numbers 1 (one) is forward, 4 (four) is the furthest back tees. Between the four sets of tees there are combos. If a golfer is not quite ready to move back, or forward, they could choose a combo set somewhere in between.

The basic premise for basing the set of tees based on clubhead speed is that the speed of the swing is relative to the distance of the shot. A faster clubhead speed creates further distance for the shot.

Clubhead speed is indicative of approximate ability level. If you compare speed to handicap, this is approximately how that would look. Based on the following speeds, OGA Golf Course suggests which tees to play based on this philosophy.

This link explains more about the process that OGA Golf Course went through, based on a report from USGA Green Section Agronomist, Larry Gilhuly and his extensive survey of the golf course.

Based on Shot Length: There are plenty of thoughts on whether driver length or 5-iron lengths should be used. There is a basic formula for both of these theories.

Driver Length * 28 = Recommended Tee Length
5-iron Length * 36 = Ideal Course Yardage

Here’s where I’d like to add a reminder that the clubhead speed or length of shot might not be the only indicator of a golfer’s ability. They might hit a 250 yard drive, but not have control over direction or accurate short game.

OGA does not have one set “this is how you should” answer.

For the individual golfer: How do you know if it is time for you to move forward? Unless it is a tournament where you are required to play a specific tee, just try it. Play forward one day. There is also nothing to stop you from playing further back. Experiment.

For Day’s Play or Tournaments: It comes down to finding what is right for your Course, your Club and your Members. Look at the ability level of the golfers for the entire field. Try an option by age or Course Handicap to play multiple tees.

What are some of the benefits of moving to a forward tee:

  • Faster play
  • Reach Fairway landing zones
  • Hitting more lofted clubs into the greens
  • More enjoyable rounds
  • More Par and Birdie chances

As a policy, OGA rates all sets of tees for Men, and all but typically the longest sets of tees for Women. As Women are hitting longer and playing more challenging courses/tees, we are adding more Women’s Ratings from further back tees as they are being requested. 

Frankly, I think Tokatee Golf Club got it right. Play the tees that make you the happiest!

Questions? Contact Kelly or Gretchen in the OGA Handicapping & Course Rating Department at (503) 981-4653 x226 or Click Here to Email Your Question(link sends e-mail).