Pawleys Plantation handicap advice

by Steve Benz

I have been thinking a lot lately about hybrid tees -- “combo tees” as they are often called -- that have become popular at many courses. Combo tees typically use a combination of member tee markers and senior tee markers to produce a total course length under 6,000 yards. The objective is to add practicality to the USGA’s “Play It Forward” initiative. Playing it forward makes the game more enjoyable by playing courses more in line with one’s ability to hit drives and irons a certain distance, regardless of age or physical limitations.

Typically, golf’s traditional tees have been color coded, with men’s member tees usually being white (6,100 - 6,400 yards), blue (6,400 - 6,800 yards) and black (tips) beyond 6,800 yards. Many courses have now added senior tees, often gold colored, at lengths around 5,600 yards. Men’s combo tees are now filling the gap between 5,600 yards and 6,100 yards. In most cases, these combo tees, a mix of white and yellow tees, allow for more holes to be reached on a par 4 with irons rather than fairway woods or long hybrid clubs, as well as shortening par 3s or 5s to more manageable distances. Similarly, women’s tees have traditionally been designated red and typically range from about 5,100 yards to 5,400 yards. Some courses have been adding an additional set of women’s tee markers to bring combo distances closer to 5,000 yards or less.

An interesting trend developing at many courses, particularly in Florida, is to move away from the color-coded tee markers all together and instead designate them by Roman Numerals, largely to reduce men’s gender stigmas from playing the red tees as their age and physical limitations increase. Under such set ups, the back tees become I, blue II, white III, white/yellow IV, yellow V, and red VI. Some courses have also developed a VII, which shortens the traditional red lengths even more to accommodate women with shorter distance capabilities. Although tees continue to be rated separately for men and women, this move from traditional color-coded tees, and adding combo tees, are now making the game more enjoyable for especially those men that have an aversion to teeing off from red markers.

Is your current of future club joining the combo tee initiative, both for men and women? Is the club moving away from traditional color tee markers? Your retirement golf decisions might depend on how the clubs you visit handle this issue. All of us will eventually care about the set up of golf courses if we are able to play golf well into our 80s or even 90s.

Combo tees (whether designated as yellow/white or Roman Numeral IV, for example) can present challenges as to who is eligible to play from those tees, especially in club competitions. Some clubs base competition eligibility on age or a combination of age and handicap (and use handicap index over the last 12 rolling months or the current handicap index). Age alone is perhaps the most inappropriate criteria since it is often not the primary factor in how long one hits a ball or his/her skill level. Age plus handicap is an improvement on using age alone, but selecting the “age plus handicap” total can be misleading. Additionally, with the advent of the World Handicap System, handicap indices change daily and become an administrative challenge to the club golf staff; therefore, staff will institute a cut-off date in advance of an event.

More important, these methods of calculation may act counter to the concept of “playing it forward” or having fun. We all know 60-year-olds who have a handicap of 20 but have lost distance over time. Assuming they play combo tees regularly at their club, the fairest tees for them to play in a competition – and fairest to the rest of the field -- would be the tees they play all the time, the combo tees. Some will say that it does not matter what tees you play in a club event because your index will be adjusted accordingly. But it is far from a perfect adjustment. Consistent use of the same tees, both in casual rounds and club events, is the best criteria to use in an event since the index earned is consistent.

One other alternative is to allow the golfer, regardless of age or skill level, to play in club competitions from the tees they enjoy the most. This typically works well if the golfer plays from those tees regularly and, therefore, develops an index based on those tees. Clubs are now using a minimum percentage of time played from a set of tees to determine eligibility for those tees in competition (over their last 20 rounds on their course…easy to determine from the USGA downloadable app on your phone). This percentage is usually more than 50% and often 75% to prevent gaming or cherry-picking tees depending on the competition format. In the case that the competitor has played some rounds on shorter tees and doesn’t meet the 20-round threshold, the golfer would play from the longest set of tees used in their last 20 rounds on their home course.

This alternative is consistent as it (1) encourages a “move it forward” approach, (2) avoids cherry picking tees for certain events depending on the format, and (3) is consistent with developing an index based on the set of tees you normally play. As most of us know, simply using a course handicap adjustment for tees not normally played can often create anomalies that golfers may use to their advantage in declaring which tees to play in a club competition.

Steve Benz is a member at Shadow Wood Golf Club in Bonita Springs, FL, where he serves as the Handicap Committee Chairman as well as a member of the Golf Committee. He is also a member at Barrington Golf Club in Aurora, OH near his summer home and recently became a member of its Handicap Committee. Retired in 2017, he is “simply an avid golfer who enjoys all aspects of the game.”

Bluff Point Golf Course in Plattsburgh, NY, has hosted U.S. Presidents and can boast that baseball’s most famous player, Babe Ruth, shot a near-course-record score of 70 in 1936 during a practice round for a local golf event. Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen played an exhibition match there in the 1920s.  And Bluff Point’s claim that it was the first resort golf course in America certainly stands up to scrutiny.

But other claims in the resort course’s public communications are a bit exaggerated dubious. It is not quite the third oldest golf course in the nation, circa 1890, as its website claims, but that is only true if you count the three holes built then as a “golf course.” And even if it were a nine-hole course, it would be the fourth oldest. Oakhurst Links in West Virginia (1884), Dorset Field Club in Dorset, VT (1886) and Foxburg Country Club in Pennsylvania (1887) all opened as nine-hole layouts prior to Bluff Point’s three-hole layout which reached a full 18 holes in 1899, according to a local newspaper report about the club’s 125th anniversary in 2015. Bluff Point lists the famed A.W. Tillinghast of Winged Foot and Bethpage Black fame as the course designer, but “re-designer” would be a more accurate designation since he renovated the layout in 1916, a few years after the huge, five-story adjacent Hotel Champlain, which opened in 1890 and burned to the ground in 1910, was rebuilt. (Today it is used as part of the campus for Clinton Community College.)

I drove the long way around Lake Champlain today to play the Bluff Point course, eager to tackle a Tillinghast layout that is open to the public. Most of the courses he designed are located inside the gates of private clubs; in the 1980s, I played multiple rounds on the Tillinghast layout at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey and thought it one of the best layouts I ever played. The bunkering was especially memorable, and dramatic changes in elevation and undulating greens for which the architect is especially noted added to the challenge and visual elements.

Bluff Point provided an entertaining and occasionally interesting round for me, but it only hinted at its Tillinghast pedigree. I will explain in an upcoming review of Bluff Point at When posted, I will announce it here. In the meantime, enjoy a few photos below of the golf course and adjacent lake. And check out my review of Alburg Golf Links, another Lake Champlain golf course, at OffTheBeatenCartPath.

BluffPointapproachto8thTop, the downhill par 4 4th hole at Bluff Point, with Lake Champlain behind the green. Bottom, the approach to the par 5 8th hole.