Stake your claim

Stake your claim

Golf course architect Nathan Crace describes an idea for saving labor, spreading traffic and reducing maintenance costs on tees.

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August 25, 2017
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It was his idea, and while his idea was born out of a way to save labor, mine was an adaptation to spread traffic, change the way golfers think, AND save money.

It was an idea born of necessity, incubated in ingenuity, and launched from pragmatism. I cannot recall the exact day it happened, but I do know it has the potential to greatly reduce the time every course spends mowing, repairing, spraying, fertilizing, sanding, and recuperating tees. It was roughly five or so years ago on a Monday and I was standing on the par-3 13th tee at The Refuge in Flowood, Miss. (a public course our design firm recently began an 18-month full-course renovation on in July) with course superintendent Bill Whatley, GCSAA, and then assistant superintendent Cory Messer, GCSAA. Cory has since moved on to be the head superintendent at another local course (in the interest of full disclosure, our sister company operates The Refuge).  

We were discussing the shade issue on the undersized tee complex which was surrounded by large trees all too eager to crowd out every bit of sunlight they could (a problem we are in the process of correcting during the renovation) and noting that the conversion to zoysia tee surfaces was not getting the job done. There was simply too much traffic on the par-3 tees — the zoysia was too slow to recuperate and there was too much shade for Bermudagrass.

As we stood there brainstorming and espousing the virtues of chainsaws, a single golfer pulled up on his golf cart and made his way to the stressed out tee box.  He was in his early 50s, in no particular hurry, and — based on the contents of his cart’s sweater basket — quite the fan of Coors Light. Because the main tee had become obliterated by divots from the previous weekend’s barrage of play, we had the tees on a secondary tee below the main tee and adjacent to the water. The man strode to the main tee with a cigar firmly ensconced in his teeth and bent over to tee up his ball in the middle of the minefield of unrepaired divots.  

“Sir,” I said politely. “We’ve moved the tee markers down here today to the lower tee to give this tee a chance to recover from all of the divots.”

“Okay,” the man replied as he continued to put his tee in the ground and line up his tee shot — on the main tee amid all the divots and devoid of tee markers. That’s because the tee markers HAD BEEN MOVED TO THE LOWER TEE! 

“Sir,” I interjected as he tossed what few blades of grass he could find between the divots and tried to assess the wind direction (there was no wind). “The tee markers are down here.” I was pointing in the direction of the lower tee to avoid any confusion. 

“I heard you the last time,” he chortled. “But I don’t want to play from there. I’m playing up here.” With that, he addressed the ball, pulled the club back and proceeded to miss the green and narrowly avoid the water hazard.  As he drove off with nary a word, I turned to look at Bill and Cory and they in turn at me. We all had the same look on our faces — somewhere between amusement and bewilderment.  Let’s call it befuddlement.  Then the epiphany struck me … when Bill muttered “Why even have tee markers?”

“Why, indeed?” I thought aloud. More to the point, why do we force golfers to focus all of their wear and tear on a relatively small rectangle of each tee bounded by two markers and an imaginary border two club lengths deep? This man obviously didn’t care (although for the wrong reasons) where he was teeing up his ball. I surmise that most reasonable golfers, if given the opportunity, would typically choose a spot where grass was plentiful and not in the middle of a few hundred unrepaired divots.  

Standing there on the tee, I posed this question to Bill and Cory: “What if we get rid of tee markers altogether?”  After all, what really is the point? Think of the time we could save by not having to move them every day, not having one staff member move the tees off, another mow the tees, and yet another come behind and replace them! I asked them both to play Devil’s Advocate. Some of their initial thoughts:

1. Without markers, golfers will make divots all over the tee.
2. Without markers, not everyone would be playing from the same spot.
3. Without markers, golfers unfamiliar with the course will not know which tee to use as they pull up to the tee.

These were all valid points … in proving my theory to be sound. Without markers, golfers will make divots all over the tee, spreading out wear over the entire tee and not in one small rectangle every day.  That’s what I wanted them to do! That one was easy.  This was not a driving range tee. A tee on the course should not receive the repeated abuse of a driving range tee and if you have 100 players a day, not 100 percent will be playing from the same tees anyway. So why not spread it around daily?

As far as golfers not playing from the same spot, tournaments and events notwithstanding, who do you play against when you play golf? Don’t overthink it. You play with the others in your group — the one to four other people in your group that day with whom you are playing. In a typical daily round, you are not playing against a field of players, you are playing with and/or against the others in your group.  

I know many traditionalists – I consider myself one in many respects – will say that a course must have markers from which to begin every hole. It keeps the playing field level, you have to have markers for scoring and maintaining a handicap, yada, yada, yada. But consider that earlier this year the USGA and R&A announced a number of changes for 2019 aimed at speeding up play and growing the game. One of those was leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting — without penalty.  If that can change, this idea is a gimmee.  

In the initial minutes of our brainstorming session, I admit that I was initially thinking about placing a stone marker, color-coordinated to the tees, into the slope of the tee facing the cart path so golfers could see it as they drove up and then play from wherever on that tee best suited them. Then I thought about an even better idea. Much like the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s animated special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” a thought bubble formed above my head, a grin spread across my face, and my heart grew three sizes that day…

I cannot take full credit for what I am about to share with you. A good friend and client of mine, Ricky Self, is the superintendent and co-owner of Cypress Creek Golf Course in Cabot, Ark., just north of Little Rock. Five or six years ago, they bought the course from a bank after the previous owned shut it down and they were in the process of whipping it back into shape. Around the same time the aforementioned conversation was taking place at The Refuge, I had kicked off a long-range multi-year bunker renovation with Ricky at Cypress Creek. During a site visit, he was explaining to me a method he devised to reduce labor in mowing the extremely large tees on his course. His idea for saving money mowing oversized tees became my idea for spreading out traffic on undersized tees. They were two sides of the very same coin!  His ying to my yang. His peanut butter to my jelly. His Starksy to my Hutch.  

He did it by replacing his existing tee markers with stakes. Before you dismiss the idea, take a few more minutes to hear me out because there are a number of moving pieces to this idea. Ricky’s club is an upscale semi-private course that caters to a number of outside events as well as member and public play. He wanted something that looked very nice so he opted for stakes that are very ornate, turned on a lathe, and resemble upside down table legs. He said that he was saving thousands of dollars each year in labor because the staff member on the tee mower could simply grab the stake as he drove by and put it back on another pass without stopping or leaving the machine. Again, his tees are very large and require a lot of time to mow every day.
 
I decided we would institute the same tee stake system at The Refuge. Our stakes, however, would not be so ornate. We came up with a simple solution during a fact-finding mission to the local Lowe’s down the road. In their lumber department, they sell 36-inch long 2 inch by 2 inch outdoor deck balusters with rolled corners that are already smoothed by a router. We bought 36 of these balusters and cut them in half, creating 72 18-inch long stakes. We pre-drilled a pilot hole in the bottom of each stake, drove a galvanized gutter nail into the end and clipped the head off with bolt cutters to stick them in the top of the tee so they would stand without falling over and to avoid driving them in with a hammer before painting them gold, white, blue and black to correspond to the color of the stone tee markers they were replacing.

If you are keeping score at home, you will have undoubtedly noticed what seems to be a mathematical error. If we have 18 holes and four tees per hole, then we should need 144 markers.  Not so with the tee stakes. The beauty of the tee stakes is you only need one per tee — not two. This is part and parcel of my idea for spreading out wear and traffic from golfers. Golfers tee off in proximity to the single stake, not between two stakes. Remember, each golfer is playing against the others in his or her group on any given day. The difference a foot or two forward of back makes between two golfers’ tee shots is negligible on a par-3 and non-existent on par-4s and par-5s. Besides, the very idea is to have golfers in different groups NOT teeing off in the same rectangle all day long.

My idea for the actual launch of the new tee stakes at The Refuge was 87 percent practical, 10 percent curious, and 3 percent diabolical. We made no announcement of the new system beyond the golf shop staff so they could answer any questions golfers might have about the functionality of the stakes following a round of golf. One Tuesday morning when the course did not open until 10 a.m., we replaced all 144 stone tee markers with 72 color-coordinated tee stakes. Most golfers quickly adapted with no questions at all. They figured it out as would be expected of rational, free-thinking adults. The usual suspects, however, had questions and “concerns.”  A handful required extensive “reprogramming” to understand the system; but in the end, it was a success. I should note that one question I kept getting from a particular player was, “What if a guy in my group keeps teeing off in front of the rest of us?”  My graduated three-step solution was simple: 1.) Don’t worry about it because even a yard or two won’t matter; or 2.) Tell him to get back with the rest of the group; or 3.) Stop playing with him if it bothers you that much. I love solving problems!

In the course of the first 12 months, we calculated that we saved nearly $5,000 in labor, materials, fuel and sand saved from less wear and tear by spreading the traffic pattern. The stakes allow the staff member who had been going ahead of the tee mower and moving tee markers (and returning to replace them behind the tee mower) to perform other tasks. We quickly realized newfound savings by eliminating the opportunity cost of having one member of the staff doing something time consuming when he or she could be doing something more productive. The vertical nature of the stakes makes them not only easy to grab from the seat of a passing tee mower, but also visible to golfers driving up to the tee complex. By allowing golfers to play from behind or slightly in front of the stakes and anywhere across the width of the tee, the reduction in concentrated wear was almost immediate.

As I said earlier, I must give credit where credit is due. While I do not recall the exact timeline, Ricky Self had the stakes in place and functional to reduce labor costs mowing his oversized tees prior to our team putting them into action at The Refuge to reduce wear and tear on our undersized tees. It was his idea, and while his idea was born out of a way to save labor, mine was an adaptation to spread traffic, change the way golfers think, AND save money. The end result is the same. Since then, a number of area courses in Central Mississippi have also started using the tee stake system.  Superintendent Brice McClendon, GCSAA, from Clear Creek Golf Course near Vicksburg, Miss., says the system has improved turf health on his tees and now saves him a minimum of six hours of labor each week. That’s not small potatoes in a day and age when courses are looking for ways to cut costs without cutting quality.  

Again, like any other change on the course, the tee stake system requires good communication between the course staff and the pro shop staff and likewise with the golfers and/or members. Remember this:  for it to be successful, EVERYONE involved must be 100 percent behind it. The golf professional and golf shop staff, green committee, superintendent, general manager — everyone! If one of these influencers even intimates to golfers something along the lines of “I really don’t get it” or “I think it’s stupid” or “I don’t know what the USGA would think about it,” then the idea is dead before it has a chance.  

Also, while public courses may be satisfied with the baluster approach we took at The Refuge, other courses might opt for a fancier finish like Ricky did at Cypress Creek by turning thick dowels on a lathe for a different look. The important thing to remember is that golfers play with/against the golfers in their group during 98.6 percent of every round they play in a given year (I made that statistic up to prove a point, but it’s probably true). Don’t worry about events and tournaments. For scrambles, we left the stakes on the course, but when we hosted official tournaments, high school events, etc., we simply replaced the stakes with our markers for those days and put them back out when the event was over. I hope sharing this idea with more superintendents and course managers encourages others to take the idea and run with it. I hope it helps others and the idea spreads across the country as fast as a viral Kardashian Instagram video.  

Everything said, I should note that when The Refuge emerges from the other side of the renovation. We will be returning to markers for one primary reason:  we are doing away with color-coded tees and using names of ducks found in Mississippi (the course logo is a duck). It’s part of our adaptation of the Longleaf Tee System, but we are going one step further and eliminating color in an effort to start a fresh new way of thinking about which tees different players should use. If we had a series of stakes and they were all the same color, it would be confusing and the names of the ducks printed on the stakes would be illegible from the cart path. Otherwise, I would go back to the tee stakes in a heartbeat, but probably with a more ornate stake like they use at Cypress Creek. However, the other courses that have started using the tee stakes after seeing them at The Refuge are still going strong and reaping the benefits. If you give it a try, I would love to hear how it turns out, what changes you make to better suit your tee stakes to your course, and of course pictures of the finished product.  You can email me at nathan@watermarkgolf.com. 

Nathan Crace, ASGCA Assoc., is a golf course architect and member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). He is also a member of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA). You can learn more about Nathan at www.watermarkgolf.com and www.nathancrace.com. Nathan appears in this publication by special arrangement.