I think I've mentioned before that good holes are often designed backwards. That is, you start with the green and work your way back to the tee. Let's say you've got a beautiful spot next to a lake, and you want to put a basket there, 40' from the bank. Let's say that 75' inland from the basket is a huge beautiful oak tree. The sky is blue, the grass is green, the oak is majestic, and the basket is new and shiny: it's one of the most idyllic disc golf scenes you've ever seen. Beyond the big oak is a flat raised area about 30' wide and 60' long. It's prefect for a tee, so you go plant your tee sign, even though the hole is now only 150 feet long.
Did you put the tee in the right place? Well... it depends on who will be using the course. If you're expecting a bunch of 6th graders who have never played before, you did just fine. Watch what happens. Some of them put their drives 30' from the pin and try to make the putt. Some of them only throw 100' and have to make what is, for them, a challenging up shot. Some of them even hit the tree and have to make a really tough up shot. You bring in busload after busload of 6th graders, and they're having the time of their lives.
But if you're hosting a SuperTour event, you've got a problem. Motor home after motor home pulls up, and touring pro after touring pro parks his drive and drops in his putt. Congratulations – you are now officially the owner of a dumb hole. Why is it dumb? Because it's not challenging enough. And you can prove it by looking at the scores: 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3 (there's always somebody), 2, 2, 2... If everyone gets the same score, the hole must be dumb. Good holes allow players to pick up a stroke on the field by making skillful shots.
So you decide to make a pro hole. You go into the woods 200' away. You take your chain saw and clear a tunnel 80' long and 3' wide. Now look at the scores from your top pros: 5 (whacked a tree and kicked into the deep woods, took two throws to get back into the fairway, layup, drop-in putt), 4 (whack with a kind kick, layup, layup, drop-in), 3 (missed the window by 6" and kicked across the fairway, sidearm roller to 70', best putt of the day), 2 (missed the window by 10' but kicked out to 30' from the basket, putt), and 2 (nailed the window and tapped in). Now you're seeing a great range of scores, but guess what? Really dumb hole. It's all luck and no skill. Hitting a 3' window with velocity from 80' is not a shot anyone can make consistently. On top of that, shots that are slightly off can get punished big time, while bad shots may get rewarded with lucky kicks.
Maybe you can do better by bringing that lovely lake into play. You put your tee 540' from the basket. The lake is 150' wide. (That means that the lake is 350' from the tee, in case you don't have your calculator.) Let's see how our touring pros do. The weaker throwers put their drives between 300-340', just short of the lake, leaving them approaches under 250', which they all put by the pin, and they all make their putts (remember, these are top pros, and this hole is wide open). The big arms all have to lay up short of the lake -- contrary to popular myth, top pros do not throw 500' consistently. They're not even close, in fact. Yes, some do occasionally get off a 500-footer, and several of them can throw much farther than that using a turnaround on a wide-open field with a tailwind. But this is golf, and 500' drives hardly ever happen.* Our scores on this hole tell the story: 3, 3, 3, 4 (same guy), 3, 3, 4 (tried to clear the lake), 3 (actually has the power to clear the lake but can't putt). Sorry, dumb hole. Pretty much everyone gets the same score, and there's very little skill required. On top of that, it's really boring for any top pro with a decent arm.
But guess what? For intermediate players, your 540' lake hole is a great test of skill. For them, throwing an accurate drive 300-340' is an achievement, and so is throwing an accurate 200-250' approach shot. It's not at all a dumb hole for them, and they're going to have a range of scores from 3 to double-circle 9 (second shot was wet, third shot was wet, fourth shot went to 50', three-putt from there). It's pretty much wide open, so it's not a great hole, but it is a good fair hole.
Isn't that funny, how a hole can be good for one division and totally dumb for another division? Fascinating.
Now let's go to the next level. A lot of people get lost here, so bear with me. Traditional golf has three distinct elements: driving, approaching, and putting. We’ve just recently moved beyond drive-and-putt, so we’re lagging behind. About 55% of traditional golf holes are par fours that require a drive and an approach to get to the green. Notice that it's drive and approach, not drive and drive. (Drive and drive is an option on par fives, but that’s for another day). A good course will test all aspects of your game, and in traditional golf, a pro will need to be able to drive about 18 times (14 from the tee and 4 from the fairway) and approach 18 times (4 from the tee and 14 from the fairway).
Our courses should be very carefully designed to meet the same goals as the best ball golf courses:
Players who can throw far will have opportunities to gain a stroke on a few holes.
Players who throw accurately will have the advantage on other holes.
Players who can throw far AND accurately will have the most advantage.
Every player will have all of his or her skills challenged, and the players who show the most skill will card the best scores.
If I'm designing a standard par four from the basket backwards, and if I have some good obstacles, I have to find a landing area that starts at about 200' from the basket. Anything shorter than 200' is too easy for pros -- too long for a putt, and too short for an approach, unless there are a lot of obstacles. But where do I put the tee?
Assuming that the fairway has some obstacles and requires some accuracy, and assuming that the drive has some modest restrictions (trees near the tee, trees to throw around, etc.) top pros will throw 300-450'. So for them I want a really good drive (400') to land 200' from the hole. A decent drive (350') will land 250' from the hole, and a weak drive (300') will land 300' from the hole. This puts my pro tee at about 600' from the basket. Notice that only the very weakest pros will have to go drive-drive to birdie this par four. That's the price they pay for being so weak off the tee, and they'll be OK if they can throw that 300' accurately. Notice also that I must have enough obstacles that a really great drive (450') doesn't have a gimme upshot – a great drive should be rewarded, but never with a gimme (a wide-open 170' approach is just as dumb as a wide open 170' hole!) For everyone else, it's drive and approach: the better the drive, the shorter the approach.
Longer throwers get an advantage, assuming they can hit the fairway. If I make the hole any longer, only the longer throwers have a chance to get a three on this hole, and that gives them too much of an advantage – there will be other holes we they can use their "D" to pick up a stroke. So 700' on this hole would be dumb. 800' would be dumb. When I get beyond 800’, it becomes a three-shot hole (par 5) and starts to make sense again.
Now, where do I put the tee for top Grand Masters? Top Pro Grand Masters throw 270'-370'. They can handle that same 200’ approach, so I’ll go 340' back from 200'; that puts their tee at 540'. Only the weakest throwers will have to go drive-drive, and a guy who crushes 370' will have 170' to go.
It makes sense, doesn't it? If the GM's played from the 600' tee, some of them couldn't even reach it in two shots, and that's dumb. Remember, we want drive and approach for everyone except the very shortest drivers. Still with me?
Here's where a lot of people lose their way. Top Pro Women throw 250-320'. Yes, many of them can throw farther than 320’ off the tee and even farther with a turnaround and a tailwind on an open field. But in competition, there aren't many throws over 320', so if they play from the 600' tee, it's a dumb hole. We need to put their tee at about 500'. This is no slight to any woman or to the division. It's just good course design based on simple statistical facts. Many pro women are so used to having to throw 270-300’ “approach shots” or 80-150’ “putts” that they don’t really mind – that’s the game they’re used to playing. But that’s not the game they should be playing. They should get to play golf, the same as everyone else, and that means approach shots that don’t require full effort (or insulting layups).
For some reason, a lot of people can understand having a shorter tee for Grand Masters, but they don't understand having one for Pro Women. I know that there are equality issues, and that women want and deserve the same treatment as men. That's great in other parts of life, but it's not good course design. We don't put the touring pro tee at 600' using magic. It's only based solely on statistics: that's how far that division throws golf discs. If they were playing with regular Frisbees, they'd need a shorter tee and a closer landing area. If they were using Aerobies, they'd need a longer tee and a backed-up landing area. If discs start flying farther, or if the players improve their technique, we'll need to move the tee back.
Let's look at an even simpler example. Suppose we go into the woods and cut out an "L" shaped fairway, as some courses have done. When we place the tee, the most important consideration is to make sure that everyone can reach the dogleg. Let's say a particular division throws 275-375'. That tee needs to be no further back than 275'. Otherwise, some players will drive 30’ short of the dogleg, and their only option will be to make a short little 30’ pitch to the dogleg. That's not golf; that's just dumb.
If that same division is going to be playing the course with minis, we'll give them a much shorter tee. Why? Because that division doesn't throw minis as far as they throw golf discs.
Ever wonder how the NBA or the NCAA decided where to put the three-point line? How track officials chose the height of the hurdles? Why four balls is a walk, or why football teams get four downs to go ten yards? Over time they found that some numbers make the game fair and fun, while some numbers just don’t make sense.
Over hundreds of years, golf course designers discovered the numbers that make the golf golf. Our version of the game offers more combinations and permutations than the older version, which means it’s easier for us to make dumb holes. But it also means we can make more brilliant holes. Just make sure you know the difference.
* Data collected during 2002 Pro and Am Worlds by Chuck Kennedy. Chuck measured actual drives on a flat, open hole during the tournaments.
John Houck lives on a 380-acre disc golf ranch in San Saba, Texas, where he spends way too much time fixing dumb holes he’s designed.