April 26, 2021 By Gil Hanse — There’s more to the importance of tee design than you—and the author—suspected
We have already determined three things relating to the position of tees: 1) The routing of the course will establish the location of the tees; 2) The strategy of the hole will determine the angles of approach that each tee provides; and 3) It’s the only spot on the course that the architect can determine, with certainty, what you’ll see of the hole and its features. Transferring all this from paper to the ground constitutes the practical and artistic sides of creating tees, which I’ve already confessed my personal disdain for shaping. But that doesn’t mean creativity isn’t necessary for building good tees.
As with any other feature of a course, when given the option we prefer to build tees that blend with nature. My design partner, Jim Wagner, often explains to our young shapers that he does not want them to build a tee but rather a flat landform where we will find a place to set the tee. This removes the temptation to build something that matches the traditional tee outline, the worst of which is the rectangular tee with squared-off corners matching the perimeter of the tee box. A.W. Tillinghast described it this way: “Teeing grounds are taking the contours of the surroundings to a great extent, instead of the pawky little terraced, box like pulpits which seem to shriek of wheel barrows and spades.”
I had an interesting exchange during a site visit to Taconic Golf Club, the home course of Williams College. We were touring the course with a committee and I pointed to a tee that had been oddly constructed in the fashion described by Tillinghast. I said that the tee was unnatural and resembled an Aztec pyramid. A quiet voice from the back of the group said, “Mayan.” I said, “Excuse me?” and she said, “The Aztecs did not build flat-top pyramids, the Mayans did.” I hadn’t known the committee had a faculty member from the History department and learned from then on to try to know my audience!
The placement of tees is a critical component of the play of the hole, both for the demands of the tee shot and the presentation of the hole. The traditional arrangement has the back tee the most elevated and stepping down from there. This is often dictated by architects who think the back tees need to see over the tees in front of them. If the tee shot is played downhill, this makes sense as the natural ground is falling in this direction and the tees are easily arranged to feel natural. But if the tee shot is uphill and the architect still insists on building the back tees higher than the front, the earthworks required cannot help but look artificial.
We always want the eye level of the tee to be higher than the tee in front of it: If your eye level is six feet and is a foot or two above the tee ahead, you should have no problem with visibility and not feel as if you are hitting into the back of the next tee. We also work hard to pitch the surface of the tee to flow with the ground. In other words, if the ground is falling to the right, we pitch the tee to the right so the slope of the teeing surface (necessary to surface drain water across it) is less perceptible to the human eye. We also don’t like laser-level tees as they feel very artificial in the landscape.
Our desire to build tees that blend into the landscape has led us, where able, to build free-form tees that flow from one to the other without any clearly defined borders. This has been referred to as a “ribbon” tee as it looks like a ribbon laid on the ground, twisting to follow the contours and providing differing angles for play. We have incorporated this style of tee in many of our designs, including Castle Stuart, Streamsong Black, the Olympic course in Rio, and Ohoopee Match Club. One concern we have heard is that this type of tee does not aim the golfer down the line of play. But we do not feel it is our duty to point the golfer in the correct direction off the tee. Which is not to say we intentionally point a golfer in the wrong direction, just that we believe a subtle shift of the tee is not a bad thing. It also places the onus on the golfer to pay attention to how they set up as opposed to the architect putting up “guardrails.”
From a practical standpoint, tees should be large enough to handle the anticipated amount of play. Traffic on a golf course is more concentrated on the tees than on any other feature, so there needs to be plenty of room to spread the traffic out, especially on par-three holes. To do this also requires a mindset change, encouraging the moving of tees day in and day out away from the yardage plates. Use the entirety of the tees: Shorten holes one day to a tough hole location; lengthen them on other days to an easier pin.
The variety we so often strive for in design can be defeated at the tee box if there is resistance to mixing up the yardages or an insistence on needing to “post a score from my regular set of tees.” It is so much more interesting and fun to reach a hole and have to hit different clubs instead of instinctively reaching for the same club again and again. This flexibility is not only good for the golfer’s enjoyment, it is really good for the turf.
In writing this and the previous column on tees, I have come to realize that I was a bit unfair in my initial comments about tees. Their importance is clear from the perspectives of both design and enjoyment, and when built properly they add greatly to the landscape of the course. So, on second thought, on the next project sign me up for shaping more tees!