Playing a new golf course has the feeling of a courtship. There’s the research and website investigation. Sometimes a friend might set you up with a new course (“You’ll love this place. It’s way better than the last one, I promise. That was my bad.”). On the night before the round, you might head to Google Maps and check out a course’s routing, just to have a better sense of what might be in store for you. If you’re lucky, the course might have some drone footage or hole descriptions on the website. Yes, you read them a few days ago, but now it’s vital that you really understand the course. After all the this might the one.
No matter how much learning we try to do about a new course, we always tend to gravitate to the scorecard at some point to check the stats: total par for 18 holes and the length of the various tees. If you’re really into the numbers, you might consider slope and rating. All these numbers legitimize a golf course, sure the visuals and history is great and wonderful, but these numbers could greatly impact the day at the course. Par, in many minds, should fall between 70 and 72. As far as length, every golfer just wants something that will challenge them but not crush their spirit or their ego.
Finally, the day arrives for you to meet this new golf course. The research is done and the first tee is beckoning. This is where the dating analogy takes a turn towards The Bachelor because it’s a rarity you’re playing alone. Maybe some friends are joining you, or maybe you’re a single paired up with some other folks. Any way you slice it, the question will be asked, “What tees are you playing from?”
This is where all the research flies out the window and the date really begins. You have to read the situation, maybe check out the golf clubs of the strangers you’ve been paired with. You might have friends that want to spend the day on the back tee boxes because their ego won’t let them think a 7,100 yard golf course isn’t in the cards. After all, it’s always awkward playing different tees from your partners, it’s like going to dinner and sitting at different tables or ordering from different menus. The only consistent thing on a golf course, the one thing you can control, is where you put your tee in the ground at the start of every hole. At that, all bets are off.
To confuse matters even more, there’s the starter who, like a waiter, might nudge you in one direction or another. He’s also weighing you all up, checking bags, clubs, demeanor, and outfits. The starter has seen it all and thinks he knows it all. I’ve had starters poo-poo the back tees, saying they aren’t as long as the scorecard says and we should all give it a go. I’ve had others steer me away from the tips (maybe I was wearing the wrong hat that day).
Last week in Charleston, I did my online research before playing Charleston National. I combed through the pictures and looked at the scorecard. The tips were just over 7,000 yards. I didn’t have time for that nonsense, I’m on vacation and just trying to enjoy my day (NOTE: the tips weren’t even set up. Is that the golf course equivalent of a vanity handicap?). The green tees, named “Champion",” clocked in at 6,745. This is just about my comfy place as far as course yardages go. But on this particular Monday morning, after a Sunday afternoon round in the wind and through the marshes at Stono Ferry, I was a bit tentative about biting off more than I could chew. The pictures of Charleston National were intimidating. It looked like lots of forced carries over marsh, so my eyes scrolled down to the next set of tee boxes, the white tees, named “Member,” and the number read 6,412.
I had a decision to make: green tees or white tees? White tees have this negative connotation for me, they scream “Old Man!” or “Not good enough!” The white tees are the stock selection of people that don’t play a lot of golf, and I play enough golf to not play the white tees, gosh darn it. Then I remembered I was on vacation and just settling into a new golf season. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I had also noticed an interesting pattern during my two other rounds in Charleston: people tended to play it forward more (a side effect was faster play… go figure).
I decided to do as the Charlestonians do and pick a forward tee, I would be a Member for a Day at Charleston National.
(Note: did you know they call Charleston “Chucktown”? I find that offensive and wrong. They dropped the “w” long ago and should therefore not add to it a city’s nickname. There is only one “Chucktown” and that’s Charlestown, MA. In classic Charlestown character though, I don’t think people in Charlestown like the nickname “Chucktown” but it’s ours and if Charleston wants a nickname, you’re going to have to stick with “Holy City” or “Chuckton.” The “w” belongs to us.).
Upon my arrival at the course, I was gratified to see the older men, a group of eight having their morning round in two groups, playing the gold tees, which were not granted any moniker like the white, green, and black tees (Member, Champion, and Tour). I was introduced to Steve, who would be my playing partner for the day. We wore an orange shirt splashed with a Baltimore Orioles logo on the breast and a gold hoop earring. He had “Member tee” written all over him. When the moment of truth came and the starter said the tee was ours, I walked to the Member tee and put my bag down, it’s the same feeling as telling a waiter “I’ll have a Sprite” with the intention of not drinking that evening. Steve, thankfully, also ordered a Sprite and pulled his cart up to the same tees.
We exchanged small talk as the men in front of us searched for their tee balls and walloped their second shots up to the first green. This was all going to plan until Craig showed up. He surprised Steve and I as he slammed his bag on the tee box after materializing out of thin air. He was tall and lanky, with a “dad hat” tilted on his head in classic dad style. He could have been 42 or 58 years old, I would have believed either. Suddenly, things were feeling a bit more complicated because Craig’s bag was in an ambiguous spot and Steve and I had staked our claim at the Member tee. After a quick introduction, Craig pulled his driver out and started limbering up and swinging the club around, grunting with every movement on this early, cool morning. Every bit of Craig screamed, “Member tee.”
Then he said it, “I’m gonna torture myself and play the green tees today, if you guys don’t mind?” He basically ordered tequila shots for the table without asking.
In fact, I do mind. I am fighting my inner golfing pride this morning and you’re not helping. You’re going to have to drink all that tequila, CRAIG!”
Instead, Steve and I said in unison, “Sure.”
My mind was racing now. Should I join him? Would that make Steve feel obligated to join us, too? Is it really that bad from back there? Maybe it’s not?
I steeled myself and stayed at my beloved Member tee with my new best friend - Steve-from-Baltimore. Craig teed off first, hitting a solid shot down the middle of the fairway. My tee shot landed past Craig’s, the distance would have measured the same as the difference between our two tee boxes. I was still thinking about the tee box choice standing on the first fairway.
I played the entire round from the Member tees aside from the 17th hole, which Craig convinced Steve, Kyle, and me to play from because it was just a better hole. He was right. Oh and Kyle was a LATE addition to the group, screeching up in his golf cart. His rented clubs and running shoes screamed Gold tees, but he played the Member tees and was, well, really bad at golf).
The thing I learned from playing the Member tees was that it doesn’t matter! I played a shorted golf course, but had plenty of challenge and success. Yes, a few holes played different and I could hit a long-iron onto the fairway while Craig had to hit driver, but the round was great and so were the views and conversation, which is all I was looking for out of the round.
So while my ego might want to push me (and maybe you, too) to the back tees all the time, I think it’s worth playing a tee forward every now and then. The day doesn’t always have to be spent slugging driver from the back tees and “testing yourself.” There’s plenty of tests in golf that don’t involve length. You just have to watch me chip to understand that concept.