MOORPARK, Calif. – It often starts before players even reach the first hole, where they all too frequently choose a set of tee markers that outstrips their ability. As Mark Peifer, the director of golf at Tierra Rejada Golf Club describes, it can begin with a simple transaction in the pro shop.
“I will ask what kind of golf ball the player wants, and he’ll say he’s not sure,” said Peifer, 40, who has worked at the Moorpark, Calif., course for 10 years. “I have to quickly assess his game, so I ask how far he hits an 8-iron, and he says about 155 yards. I immediately hand him – not the premium ball, but a step down from it. Because if you really do hit an 8-iron that far, you would already know that you need a high-spin golf ball.”
It’s just another example of a golfer overestimating his ability and getting in his own way of enjoying a day on the course. The folks at Tierra Rejada are chipping away at this attitude, one round at a time, by encouraging golfers to try their Players Course.
The Players Course is a set of tees measuring 5,600 yards that was introduced by Tierra Rejada in 2011 to provide a more appropriate challenge for the average golfer. Inspired by retired clubmaker Barney Adams’ Tee It Forward campaign, it gives players the opportunity to hit more comfortable approach shots into the greens.
The initiative is helping to bring golfers back to the Ventura County course, which earned nicknames such as “Tierra Too-harda” and “Terrible Rejada” shortly after it opened in December 1999. The course boasts dramatic elevation changes and stunning views of the Simi Valley and mountain foothills, as well as the nearby Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. However, plenty of uneven lies and several forced carries over ravines often spoiled the fun.
“It was like many of the courses built in the 1990s and the early 2000s – it was too hard for the average player,” said Peifer, who worked with course developers and co-owners Ted Kruger and Jerry Crumpler, as well as advisor Walter Rosenthal, the retired chairman of the Bobby Jones Company, to soften its edges. “As golf course operators, it was on us to reduce the degree of difficulty and allow average players to play from a spot where they could manage their game. We’ve built new tees, softened slopes, removed bunkers and made it a lot more fun to play without sacrificing the integrity of the original [Bob Cupp] design.”
The Players Course is not a pitch-and-putt. There are two par 5s of more than 500 yards and its five par 3s range from 110 yards to 185 yards. Most importantly, the average golfer will not find himself hitting hybrid approach shot after hybrid approach shot into the par-4 holes. He might even decide to scale back to a 3-wood or an iron off the tee for position, and find himself mulling an opportunity to reach a par 5 in two after a good drive.
“We have one player here, a guy named Mike, who I forced to play the [Players Course] tees one day, and he said he had a great time. He told me it was the first time he had ever parred the 15th hole,” said Peifer.
No. 15 at Tierra Rejada is 375 yards from the Players Course tee, 425 yards from the tournament tees, the next set of tees back, which play 6,013 yards. There are also professional (7,017), championship (6,557) and forward (5,032) tees.
“The 15th is not a particularly long or difficult hole, but Mike finally hit a tee shot where he could hit an iron into the green and two-putt for a par,” said Peifer. “When he is playing the 425-yard tee, he is hitting a hybrid or perhaps a 5-iron into the green. If you don’t feel like you can make a par on at least 14 of the holes that you’re playing, you’ve got to move forward.”
As Peifer points out, moving forward allows the golfer to face a comparable challenge to that of a PGA Tour pro.
“If you look at the PGA Tour, most par 5s are set up so the player has a chance to get on in two with a good drive,” said Peifer. “If they choose not to, they’re probably going to have a 6-iron or 7-iron layup shot to get within 100 yards. And yet, very few recreational golfers ever have a chance to hit a par 5 in two.”
Three of the par 5s on the Players Course measure between 445 and 480 yards, which gives the average player an opportunity to consider going for the green after a good tee shot, with the inherent risks. Using the Tee It Forward philosophy, if a Tour professional would typically have a 9-iron approach shot into a par-4 hole, the golfer should choose a set of tees that would leave him with that same 9-iron shot into the green after an average drive.
Another way in which Peifer tries to sway players to move forward is with a chart in the clubhouse that lists average 5-iron carry distance, with tee recommendations based on those distances. Someone who hits the ball 145 yards or less in the air should play the forward tees; 150-160 yards in the air should play the Players Course; a 165-175-yard carry would put the player on the tournament tees; 180-190 yards would merit the championship tees, and 195 and up the professional tees.
“We have made tougher golf courses, but we haven’t made better players,” said Peifer. “As teaching professionals, we try every day to make that happen, but not everybody has three or four hours to work on their short game or straighten out their driver on the range. Instead, they spend money on a new driver – which may not be the right thing for them. Often, it only helps them put the ball 30 yards farther into the rough.”
One of the factors that people often cite in giving up the game is the time commitment. Time constraints hinder opportunities to practice and to play, which often leads to a long day from longer tees.
Gary Crossan, 55, lives in Santa Rosa Valley, Calif., but his voice still carries traces of his early youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He plays the Players Course when he joins a few of his older friends for their weekly round.
“The guys I play with are all good sticks, but they don’t have the length anymore,” said Crossan. “Let’s face it, if you’re hitting 3-woods into the green, it’s no fun. What am I going to do? It’s unsociable to play from different sets of tees. The bottom line is it’s easier if you’re hitting a 9-iron instead of a 7-iron, but you still have to make the shot.”
There’s another important concern from the standpoint of the male ego, added Crossan. “Call it the Players Course, whatever. The big deal is that you just don’t want to make it seem like guys are playing from the girls’ tees.”
Indeed, Peifer helps to remove the stigma of playing from forward tees by holding occasional club tournaments on the Players Course.
“Scores get a little bit better, but not a whole lot,” said Peifer. “Nerves come into play because every shot counts and they get a little bit tighter. But invariably, everybody says they had a lot more fun. They don’t come off the course shaking their heads.”
Dennis Borowsky of Thousand Oaks, Calif., has been playing at Tierra Rejada for eight years and remembers the days of “Tierra Too-harda.”
“I don’t hear anybody say that now,” said Borowsky, who turned 75 in September. “It’s funny; nobody wanted to play the [Players Course] tees when they first put them in, but then they made them the white tees. It’s just more fun to play.”
Borowsky picks his spots, and doesn’t particularly care what his playing companions think.
“I still hit it pretty good, but on No. 4, I tell the guys, you can play it where you want, but I’m teeing it forward on that hole,” said Borowsky of the uphill par 5 that plays 495 yards (tournament) or 445 yards (Players). “The hole’s tough enough anyway; I don’t need to play the extra 50 yards. Now I’ve gotten everybody to come up to me.”
Peifer admits that it’s a constant struggle getting players out of their old habits.
“The ego gets so involved with it,” he said. “Guys stand back there on the blue tees and say, everything’s going to go my way today. I’m going to shoot 68 – and then on the back nine…” He laughed, then shook his head. “It’s just not going to happen.
“Barney Adams did change some minds – he opened people’s eyes,” Peifer said. “We saw some people move forward. And now we’re seeing a resurgence in play – a slight one, but it’s happening. And what we’re saying is, welcome back, let’s have fun now. Leave that [ego] behind and try this out.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.