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Women friendly? Golf course design can be anything but

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Hootie vs. Martha, Annika vs. Vijay, golf course architects vs. woman-kind in general. Which one of the above smacks of a conspiracy?

OK, so golf course architects don't sit around smoke-filled rooms scheming to exclude women from the game of golf by way of not-so-woman-friendly design practices. Most designers will say the woman golfer is a legitimate consideration when laying out a course.

Yet why is it that:

The vast majority of courses offers one set of tees for women, while offering up to four sets for men;

The yardage from the women's (a.k.a forward) tees mundanely ranges between 4,800 and 5,000 yards while the distance between men's tees can vary as much as 1,000 yards;

More women leave the game each year than join it, according to the National Golf Foundation; and

Only two percent of women have ever broken 100 according to a recent USGA survey, despite exponential increases in equipment quality and instructional availability?

Women who flippantly flirt with adopting the game as a legitimate hobby certainly deserve part of the blame. But perhaps designing for women isn't at the top of every architect's list.

"Having worked with a few architects, the women's tees were always an afterthought," says Andy Johnston, vice president of construction and design for Fred Couples/Gene Bates Course Design. "Some of the designers I worked with would design the course and then they would add up the yardage for the women. They would find it was too long or so short and that it was just plain silly. But they'd leave it that way."

Because Bates' wife is a skilled recreational golfer, Johnston says taking the female player into consideration isn't optional at Couples/Bates.

"She is our toughest critic," he says. "She might not be in the drawing room, but once the shop doors close she has plenty of input. Gene may come to work the next day with some changes to certain holes based on how she thinks the hole will play for women."

But Couples/Bates sensitivity is the exception and not the rule. Only a handful of golf course design firms actually have professional female architects on staff. The most well-known female designer is Alice Dye, wife of the controversial Pete Dye and the first woman member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Dye has assisted her husband since the late 1960s when she became involved with the design of Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C.

"I come at the process of design as a very good player," Dye said in a recent interview with the United States Golf Association. "It really doesn't have anything to do with being a woman, except that I am aware of the needs of a player who is not going to start from the very back tees. For a long time most courses were designed from the back tees and the forward tees were an afterthought. I think I helped change that."

In addition to Dye, Jan Beljan is a senior associate with Tom Fazio's design firm and Victoria Martz is a vice president and course architect with the Palmer Course Design Company. While other women are employed by other firms, Dye, Beljan and Martz are the only full members of the ASGCA.

"It is still an old boys club and that won't change in the near future, unfortunately," says ASGCA president Jay Morrish. "Way up the road it could be different. As more women enter the game and stick with it I would think that more would be drawn to the profession."

Morrish admits, however, designing women-friendly courses shouldn't be dependent upon the number of women in the architectural workplace.

"Our (design firm's) courses set up well for women because we leave the green fronts open so approach shots don't have to fly 150 yards in the air and stick on a green," Morrish says. "We also minimize or eliminate forced carries from the forward tees."

But even Morrish admits there's only so much he is willing to do to make a course woman-friendly.

"I am not going to ruin the architectural integrity of a golf course just to make it play easier for women," he says. "I would love to design a course just for women at a club just for women, if anyone is listening. But when we are asked to design something over 7,200 yards by a client, it becomes more and more difficult to account for the woman."

For years, "accounting" for the woman essentially entailed laying out a set of tees with a total distance of approximately 4,800 to 5,000 yards. In the 1990s, as more women took up the game, course designers began to think seriously about how tee shots, approach shots and landing areas set up for women. Now, some architects are expanding their considerations to include an entirely new set of variables.

"I don't think we vary the distances enough for women and we don't think about the angles enough," says Gary Panks, a golf course architect in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Having two sets of tees for women would be ideal. And you can set the angle of a tee box to it points to the correct portion of a landing area or you can create a separate landing area for women."

Panks says the woman's drive should land well ahead of a man's on a course that is truly woman-friendly, thus leveling the playing field on the second shot. However, landing areas typically tighten up or disappear altogether for skilled female players who are capable of 180-200 yard tee shots.

"We don't put nearly as much thought into how a course plays from the forward tees and how it plays from the tips," Panks says. "The reality is the forward tees will probably get more play, unless the course hosts a lot of professional and amateur tournaments."

Golf course architects aren't solely to blame for the shortage of woman-friendly courses. Christa Bodensteiner, head golf professional with the Myrtle Beach National company and the only female head pro among the Grand Strand's 120 plus courses, says state golf associations have to take course ratings from the women's tees seriously.

"You need to have different yardages for men and women alike," she says. "(Myrtle Beach National member course) King's North has six sets of tees and three of them are rated (for women). It's all about having more than one set of tees and having them rated (by the state golf association). Sometimes courses will throw another set of tees in there, but they need to have them rated."

It is no coincidence that King's North is the pride and joy of the aforementioned Martz. Martz's credits also include the Tournament Players Club of the Twin Cities, The Legacy at Lakewood Branch in Bradenton, Fla., and Oak Valley Golf Club in Advance, N.C.

"It is a course that does more than just giving lip service to the woman golfer," Bodensteiner says.

Beljan was actually the second woman to follow Dye's footsteps into the ASGCA. Her father George was a club pro in Pennsylvania, and she was offered a job by Fazio after graduating from the University West Virginia. Beljan's body of work is formidable and includes The Old Collier Club in Naples, Fla., the Osprey Ridge Course at Walt Disney World and Oyster Bay Golf Course on Long Island, N.Y.

"There are some excellent female design minds out there right now," Johnston says. "Let's hope for some more."

It may take more than hope. In order to be considered for full membership, prospective architects must have designed and built a minimum of five courses. Developers - course designers' primary clients - are overwhelmingly male. Breaking through in this old boy's network will require incremental, rather than revolutionary change.

"It could be another 20 years," Morrish says, before women are prominently represented in the ASGCA.

If Dye, Beljan and Martz's work is any indication, it will be worth the wait.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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