This was a question brought up to me by my very good friend, former NFL player Maurice Hurst. Maurice is a skilled golfer with around a 4 to 6 handicap yet still wanted to know how he should determine what tee to play. (Follow Maurice on Social Media)
This was his exact question to me -
"What determines which tees a player plays from? Is it age? Is it driving distance? Is it level of talent?"
It is a great question but also one that does not have a clear answer. Age, driving distance, and talent are the 3 main ways to determine what tee a golfer should play, however, it is more of a combination of each. The simple way would be to select a tee based on handicap but not all handicaps are equal. Let's break down each factor Maurice asked about to better understand how each one is unique and why you need to consider all three factors.
Age - We all know as we get older we lose distance in golf. Some sooner than others, but it happens to everyone. Many golfers think when they turn 50 years of age they must move up a tee. This is not true for every golfer. If a golfer at aged 50 can still hit the ball over 270 yards with a single-digit handicap they do not need to move up a tee. It doesn't mean they can't just that it is not a given. All that does for that golfer is shorten the golf course and more than likely will drop their handicap the more they continue to play from a shorter tee. The opposite is true for a golfer that started losing distance and may only hit the ball 240 yards now. That golfer may have a mid-to-high handicap due to the length they were playing but moving up to a shorter tee can not only have a better chance to score but also enjoy the game more.
Driving Distance - It is a misconception that because a golfer can hit it long they have to play further back. If a golfer can hit the ball further than the average golfer, male or female, all that means is they are capable of playing from a longer distance. However, there are many 20-handicapped golfers that can hit their driver far but lack skills in other areas of the game that keeps them from scoring. This may be because they are not good long-iron players or they struggle with their short game. Maybe they are not accurate with their driver. Whatever their case may be that golfer may do better playing a shorter tee, hitting 3-wood, or playing shorter par 3 holes. This could give them better opportunities to score and enjoy the game better.
Level of talent - This is the most common way it is suggested to pick a tee. There are charts, (like the one I created below) that say to play a specific yardage based on your handicap. There is just one huge problem with that. Every golf course is not equal and every golfer is not equal. It depends on the golf course that the golfer plays the most and where the majority of their rounds come from for their handicap. Let's take a 1 handicapped golfer, with an average drive of 250 yards, from Timberlane Golf & Recreation. A golf course that from the tips plays at 6,560 yards with a rating and slope of 74.1/128. If that golfer were to play TPC Louisiana and pick a tee based on handicap they would end up playing a golf course that is 7,425 yards long with a rating and slope of 75.9/141. A golf course that is much harder based on the slope alone but the biggest difference is the nearly 900-yard difference in length. That 1 handicapped golfer becomes a 6 handicapped golfer for a course handicap but more likely an 8 or even a 10 handicap if they played TPC Louisiana from that tee regularly. The opposite would be true as well. A golfer that plays regularly at TPC from the blue/grey combination tee with a 20 handicap and average drive of 230 yards could potentially play Timberlane from the back tee and the 200-yard difference wouldn't matter as much.
25 and above
20 and above
5,800 to 6,200
16 to 24
11 to 19
6,200 to 6,400
7 to 15
0 to 10
6,400 to 6,600
0 to 6
+ to Professional
6,600 to 6,800
+ to Professional
Every golf course is not equal so even if you are used to playing a golf course that is 6,500 yards that does not mean all 6,500-yard golf courses are the same. Take Bayou Oaks South course as an example. Almost all of the length of their 6,640-yard tee is in only 7 holes. The par 3 and par 5 holes. The average par 4 length is just under 375 yards. The par 3 length is an average distance of 167 yards while the Par 5 holes, however, average 547 yards. For comparison 6,600 yards at TPC is as follows; the par 4 average is 386 yards, the par 3 average is 160 yards, and the par 5 average is 522 yards. There is more of a challenge on the par 4 holes, about the same of the par 3 holes, but more playable by 30 yards on average with the par 5 holes.
If you want to find the best way to select a tee at a golf course here are a few ways to go about it. If you know how far you drive the golf ball, look at the yardages of the par 4 holes and find the average that, after your drive, that would leave you an approach of around 150 yards into the green. If you hit a driver 250 yards that is an average hole length of 400 yards. You can also look at the average par 3 lengths and go with the average that you would hit a mid-iron (6,7, or 8 iron) on them. Lastly would be to take your age and skill level into the equation. Is your skill based on playing a certain yardage or a certain slope rating? If so then find the one that matches best to it. If you are over a certain age then move up to the tees that give you the shortest club on average on all your approach shots on par 4s and off the tee on par 3 holes.
With all that said I do have a last suggestion. Play any tee you want that helps you enjoy the game. If you want to play up to the third or fourth tee, go for it. The handicap system works great for exactly this purpose. Since all tees have a difficulty rating anytime you play a different tee it will calculate for that. Even if you are playing against buddies that do not want to move up the handicap system accounts for different tees in a match. That is why a golfers course handicap may be a 5 from the back tees but a 3 from a forward tee. However, know your limits and never move back further than your game will allow. If you can not hit a driver further than 280 yards do not go play any further back than 6800 yards. This is not because of pace of play. This is about enjoying golf and giving yourself the best opportunity to score well and have fun.