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Jerry Sullivan: On leaving the ego behind and accepting the senior tees

I’m dedicating this year’s column to Al Sillato, a local golf legend who died last month, four days after his 102nd birthday.

Sillato passed on after breaking his hip transporting a senior citizen to rehab in a wheelchair. Yeah, Al was still busy. He played golf for more than 90 years, 68 at Lancaster CC. He shot his age 500 times.

Al didn’t play the senior tees until he was 96. He was a better man than I. At 61, I now ponder the senior tees. When is the right time to move up? Will my buddies think less of me? It’s not as if I’ve lost distance. I never had any.

“I know that with the men, it’s kind of an ego thing,” said Marlene Davis, my coach. “You tell them to go up there, they’re like, ‘Ah, I don’t need to.’ ”

But studies say a lot of men should be playing closer tees. Women, too, though there’s no place to move up to. Most red tees are way too long for the average female golfer. And there are no women’s senior tees.

The issue has been percolating for several years. In 2011, the U.S. Golf Association and PGA of America created a “Tee It Foward” initiative. They said the average golfer was playing courses that were too long.

It coincided with declining golf participation, partly because the game was too hard and rounds were taking too long. Golfers want to hit shorter clubs into par-4s, like the guys on TV, making the game more enjoyable.

For a variety of reasons – the cost of building new tees, reluctant players – the initiative was slow to catch on. But the issue isn’t going away.

“Absolutely,” said Tim Fries, head pro at Transit Valley. “It plays into so many other things. No. 1 is pace of play. The game is way too slow. So how are we going to get the rounds played faster? At our club, we do 10-minute tee times. I want folks to enjoy themselves and get around the course.”

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Fries knows the virtues of closer tees. Last year, at 51, he qualified for the Senior PGA Championship. He recalls how giddy Rocco Mediate was to play the senior tees at Benton Harbor, Mich.

“Rocco didn’t go to the range after; he went to the bar with John Daly and had some beers,” Fries said. “They’re having a great time out there.”

Fries, one of 14 members of the PGA’s national board, is at the forefront of the Play It Forward movement in Buffalo. Transit Valley no longer has women’s and seniors tees, just different colored tees that coincide with the player’s ability.

He turned the red tees into greens, with no reference to gender. He moved the whites to a “forward” tee and turned the old whites into a shorter, alternative tee in front of the championship blues.

“My opening day last year, I had them all play the forward tees,” Fries said. “The response was unbelievable. Members said, ‘I always play the whites, I’ll play up there. Oh, it’s 500 yards shorter?’ They come off the course saying, ‘Man, that was a lot of fun. I ought to do that more. How does it affect my handicap?’

“Well, it really doesn’t. You’re going to shoot lower, but it’s rated lower, so your index really doesn’t change. We had 40 to 50 members who moved up and stayed up.”

It’s an issue for kids, too. John Bryan, vice president of U.S. Kids Golf in Atlanta, has been working on the problem since 2001. His group deals mainly with 12-and-unders; they saw kids get discouraged because courses were too long. They created “personal tees,” based on how far golfers drove the ball, and sold yardage markers to 2,000 courses. The idea was slow to catch on. So last year, U.S. Kids Golf partnered with the American Society of Golf Course Architects to help the cause.

“There aren’t many golf courses being built currently,” Bryan said, “but there are a lot going through renovations and redesigns. So it’s nice to have that organization picking up the mantle of carrying this forward.”

Bryan’s group and the architects are promoting the “Longleaf Tee” system of identifying correct tees for all players. The Longleaf formula determines the proper course length, based on how far a golfer carries a drive, or a 5-iron, etc.

The formula says a golfer whose drive carries 200 yards should be playing a 5,618-yard course. I hit my drive about 200, but based on my 5-iron distance, I should be carrying my drives in the 215 range. Of course, that requires hitting it straight. Maybe I need a new driver.

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Longleaf says the average woman, who drives the ball around 150 yards, should play 280-yard par-4s. Some courses are 1,000 yards too long for women.

“I talked with a golf specialist in Chicago,” Bryan said. “He said in one ladies’ club championship, on 11 of 14 holes, not one lady could reach the par-4s and par-5s in regulation. They were accomplished golfers; the course didn’t fit their game.”

That sounds like me. I love Brighton, where I began my golfing odyssey and broke 90 for the first time. I’m back in the Men’s Club this year. But the course is too long for me. It’s 6,317 yards from the white tees. I rarely get on the par-4s in regulation.

The ninth hole, a dogleg left, is 423 yards from a new, elevated tee. I couldn’t get on in two with a bazooka. I’ll play the whites, though. I’ll be keeping a handicap, so it will be more about improvement than length. The whites will give me a boost if I experience a magical epiphany in my 18th year as a golfer.

Fries said he’ll play the forward tees with members and guests. They like seeing him putt for birdie or the occasional eagle. It’s all fun; isn’t that the point?

“They don’t want to see me back struggling at 7,200 yards,” Fries said, “and I don’t like being there, anyway.”

Davis said it can be frustrating if you’re not long enough to reach greens in regulation. Like Fries, she’s now senior-eligible. I asked if she was looking forward to playing the up tees in national tournaments.

“Yes!” she said. “Yes. Look, people have enough things to frustrate them on a daily basis. Why make it more difficult?”

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