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Longleaf: The Living Lab That’s Teeing Up Golf Course Changes

Dan Van Horn saw past the aging greens and maintenance cutbacks when he first visited the Longleaf golf course in Southern Pines, North Carolina. The President and founder of U.S. Kids Golf instead saw the ideal spot for a living laboratory: a family-friendly club to test and nurture his vision for a new tee system designed to promote more engagement and enjoyment among golfers of all ages.

The crux of Van Horn’s system: properly scaling a golf course for a player’s ability, and doing it in a practical and affordable way that ensures the integrity and challenge of the design remains intact.

But that’s just part of the story.

Van Horn, 64, is an entrepreneur who risked his own money to make an investment in the development of golf by thinking outside the tee box. Since buying Longleaf in 2015 for $1.46 million and incorporating his new tee system, the return on investment Van Horn has received is assuredly not just financial. Yes, the total number of rounds-played was up 20% in year one, but Van Horn also found the changes he implemented sped up play and created more interest and enthusiasm from kids, families, women and seniors.

“It’s all about utilization, rounds-played and frequency,” says Van Horn, who started U.S. Kids Golf, LLC in 1996 when he was struggling to get his own kids into golf. As an owner/operator, “You want members coming, you want them renting carts, you want them coming into your food and beverage, you want them staying, and you want families to do it. Families are bringing in more than one person. As long as they can play quickly, which they can with this tee system, it’s nothing but a win-win.”

The Longleaf Tee System – a joint initiative between the American Society of Golf Course Architects and U.S. Kids Golf — is more than just a Play-it-Forward campaign or plunking down metal plates for kids’ tees in fairways. Its roots may come from U.S. Kids Golf tournaments and the recognition that courses weren’t being properly scaled for youth competitors, but it applies to every level of golfer. That’s an important distinction for Van Horn, who says the industry has missed the mark, particularly for beginners and women, with the current tee system.

Longleaf Tee Map

Click here to enlarge the map.

“When you looked at the commonly-called red tees, the women’s tees, it was impossible to go out and play and not feel rushed,” Van Horn said. “Par was not possible, so the essence of the game wasn’t happening.”

With the Longleaf system, there are seven tee locations on each hole that are based on how far a golfer hits his or her driver. It’s simple but effective, eliminating outdated vernacular such as men’s, ladies’ or seniors’ tees. As a player continues to develop and their distance increases, they move further back. As a player gets older and distance diminishes, they move up. There are distance markers in various colors on the driving range that correspond to the proper set of dedicated tees a player should hit from, starting at 3,200 yards and increasing in 600-yard increments. All sets of tees are rated by the U.S. Golf Association for both men and women, making them gender neutral.

“Fitting a golf course to a player rather than having a player try to adapt to a golf course simply makes sense,” says Bill Bergin, a former PGA Tour player turned teacher and architect who installed the new tees at Longleaf. Bergin tells the story of working with former women’s club champions who couldn’t hit every green in regulation at their club simply because they couldn’t hit the ball far enough.

Driving Range

Fellow architect Rees Jones, who caddies for his grandkids at youth tournaments between his course building responsibilities, is an ardent supporter of an initiative because it can make the game more enjoyable. Known as the `The Open Doctor’ for his redesign work at major championship venues, Jones incorporated a version of the tee system at Medinah Country Club’s No. 2 Course, where the cost was a small part of the $3.6 million restoration he oversaw at the prestigious Illinois facility.

“You can tell this is the real deal,” says Jones. “This isn’t making the holes bigger or changing the game. This is actually implementing the real game of golf with a different tee system. I think Medinah No. 2 is going to be a pretty good forecast for how successful this program is going to be.”

Buying a Laboratory

Van Horn was rebuffed the first time he inquired about acquiring Longleaf, which was one of the 10 courses in the Pinehurst area used for U.S. Kids Golf’s largest tournament of the year. He asked again the following year, viewing it as the ideal place to not only incubate his idea for a new tee system, but establish a U.S. Kids Golf academy. His persistence paid off; the owner agreed to sell.

Pinehurst’s prominence was appealing – it’s widely regarded as the home of American golf – as was the fact that there were more than 40 other courses in the area. Part of Van Horn’s strategy was determining whether his product would work and his club could compete in a highly-competitive market that many would consider oversaturated. He invested about $175,000 to install 43 new tee boxes and 11 others in mown out portions of the fairway called “dippity-dos.”

After the first year at the renamed Longleaf Golf and Family Club, the results were unmistakable. Rounds-played were up 20%, lessons increased, food and beverage revenue jumped, and the golf carts were going back out as fast as they came in. Many members talk effusively about a renewed interest in the game, whether young or old, male or female.

Van Horn hopes his model can be an inspiration for an industry that’s been seeking new ways to promote participation. Most courses should be able to install 600- to 800-square foot tee boxes for less than $4 per square foot (factoring in variables such as irrigation upgrades, topography and amount of grading required and grass types).

“The rejuvenation of the golf industry starts with the family and is connected to the family,” espouses Van Horn, whose wife and three grown children all play the game.

Once Van Horn collected initial data from his Longleaf laboratory, he approached course architects to see if there were any hurdles from a design perspective. He also wanted to find out if there were any reasons they wouldn’t promote his tee system to their members. The American Society of Golf Course Architects Foundation wasn’t just interested, the group partnered with U.S. Kids Golf to promote the initiative.

“I think this is going to catch on, really help the game and the entire golf industry is going to embrace it,” says Jones. “It’s forward thinking.”

Bergin is incorporating a version of the Longleaf tee system at two clubs in Georgia and one in Tennessee, most notably the installation of a set of tees at the 4,400-yard length he believes is crucial. Noting the golf industry can often be stuck in its ways, Bergin acknowledges he’s received “pushback” from other traditional clubs, with ownership insisting they didn’t need more kids’ tees.

“I looked at them and said, `This isn’t for kids, it’s for all golfers: senior men, women, beginners, all across the board,” Bergin says. “I’ve had women come in after a round with a scorecard and say, `I love this. I’m taking this scorecard back to my golf course and asking them to set up the markers so I can play from this yardage.’

“Listen, golf is a conservative game and changes do come slowly,” adds Bergin. “But I feel demand is going to snowball.”

It’s why U.S. Kids Golf has trained over 3,000 PGA professionals over the past four years on properly scaling golf courses, communicating with pros about the distance players of certain abilities should play from. Marty DeAngelo, the director of golf at Medinah, visited Longleaf to see how the tee system works and then incorporated many of the same ideas at the most family-friendly of the club’s three courses back home in Illinois. DeAngelo says the graduated tee system at Medinah No. 2 will be used by players of all ages and abilities, whether for regular play, tournaments or lessons and instruction.

“I think a lot of courses will embrace what’s being done at Longleaf and fit the system for their own purposes,” says DeAngelo. “At Medinah, there’s so much to offer with the three courses being so diverse. We just want to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.”

Having the support of architects is crucial when trying to convince ownership — the true decision-makers — about how to invest in modifications to their course.

“The architects are really jumping on board because they know the game needs to be more friendly,” Van Horn said. “We can have as many women or beginner programs as we can possibly have and we’re just going to churn them in and out every year. But if we really start working on howthey’re playing the game, we’re going to see a lot more of a difference.”

Van Horn has seen that difference. He’s not one of the non-golf entrepreneurs who pumped in millions of dollars of investment during the sport’s building boom. He’s a golf insider who risked his own money in an innovative way and realized the payoff — both financially and in terms of member satisfaction. He’s encouraged that even the folks at the venerable Pinehurst Resort are looking into what’s been done at Longleaf.

“We sort of sold people lies,” said Van Horn, alluding to course designs that are too long and tough for many golfers. “There’s nothing like having a 70-year-old lady talking about making her first eagle. It’s the same game. We have to get away from calling them women’s tees, seniors’ tees, and saying `That is where you have to play from.’ If we’re going to move forward as an industry, we have to take a different approach.”

Erik Matuszewski
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