LITTLE ROCK — Distinguished by a couple of well-placed stones and closely mown grass, new tee boxes have golfers smiling at Hot Springs Country Club.
Many of the creations are cut from level ground in the middle of the fairways, shortening the holes in the name of fun. Director of golf at the 36-hole layout on Malvern Avenue, Barry Howard is enthusiastic about the decision.
An hour away in Sherwood, one of Howard’s contemporaries, Dawn Darter, is pursuing something similar at The Greens at North Hills. Like Howard, Darter, a superb junior player, knows that women, children, and beginners, need to be encouraged and that means having a chance to putt for some birdies. To that end, she is planning new tees on many holes at the municipally owned North Hills.
Best I can tell, HSCC and North Hills are at the only courses in the state that are taking such an innovative approach. Already, the Arkansas State Golf Association has rated Howard’s courses from the new tees, one set for men and one for women. People in charge at other courses that are trying to retain current players and hook new ones would do well to follow suit, not only for the smiles but to speed up play.
The new tees at Hot Springs are not age-specific and expand the "Tee It Forward" campaign supported by the PGA and the USGA and hawked by Jack Nicklaus.
Subscribing to that program, moving up has rejuvenated one person’s love for the game. From the senior tees, a man can spot his opponents 20-30 years and 30-40 yards and be competitive. Playing from the white tees in a recent scramble, a solid driver, followed by an even-better 3 wood, was not enough to reach a 425-yard par four into the breeze. No chance is no fun.
Praising Howard and Darter from my soapbox, a co-worker said it sounded as if I wanted to make a difficult game too easy. As long as putts break left to right, pins are behind bunkers, and water is in play, the game will not be easy.
Supporting the changes at Hot Springs, Howard can cite numerous examples:
—Tom, probably in his mid-60s, doesn’t hit it very far, but possesses a superb short game. He can’t stop talking about playing from the stone-marked tees. "I’m a stone man forever," he told Howard.
—One of the women at the club broke 90 for the first time in three years. Another played the entire 18 for the first time in five years.
—Some of the participants in a recent women’s senior event were lukewarm about the new tees. After the tournament, they voted to use the most forward tees next year.
In addition to putting some tees 40, 50, 60 yards in front of the previous, Howard was creative. The 15th on the Park Course is only a little more than 100 yards from the women’s tee, but there is a pond to carry. He took the water out of play, establishing a tee to the right, on the back of the 13th tee. From there, it’s 75 yards and a bunker that is on the right side of the green is now between the tee and the green.
At North Hills, Darter plans to establish tees near the first cut of fairway. For instance, No. 8 is 454 from the blue tees and slightly more than 400 from both the gold and red tees. "I can’t get there in two, even from the senior tees," Darter said. "I know the other lades can’t."
On the other hand, 340 is doable.
"We want to make the par fours where they don’t have to hit 3-wood into the green, where they can hit a mid-iron or a short iron; that’s when the game is enjoyable," she said.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.