An algorithm is leveling golf's playing field off tee

Course architect Richard Mandell's Tee Shot Distance Equity factors swing speed, not handicap, in equalizing the game for all levels of play

In 1996, prospering course architect Richard Mandell took part in a fundraising event at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, North Carolina, unaware how the moment would impact his professional days going forward.

Stationed with 88-time LPGA Tour winner Kathy Whitworth on the par-3 third hole, Mandell and the World Golf Hall-of-Famer became immersed in conversation. Whitworth, entertaining benefactors who were offering donations based on whether she could hit the green, championed the belief — in between shots — that it was a farcical notion that multiple tees created equal opportunity.

Mandell agreed and walked away thinking there could be an alternative.

Two years later, he came across the January/February Golf Market Today newsletter, published by the National Golf Foundation, in which course architect Bill Amick produced a study on distance and swing speeds. Amick, for instance, suggested that a female with a 60-mph swing speed might hit the ball 70 to 80 yards. That’s where the study stopped, without definitively examining how far a ball traveled based on swing speed.

Mandell decided to interpolate the math to develop an algorithm that eventually evolved into Tee Shot Distance Equity (TSDE). Using a swing speed chart he found online, Mandell started refining numbers.

ANCC Arlington Blue 7 Tees.jpg
Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, incorporates Richard Mandell's Tee Shot Distance Equity concept.

"I wanted to know why one person hits it better than another person," Mandell says. "We know it could have to do with having a better swing, or the type of swing, but it all comes back to swing speed. TSDE is based on how far golfers hit their shots, which is established by a golfer’s swing speed rather than handicap.

"True tee shot distance equity, to cover every person in the world from the little old lady to Tiger Woods, you really can easily make a case for seven or eight tee boxes per hole, per golf course."

The bottom line: Mandell structured TSDE on the tenants of playability, strategic awareness and, simply, enjoying the game.

The Pinehurst, North Carolina-based Mandell and his firm, Richard Mandell Golf Architecture, has designed, renovated or restored more than 75 course projects since 1992 in 15 states and China.

RELATED: Get To Know: Richard Mandell

Says Rion Groomes, director of golf at Keowee Key Golf and Country Club in Salem, South Carolina: "Once TSDE is explained, it’s a no-brainer. If you’re playing the right set of tees, you shouldn’t be finding yourself hitting driver, 3-wood, 5-wood, wedge on the same hole I just hit driver, 8-iron on. Your driver on the forward tee should be farther than mine so it gives you the opportunity to hit a club that gives you reasonable equity to a club that I’m hitting.”

As soon as Mandell fully developed the concept in 1998, he started implementing it into his design philosophy. It resulted in more forward tees. Mandell didn’t promulgate TSDE until 2007 when he saw more attention bubbling up. 

Since then, he has refined his approach to tee box layout with the overarching goal of equalizing the game for all levels of play. Typically, multiple tee boxes are planned out in such a way as to get all golfers to the same point in the fairway from the tee. Unfortunately, equality ends there as two players rarely have the same club into the green. The same distance, yes, but not the same club.

Mandell’s staunch design belief mirrors that of Alister MacKenzie, in that golfers should hit every club in their bag. The TSDE concept is also predicated on that philosophy. In establishing equity, it goes hand in hand with creating as many golf holes "where you are using as many different clubs in the bag," he says. 

In tweaking the TSDE algorithm, Mandell quickly learned that the professional and top-line amateur golfers were not part of his purview. He reasoned that those players, who make up about 1% of all golfers, tend to have swing speeds between 115-120 mph, average 285 off the tee and hit wedge into greens on their second shots. He used courses between 6,500-6,700 yards as the model.

Through trial and error, Mandell’s algorithm found 11 holes that would use different clubs based on a 90-mph swing. For the record, he’s never gotten more than 12 or 13 holes.

Rich Mandell — Bacon Park
Course architect Richard Mandell began formulating in 1996 after a conversation with LPGA Tour great Kathy Whitworth.

Mandell explains it this way: "If you hit it 240 off the tee, you’re going to be comfortable playing the 6,500-yard tees. I might start there and make all my forward tees work for tee shot distance equity. So then I plug in the numbers and decide 90 mph is the number I’m going to use. Then it spits out a combination of five to seven different tee boxes all the way down to 3,500 yards for an 18-hole course. So I know that every tee box moving forward has a lot of variation yet still has tee shot distance equity."

On a course that maxes out at 6,500 yards, or one with a 4,500-yard minimum, he found a 350-yard difference was needed between each set of tees over the course of an 18-hole layout to create equity over an 18-hole course. Mandell could then have a variation of six or seven golfer-swing classifications.That doesn't necessarily translate to the same number of individual tee boxes, though, as multiple swing classifications can share the same space.

Once everything is in place, and Mandell chooses his tees, along with the tee box numbers based on swing speed data, he develops the routing, beginning in reverse. He’ll start from the green and work back to the landing area and, from there, toward the tee on each hole.

"Then you figure out where those tee boxes should go," Mandell says. "Where part of the confusion comes in, when I say you need five sets of tees, they think they need five tee boxes per hole. That’s not the case. It depends."

In an article he wrote for the Carolinas Golf Association, Mandell said TSDE doesn’t change the makeup of the golf course. Rather, it fills gaps between existing tee boxes with minor adjustments to overall course distances. … In theory, a 7,000-yard golf course could have up to seven different tee boxes. But as the maximum length of a golf course recedes, so does the number of tee boxes.

Count Groomes as a convert. He estimated that about 175 of the 1,200 Keowee Key members are playing the most-forward tees ever since Mandell’s 2018 renovation. In 2005, the course had Mandell redo the green complexes and bunkers. By 2014 the golf committee raised a concern, separate from Mandell’s 2005 work, that members were aging out of the game. So superintendent Josh Sawyer experimented with a makeshift forward tee.

"We were telling everyone, emailing members about it, our starter was promoting it, but no one wanted to try it," Groomes says.

Naturally, some golfers felt they’d be stigmatized.

Only five of 130 women tried the forward tee the first year. The next year it grew to 50 women.

"Year three comes along and we have a gentleman who said, ‘You know, I’m not hitting it as far as I want and I want to feel competitive again,'" Groomes says.

The South Carolina Golf Association quickly provided a men’s rating.

"As fate would have it, he was competitive," Groomes says.

With Keowee Key offering more than 300 scorecard member events per year, suddenly teams wanted this golfer with a 30 handicap on their team. Why? Because suddenly he could make pars again.

When more than 100 members took advantage of the forward tee, the golf committee approved a long-range plan that included Mandell and his algorithm.

Keowee Key — Salem, SC
Keowee Key Golf and Country Club, located in Salem, South Carolina, was one of the first courses to adopt architect Richard Mandell's concept, though members were skeptical at first.

The result: more than half the course’s existing tee boxes moved. All the par 4s and 5s added a forward tee, according to Groomes.

Member Cindy McKean recognized she was having issues keeping the ball in regulation until she started utilizing the yellow, or forward, tees.

"I just figured that when I got older, I would eventually move to those tees, but felt that I should play the ones that everyone else did," she says. "Over [last] summer, I began playing from the yellow tees and I started to really enjoy the game. Of course, I liked the game before, but pretty much had resigned myself to having high scores."

She noticed immediately how the strategy changed for the better, but more important, also how her drives became more consistent, which in turn, translated into a higher fun factor as her confidence grew.

"When people are shooting numbers they’ve never shot before in their lives, and when I ask them in a lesson how many greens in regulation do you hit and they say, well, none," Groomes says, "my first thought is, 'We have to change tees.' And when they do try it, and see the results, that’s when it gets fun again."

All in all, Mandell understands the initial kneejerk reaction TSDE conjures up. Once he talks someone through it, though, the light bulb goes on.

If anything, as the idea gained traction, he said he should have been more of a leader in the discipline. He chuckles when he sees other designers effusively blather on as though it was their eureka moment, only discovered recently. Mandell has been doing it for 25 years.

That said, through his own lens, Mandell doesn’t pretend to be something that he intrinsically isn’t. He ably divorces himself from role-based perceptions of what an architect should be. And it suits him fine.  

"I get resistance from golf pros who, for whatever reason, think TSDE screws up handicaps or it’s not good for handicaps or doesn’t really make sense. I could give a [hoot] about handicaps and golf course rating," he says. "That’s not my job as a golf course architect."