What is Considered a Long Golf Course? The Long and Short of It

The golfing world seems to be obsessed with distance at the moment as the pros continue to hit the ball ever-increasing distances and the governing bodies of the game worry it has literally gone too far.

Indeed there is repeated concern that there is not going to be enough golf real estate to cope if this trend continues and older and even not so old golf courses will soon become redundant as their defences become increasingly useless against golfers hitting the ball further and further.

But when we look at golf distance and golf courses what do we mean when considering what is a long golf course?

A long golf course that counts among the top 10% of longest courses in the USA measures 7225 yards and over. Across the rest of the world a course in the top 10% of long courses in Great Britain & Ireland is more than 6828 yards, 7175 yards and more in Japan, and over 6999 yards in Australia and New Zealand.

This data was made available through the Distance Insight Report produced by golf’s two governing bodies – the USGA and R&A – and highlights just how long golf courses in the world have become and very frequently well outside the capabilities of the average golfer.

When we look at golf course lengths however we also need to take account of the differences between the ‘playing length’ of a golf course and the ‘course length’.

And obviously while what feels like a ‘long course’ to one golfer will be different from what another player thinks is long based on their standard of play and how far they hit the golf ball it is also important to note that the same course can be both a long and a short course depending on what tees you play from!

How Many Yards is a Long Golf Course? It’s Getting Longer!

Length when it comes to golf courses is clearly a subjective term.

A 6000 yard golf course for a beginner who can only drive the ball about 100 yards will feel like a monster however a scratch golfer is more than likely to think that such a course is relatively short.

When considering the ‘length’ of a golf course it is also important to remember that its total length is different from its ‘playing length’ and the difference can be summarised as follows:

  • ‘Golf course length’ – The total length of the course from the longest set of tees listed on the scorecard.
  • ‘Playing length’ – The length of a course from the tees a golfer plays off or during any given competition.

The playing length of a course can therefore clearly vary from golfer to golfer playing on the same golf course from different tees and from day to day of PGA Tour tournaments for example when the tees and pins are moved each day.

Whichever measure of length we look at however it is clear that there has been a long term trend of both increasing ‘total golf course length’ and ‘playing length’ of golf courses over the years.

According to the ‘Distance Insights Report’ the ‘playing lengths’ of elite championships such as the 4 majors and PGA and European Tour events have increased at an average of between 7 and 12 yards per year over the last several decades.

Meanwhile the total length of golf courses has gone up by an average of about 10 yards per year for the past 120 years and the length of the longest 10% of golf courses compared to the average across the world is shown in the table below.

Australia / New Zealand6999 yards +6537 yards
Canada7151 yards +6800 yards
GB & Ireland6828 yards +6261 yards
Japan7175 yards +6807 yards
USA7225 yards +6740 yards
Source: USGA/R&A Distance Insights Report

As a whole therefore a 7000 yard course is only considered among the top 10% of long courses in Great Britain & Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and would not be listed as one of the longest courses in either Canada, Japan or the United States

A 6800 yard golf course by comparison is classed as only an average length golf course in both Canada and Japan and only just above average in the USA. It would though just about qualify as one of the longest courses in Great Britain & Ireland.

More regular length golf courses of 6400 and 6000 yards for example certainly do not qualify as long golf courses according to the USGA / R&As Distance Insights Report. Indeed such courses would be considered well below average in all the major golf playing countries with the exception of Great Britain & Ireland.

Like many statistics in golf however they are often best taken with a pinch of salt.

Just because the ‘total length’ of the golf courses analyzed by the USGA & R&A look very long to us mere mortal amateurs doesn’t mean the ‘playing length’ of these courses for regular players comes anywhere close to any of these numbers.

And to be honest they should not in any case as golf is much better enjoyed (and indeed played much faster) when golfers play from tees that match their ability rather than any concept of wanting to play a ‘long golf course’.

It should also be remembered also that many golf courses have been lengthened in areas where demand for golf has outstripped supply for the simple reason that longer golf courses help accommodate more golfers.

Cool fact: Of the top 100 American golf courses in Golf Digest’s most recent rankings, 18 have hosted at least one major since 2000. Those 18 courses have lengthened significantly more than the other 82 on the list.

But while the overall trend in ever-increasing golf course length over the past decades is undoubtedly there and appears to be closely associated with the long-term increases in hitting distances that have occurred over the same timelime whether you are playing what is defined as a ‘long course’ or not doesn’t really matter.

The overwhelming majority of golf courses throughout the world are plenty long enough for regular amateur players!

Source: USGA/R&A Distance Insights Report (Median golf course lengths – Courses across the world continue to get longer

What is Considered a Short Golf Course?

As we have already mentioned the same golf course can be both a short and long golf course.

Since the popularity of golf began to seriously take off from the mid-1950s many golf courses started to add multiple tee areas to provide variable length options to their designs and accommodate golfers of differing skills levels including driving distance.

In the USA especially there can be 4, 5 and even 6 tee options providing multiple playing lengths for golfers while in the UK and elsewhere a standard White, Yellow and Red tee set up has tended to be the most common.

But what does that mean in terms of how you could define a short golf course?

The shortest 10% of golf courses in the USA measure 5241 yards and under which is 22% shorter than the average golf course. The shortest tees at a course are known as the ‘forward tees’ and according to the USGA Distance Insights Report forward tees have been getting shorter by about 16 yards per year since the 1950s.

The ideal golf course architecture of course aims to give golfers who play from shorter tees a similar playing experience to other golfers capable of hitting the ball further but it is not always an easy thing to achieve.

The forward tees on some courses also can sometimes not be that short and can measure in excess of 6500 yards a distance which the USGA’s ‘Tee It Forward’ campaign proposes requires a player to have an average driving distance of over 250 yards to be able to tackle effectively.

As a general rule short golf courses are easier to play than longer ones for the simple reason that ever-increasing skill is needed to hit a golf ball increasing distances and accurately. The USGA’s ‘Tee it Forward’ campaign encourages players to play shorter courses for this reason and to help speed up the pace of play.

Despite the fact that playing shorter golf courses tends to increase amateur golfers’ playing enjoyment, as they tend to match better their skill level, many players, especially in the men’s game find it difficult to play off tees which make the golf course they are playing shorter.

Cool fact: The average length of golf courses opened in the USA between 2011 and 2016 is over 6900 yards. The forward tees for these same courses measure between 4700 and 4800 yards.

What is the Average Length of a Golf Course?

We have covered the topics of the length of the longest and shortest courses across the world but what about the average length of a golf course?

Once again when we are looking at the average we are looking at the average of the ‘total length’ of golf courses from the longest set of tees listed on the scorecard whether that be the black tees on a course in the US or the white tees on courses in the UK.

On average golf courses measure 6740 yards or 6163 meters or 3.83 miles in the USA. The average length of golf courses in Japan are higher totaling 6807 yards (6224 meters, 3.87 miles) while in Great Britain & Ireland the average golf course length is much lower measuring only 6261 yards (5725 meters, 3.56 miles)

A list of the average length of golf courses in major golf playing nations across the world is shown in the table below.

Australia / New Zealand6537 yards5977 meters3.71 miles
Canada6800 yards6218 meters3.86 miles
GB & Ireland6261 yards5725 meters3.56 miles
Japan6807 yards6224 meters3.87 miles
USA6740 yards6163 meters3.83 miles
Source: USGA/R&A Distance Insights Report

In a similar way to how player hitting distances have been increasing over recent decades in golf, especially at the professional level, the average length of golf courses, measured from the longest set of tees, has also been increasing.

From 1960 through the 2010s the average golf course length in the USA has increased by approximately 7 yards per year although this increase has been much smaller from the second longest tees on courses with their average length only increasing at a rate of about 1/4 yards per year.

On the PGA Tour this trend has also been clearly in evidence with the average length of tour event courses increasing by around 9 yards per year between 1929 and 2018 from 6500 yards to 7300 yards.

The average length of competition golf courses set up for elite amateur events has also consistently increased over the last several decades.

Once again though the key thing for the average golfer to remember is that just because the average length of golf courses measured from the furthest back tees on golf courses continues to go up throughout the world there is no need for average players to play from them.

Golf is far better enjoyed and much faster to play when golfers choose to play golf courses over distances that match their capabilities.

How Long is a Full Length Golf Course?

Many beginner golfers do not start learning the game by going straight to play on a full length golf course.

Golf is a hard game and those new to the game have a lot to learn which is why is it is recommended to start playing golf by taking some lessons on the driving range.

As players get better however there inevitably comes a point where they want to stop practicing and get playing on an actual full length golf course and the question therefore often arises as to what actually constitutes a full length golf course and how long a course must be to be classed as one.

As a general rule a full length golf course is made up of any 18 holes that have a ‘par’ which conform to the rates of par based on distances set under the Rules of Golf. These guidelines specify a par 3 be less than 250 yards, par 4s be 251 to 470 yards, par 5s are 471 to 690 yards and par 6s are 691 yards and over.

So it is clear from these guidelines that there is no minimum length that a course must be to be considered a full length golf course.

A golf course of 18 short par 3’s measuring only 100 yards each could legitimately call itself a full length golf course although such a course would admittedly and rightly be considered very short.

In reality however very few regular golfers would consider such a course to be full length and for a more practical view of what would be considered a full length golf course a better guide can perhaps be found by going all the way back to the 1890s when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews emerged as a rulemaking authority for the game of golf.

The St Andrews rules at that time stated that a round of golf comprised 18 holes and as the golfing community then aimed to find other courses across Great Britain that best imitated the example of St Andrews it is apparent the golf courses which were then considered to be the best were ones that approached and exceeded 6000 yards in length.

Such courses it was viewed provided the “essential elements of a test of golf:

  1. That a round of golf should require a player to use every club in the bag; and
  2. That over the course of a round, a player should be required to demonstrate a full range of skills with these clubs.”

Interestingly this influence can then also be seen in one of the most iconic courses in the United States – Pinehurst in North Carolina.

According to the R&A/USGA’s analysis of the Evolution of Golf Course Lengths across the world golf began at Pinehurst in 1898 with the building of a 9-hole #1 course but by 1900 #1 had been expanded to 18-holes with a course length of 5176 yards.

Similarly the iconic Donald Ross designed #2 course at Pinehurst started its life as a 9-hole course in 1901 but by 1907 had expanded to 18-holes with a length of between 5680 and 5770 yards.

So if we look at the original and traditional great courses of the world a full length golf course could legitimately be considered to be any length between 5000 and 6000 yards however in reality it seems clear that there is no such thing as a full length course and as long as a course conforms to the par guidelines it can be viewed as ‘full length’.

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