[To My Readers: In this column, I have had to walk a fine line. This is not a golf blog, but as an executive in the golf industry, the game’s popularity (or not) is often on my mind. It is also of interest to anyone, golfer or not, who believes in the crucial role of healthy recreation. For my golf industry friends, I hope you can be patient with my explanations, which necessarily avoid the shorthand of our daily industry language. For my non-golfer friends, I hope you do not find my expressions burdened with jargon or any sort of exclusionary chumminess. If you do, I assure you it wasn’t intentional.]
The recreational golf industry has been suffering from a long flu of stagnant participation. Less than 8 percent of the United States population play golf even once a year; about half that play eight or more times per year. The three heads of the virus causing this malady are time, expense and difficulty. Those last two are formidable, but solvable (educate people on low-cost playing options, which really do exist; and make sure they also know that quality game-improvement clubs that make it easier to hit the ball are widely available at reasonable cost).
Time, though: that is the big killer, resistant to any economic or public relations drug the golf industry has been able to throw at it. In the hurry-up, instant-gratification culture of the modern United States in particular, the patience required to reach golf’s lasting rewards is in short supply. Tennis, soccer, running, and many more sports can be satisfying in an hour, maybe less. Golf takes a much longer commitment. We golfers don’t mind giving the sport a reasonable chunk of our time. But in the view of the society as a whole, the well from which our industry hopes to draw and keep new players, golf takes too long to play. Five hours on the course with an hour on each end for transport and socializing is simply not in the patience sphere of many. Even those who are willing to play may not be willing or able to break away from young families long enough to be regular players.
Moreover, a five-hour round erodes the enthusiasm of even avid players. It is dental-work-like torture to wait before every shot. Numerous public relations campaigns have assaulted the problem; all have failed to yield widespread results. (There are a good many efficient players in the recreational game, but it takes only a few to foul up an entire 150-acre, 18-hole course.) Course owners, afraid to turn away hard-to-come-by revenue, refuse to take a hard line and banish slow players. The three-hour round that is common in the United Kingdom, the cradle of the 600-year-old game, is maddeningly rare in the United States.
The latest PR campaign to speed up play has been mounted by the United States Golf Association, which (among other things) puts on 14 national championships each year, including the open championships for the world’s best players. Called “While We’re Young,” the program is fun and well-intentioned. But it will likely do little lasting good. Attitudes in this country about how long golf should take, based in everything from “my money’s worth” to emulation of over-deliberate professionals, are too entrenched. Besides, in the midst of the While We’re Young campaign’s emergence, competitors at the U.S. Women’s Open took as long as five hours and forty minutes to complete their rounds. One Golf Channel reporter joked on Twitter, perhaps not so humorously, that a particular player’s flight from New York City to London the day after the tournament took 20 fewer minutes than her last round.
What to do to make a round of golf the fluid, efficient part-day of recreation it should be? There is only one hope: match play.
Remember the three-hour round in the U.K.? Sometimes it’s even less, and there’s a reason for that. When players score each hole as one of 18 points available to be won (by completing it in fewer strokes than your opponent), lost (the opposite), or halved (tie), the winner of the majority of such holes/points being declared the victor – well, things move along. That is the dominant form of play in the United Kingdom, and always has been. And while there are plenty of players in the U.S. who embrace this kind of play, there are a great many more who do not. Instead, they play stroke play, in which every hole is played to its completion regardless of the result, and every putt must be holed. Their objective is not to win a competition, but to “post a score,” perhaps bettering a friend or their own last outing.
While stroke play is necessary to trim a big field of entrants to a 64-player bracket for match play, or to run a professional tournament with a field of 154 players, it turns recreational golf into a hypersensitive slog. Meaningless putts cause traffic jams; fear of tanking an entire round with one bad hole causes unnecessary deliberateness. Not so in match play. Have a bad hole, and all you’ve lost is the hole, not the whole day. On the next tee, you can try to get one back instead of thinking, “Well, hell; now I’ll never break 100/90/80/whatever.”
Ask a U.S. recreational golfer how he did after a round, and you’ll likely hear, “Oh, slopped it around in 92,” or 101 if he’s telling the truth. Ask a U.K. golfer the same question, and you’ll hear, “I got Harry back for last week, 4 and 3. Good match.” This means the speaker won enough holes to be four ahead with three remaining to play, ending the match. The stroke player, having no clear competition before him except with randomness and his own inconsistency, must endure the ego-bashing ordeal of counting every shot. What fun is that? The match player, on the other hand, seeing that his opponent is 10 feet from the hole in three while the player himself is about to pitch his fifth shot onto the green from 40 yards, can say, “Your hole, Harry; let’s move on.” Pick up the balls and go.
The U.S. Golf Association and its Scottish counterpart, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, have developed and honed an effective system for handicapping matches so that players of lesser ability can play against those with more skill. (About the only good use of stroke play in recreational golf is once or twice a month, to establish individual handicaps. British golf clubs often have “medal days” for this purpose, but this is seen as a necessity for setting up the real fun of match play.) The handicap system even allows you to play without a partner; when I don’t have a game, my handicap strokes can be compared to par and I can play a “match” against the course. If I’m on my way to making 7 — it happens, yes — and my two handicap strokes on that hole would yield me a net score of five, still over the hole’s par of four…well, I’ve lost that hole. Time to pick up and rejoin the battle on the next tee, where I hope to get down in four, minus the one handicap stroke I’m entitled to there…net three. I win that one.
Only social pressure to do more of this, and to politely but firmly refuse to play with chronic slowpokes, will trim round times to a duration busy people will find acceptable. Only then will golf’s numerous and generous psychic and physical rewards seem within reach of more people. It does no good to fight the trend of a nation in a hurry, even an unjustified and unhealthy hurry. Golf’s essence and the purity of its meritocracy will be in no danger if we try to speed it up a bit. Indeed, a widespread return to match play, the ancient taproot of golf competition, can only make the game healthier.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr
Photograph by Teresa Barr, who likely won that hole