Why is Golf Fun?
I’m not attempting to be trite here! The subject of “fun” has become a trendy topic of late and, in all seriousness, FUN is something that has frankly been overlooked in our fine game for some time. Not because of lack of interest, but because the game became perhaps a bit too serious on the business front. The USGA released an interesting piece recently titled, Dear Golf Genie by Derf Soller and is worth a quick read. Notice that the first and foremost of the author’s comments relate to ‘having more fun’ on the course.
Too is the question of “What is fun?” A subjective query for certain, as FUN can be defined in many ways to all sorts of people in golf. So I thought I would take a stab at it, from my own personal perspective - and not a complete one by any stretch. Golf is obviously a special game to me. This enjoyment of the game prompted me to dedicate personally to the game since I was eight years old. And as we all know, most kids don’t go through their adolescent years with a sole focus unless it involves something that is truly “FUN”! And, so enjoyable is the game of golf that I chose to make it my career.
I think golf is pleasurable from the pure standpoint of being an outdoor activity and the sort of game that such a wide range of people can enjoy, no matter of age or skill. I can still enjoy playing golf with my Dad, who is not an accomplished player – with my wife, who swipes and picks up after a few tries and then laughingly moves along to the next hole – and with my son, who is just learning the game and the etiquette of being on a course among other golfers. I also enjoy playing with certain “skilled” players as well – those who can handle themselves well on the course, who understand and appreciate nuances, strategies and architecture and can execute occassional brilliant shots without becoming too obsessed about their score. And most importantly, they can laugh at the ones that fall short.
And this brings me to the social aspects of the game. To me, golf is most enjoyable when you can share it with other people. Golf is so much about the “experience”, which can be enhanced so acutely by those with whom you are partnered. Conversely, being matched up with the wrong folks can ruin a day on the links. But when you’re with likeminded people you enjoy, then you tend to be able to take the game more at face value, embrace humility and laugh at the day's work, good or bad. After all, as author James Dodson reminded when he adressed the ASGCA as our Donald Ross Award recipient in Denver, CO, "There is no game more social than golf". And not only is is enjoyable to share a round with freinds, but also a real delight to play golf with a caddie, with whom the walk becomes a little easier, and perhaps a friend is made along the way. Too rare is there a caddie to join us in our experiences these days, as they have been largely replaced by golf carts. I could also do without the GPS systems, which tend to talk us into less imaginative shot making, it seems.
Another aspect of “fun” for me is the venue in which we play the game – the golf course. Obviously, I have a vested interest in how golf courses are conceived and presented. The setting can certainly evoke a mood or certain emotions. The architecture, to me, can enhance my experience, particularly when I am able to see what the architect is asking me to do. Penalize me when I am careless and reward me when I am brave and precise – I can handle that. I tend to enjoy courses with a certain amount of “quirk” or “whimsy”. Why? I guess I like the unpredictability, the luck of the bounce, and the occasional unexpected surprise. I welcome courses with choices and consequences and at the same time possess great natural beauty. And, of course, the conditions must be right to promote those nuances. So let the wind blow, and turn the water off and let the ground and elements expose the game the way it was intended to be played.
Ironically, Golf Digest just recently came out with another list. Yeah, I know…yet more rankings to help push magazines. We’ll let this one slide this time because it actually falls into our theme today, which is “FUN”! Seriously, though, the magazine listed courses that they deemed to be “the most fun to play”. Check it out for yourself. Interestingly, one of the courses on the private list happens to be one where I have been consulting for the past two years, Old Elm Club near Chicago. I was surprised by its listing, not of validating “FUN”, but more because the course is so darn private that so very few people ever get to experience it. Nevertheless, I know the course well, and it is well deserving of its inclusion on the list. Why? Perhaps for the same reason the course is not listed among the US Top 100… it’s length! It measures out at only about 6,500 yards, which the “experts” consider too short today. It also has wide, inviting fairways and a set of rather short par fives, all originally conceived by architectural master H.S. Colt and built by the great Donald Ross. Yet, the design is imaginative and rewards shots that contemplate the controlled running shot, which is a bit of a lost art on this side of the Atlantic, but also a very FUN way to play. And so looking at this list, the pundits remind us that for the purposes of this release only, that “length does not equal fun” and that “hard is overrated”, “walking is more fun than riding” and that “a welcoming attitude beats a snooty vibe.” In the case of this list, or any other for that matter, I kind of like it! It’s well intended for sure. And what’s interesting is to now cross-reference the “most fun” list with the Top 100 list. See anything interesting? I do! A lot of the best courses are also considered FUN to play. How about that?! Are getting somewhere here folks?
I am also reminded that I enjoy a round of golf that can be played at a brisk pace. A long day on the course can be tiring and off-putting and can be caused by a number of things: an overly difficult course, slow play and poor management all immediately come to mind. Some of my most enjoyable rounds were not necessarily those in which I played particularly well, but rather those which were shared with lovely people at an efficient pace. I am reminded of one of my most enjoyable golf experiences, a day that I shared with one of my good friends as a teenager on a course that many detest but one that I have always embraced. That day I made six birdies and two eagles – on
track for what should have been the lowest round of my life by a stretch. Trouble was, my final score ended up at 72, certainly a fine score and one that I would have gladly taken any day! But, the potential was there to finish as low as ten under par. That has haunted me ever since – and at the same time delighted me to tell of the story… a round that was shattered, but was still excellent and a day that was as great as any in my memory, on a course that I still love for its unique and distinctive qualities. I was able to share it with one my dearest golfing pals that day and we looped around in just under 3 hours! I swear that the quick pace kept me in a good rhythm that morning! I also recall a few other memorable quickies at St. Andrews, Nairn and also at Chicago Golf Club. Those days all get a “FUN” vote in my book, regardless of score.
We all have fun when we play well, don’t we? I know I do. The facts are clear though… we are more apt to play less than our potential more often than we are “on point”. The letdown of playing poorly can put a damper on anyone's day, unless you’re able to value everything else around you…the setting, the camaraderie, the success of others and the mere fact that you are outdoors playing an amazing game. In reality, our score means very little. I can appreciate this now more than ever in my 40’s, as I struggle now to break 90 consistently – and after holding a low, single digit handicap through my teens and 20’s! It’s a tough to accept that your game can get that far away from your potential. But if we can downplay the score, I think we can find more ways to have fun and enjoy other values that we get from golf, which can be much more than a score. Just read the book, Final Rounds to confirm that point. Golf can mean so much more.
During my lifetime and career, I have seen golf grow by leaps and bounds. It grew so much that, frankly, it wasn’t so fun anymore at times. Golf has become very commercial – and it remains a big business today. We have been influenced by television and professional golf, by equipment manufacturers, marketers, ego maniacal members, and greedy developers, just to name a few. The result is a game that costs too much money, takes too much time to play and on courses that are far too difficult. Too often we are paired with players whose values differ from those of our own. We see rules written that forbid us from walking and require us to ride in a cart, disallow our children from playing the course, or limit women to play only at certain times on given days. Too often our tournaments are strictly medal play, requiring each participant to finish out every stroke on every hole. Handicaps require us to post all of our scores – further limiting the kind of “game” we play. And how often do you come up against the starter or course ranger from hell? Some of those folks aren’t exactly friendly and inviting. Are these matters in support of a “FUN” game?
I guess I’m happy to say that I can see sign that golf is finally coming around again. Our industry has examined the game's strengths and weaknesses and we’ve been marching forward to a new tune – actually an old tune that is becoming hip again. We’re welcoming kids to come out and learn and play the game again. The golf course is coming back again as a place where families are welcomed. We’re bending the rules a bit for the pure enjoyment of the game - even making the hole larger from time to time! We’re designing courses that are not nearly as long and penal – and we’re building more forward tees for seniors, women and junior players. We’re employing design and conditioning measures that render the courses much easier and cost effective to maintain. Golf is therefore becoming more affordable. And our courses are becoming more sustainable as a result. Funny thing is, like pulling out that old Rolling Stones album again, we’ve been here before folks – it’s not new. We simply ignored what made golf fun to begin with, and here we are again as if it were an award winning concept.
I am also happy to report that there has been a comeback of the executive course, and the par three course, and of 3, 6 and 12 hole loops on regulation courses – all intended to invite players to choose their own experience. A number of golden age architects actually professed what the popularity of such experiences would be nearly one hundred years ago! Practice areas are popping up everywhere that are much more than an open pasture – they are venues with realistic targets, fairways and quality turf from which to hit shots. Short game areas are being added to encourage us to work on chipping and putting and introduce our kids slowly into the game. Putting courses are now becoming a trendy pastime, all in the flavor of the green common areas in most Scottish villages – again, a reference of the old becoming new again.
“Fun” can translate to a lot of things in golf. If we can find ways to eliminate the not-so-fun elements, perhaps, and appreciate the positive attributes of the game, then maybe we can go back to enjoying the game as it was always intended.
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