Man About GolfAugust 18, 2016

Competition Counts: It's A Key To The Game's Health

To get golf's full effect, you need an objective and an organized herd.
Photo by Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the greenkeeper at my home course donated a trophy for a new tournament, which we called the Superintendent's Cup. He and our head pro served as nonplaying captains, and they had a private, late-night negotiation during which they divided the people who had signed up into two mixed teams: 16 players each, plus subs. The competition lasted four days over two fall weekends, and each round had a different format: best-ball, two-person scramble, alternate-shot, singles. The first day was a blowout for the pro's team, 10½-1½, and he and the greenkeeper worried that they had misjudged the rosters. But the scoring gap narrowed during the three remaining rounds, and on the final hole in the final match on the final day a 70-year-old woman with an astronomical handicap faced a slippery seven-footer to square the entire tournament—and made it.

The Superintendent's Cup had an impact on my club. Players who had finished their matches sat on the slope above the 18th green to root for their teammates, and we later added a flagstone terrace in the same spot, to make doing that easier. Some of the women had never entered a tournament before, and most of the men had never played matches against women. Because of the Superintendent's Cup, our annual member-member tournament, which had always been men-only, became coed.

All those things are important because competition, I'm convinced, is the key to a healthy golf club—and maybe even to the future of golf, which is a great game not only because hitting the occasional non-lousy shot is eerily addictive but because golf is a uniquely sociable athletic activity. People playing golf, unlike people playing tennis, spend actual hours in actual conversation with actual people, including people they've just met—and competitions of all kinds make those opportunities more plentiful, more inclusive, and more meaningful. I was nervous, 25 years ago, when I entered my first tournament, but I was relieved to discover that I wasn't the worst player in the field, and playing with better players made me want to get better, too, and I made friends who have been my friends ever since. Golf is a swell game under any circumstances, but to get the full effect, you need an objective and an organized herd.

The Superintendent's Cup survived in its original form for a decade. Then interest faded. Fewer people signed up, and the schedule shrank to a single weekend. Recently, I found the old trophy on a shelf in the clubhouse and saw that the last names were added in 2008. Among the causes of its demise were the cultural and economic forces that have made even avid players less willing or able to spend four consecutive weekend mornings away from home. But there were other factors, too. Regulars moved away or died. People got bored. Newcomers were overlooked.

Creating and maintaining good golf events is hard work, but it's hard work that's worth doing. A good place to find ideas is on bulletin boards in locker rooms at other golf courses: a season-long ringer-score competition! Self-scheduled senior-senior matches! Scrambles in which players with higher handicaps tee off from forward tees! A club-wide golf ladder displayed on a tiny ladder!

The most successful ongoing competition at my home course is a weekly best-ball-and-skins game for any men who show up at 7:30 on Sunday mornings. This year is our 20th anniversary. Ages range from 20 or so to 80 or so, and we routinely attract two dozen players, from an email list of 60—more than we did when we began. Our Sunday game has survived partly because it replaced an event that too many guys had gotten tired of (semi-regular "breakfast scrambles," now long extinct) but mainly because we've made a concerted, continuous effort to keep it from becoming stale, by fiddling with the format and the handicap rules, by fighting slow play, and by urging new members and other non-participants to join in. We also offer certain inducements—beer, cheeseburgers and a limited but growing selection of branded merchandise, including hats and bumper stickers—plus a ready-made group of lifelong friends.


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