On the continuum of different types of golf rounds, there is uber-serious hole-everything-out, that-drop-wasn’t-knee-height at one end, and let’s-play-as-a-sixsome, do-I-really-need-to-wear-a-shirt? at the other. The reality is most of us occupy the vast space in between. We like to compete, but we know we’re not playing the Masters. We’re fine with letting loose, but we enjoy a little action. Also, most of us wear shirts.
And that brings us to a common problem around speed. The great misconception about pace of play is that it’s tied to how good you are. But there are plenty of highly skilled golfers who can be painfully slow, just as there are many very bad players who can zip around in three hours. Very often, pace of play is really a communication problem, because your group might not be completely clear on where you all stand.
Here’s an example: you and your playing partners show up on the first tee. One of you plays close to scratch, one of you is just trying to break 90, the other two are somewhere in between. Someone proposes a bet, and that’s it. What happens after that is often a disjointed slog of “Is this good?”, “What is this for?”, and “Do I need to hit another?” By the time you get to the back nine, you’re studying bogey putts for $5 from three different directions while the group behind you is making vulgar gestures from the fairway.
No, I am not talking about my regular golf group.
The point is, on our worst days, our group and others could save a lot of time and angst if we just posed some basic questions at the start. What kind of round is this? How serious are we making it? Why do we keep inviting Joe? With enough communication beforehand, there is a way to balance competitive integrity and keeping things light, and still making it back in time to see your kids graduate high school. Among them:
1. You are playing a match or playing for score, never both
By my estimation, roughly one million hours are added to rounds every year by golfers who do the whole, “I’m out of the hole but let me just putt this for my five” routine. It is a certified time suck, and ultimately detracts from whatever game you’re playing among the group. Now, I recognize this is frowned upon by handicap committees who want every score posted, and that’s why I recommend we do what they do in other civilized golf cultures: devote a certain number of rounds per month that are purely for maintaining your handicap. Those are the rounds you play straight up, but with everything else — a four-ball, a skins game, a head-to-head – the game is all that matters, and you pick up when you can.
2. Set a non-negotiable gimme standard
Every golf group has its own feelings about gimmes (mine: if you could miss it, you have to make it) but the real key is you’re not legislating the issue during the round. This is another needless rabbit hole groups fall into. A golfer wants you to give them a putt, they take an absurd amount of time looking for a marker, and then they hover over the putt uncomfortably long —half-hopeful you’ll change your mind, and half-resentful that you won’t. The better solution? Set a standard gimme length right from the start—inside the leather of the grip is the most popular. It eliminates all the guesswork and hurt feelings that—speaking of time sucks—tend to lead to physical altercations.
3. Lateral drops for the win
This will give golf hardos heart palpitations, but again, if you’re not playing for a score, all that matters is you and your group are on the same page. Think about all the fuss accompanying wayward tee shots—asking if you should hit a provisional, then hitting the provisional, or doomsday scenario, looking for your ball in the woods THEN WALKING BACK TO THE TEE to hit the provisional. Now think about how simple it is if you know you could just add a stroke and hit from around where the ball was last seen. Truth be told, this is how most golfers play anyway. Similar to the legalization of marijuana, better to spend your energy enforcing the rules people really care about.
4. It’s just a golf ball, you’ll live
An additional benefit to adapting lateral drops is it helps cut down on some of the manic desperation when searching for a lost ball. Look, no one wants to lose a ball, for all the obvious reasons. But there is a difference between not wanting to tack on a stroke and dig into your sleeve and reacting as if the family dog is missing. Time limits need to be firm when searching, and that includes the other people in the group who shouldn’t feel bad about peeling off after an original look to tend to their own business. Golf is cruel, and balls are expensive. There is a way to insulate yourself from such hardships, but it mostly involves never leaving your house.
5. Ready golf, DUH!
This is probably the most obvious point, to the extent that we questioned whether we should even include it. OF COURSE you should hit when you’re ready, and not worry about “honors,” which is as antiquated a golf concept as the stymie, or saddle shoes. Exceptions: you just made your annual only birdie and want to savor it; you’re on the fence about what club to hit and you really want the other guy to go first; you have a habit of hurling your putter into the woods after losing a hole, and are counting on that extra minute to go find it.
6. Your golf bag completes you
There is a way to play fast and not feel particularly rushed. For instance, I am a bit of a dawdler over the ball—practice swings, plumb bobs, serial grass throwing to gauge the wind. If this makes me sound like an insufferable playing partner, well, I am, but for different reasons. But I am also adamant about moving to my ball quickly and efficiently. And the efficient part means I am militant about what I call “bag maintenance”. Proper bag maintenance ensures you never have to venture too far to retrieve your bag, and it’s ideally already positioned where you need to be next. You know those golfers in the group in front of you who hole out, puts the flagstick back in, then stroll to the front of the green to get their bag? THOSE PEOPLE ARE THE WORST. We’re not saying they should be permanently banned from the game (although maybe a year?). At very least, though, they should be sufficiently shamed by their playing partners, because this is one element of golf that requires almost no skill and just a little bit of advanced planning.
7. Get over yourself
Let’s agree the downside of hitting into the group in front of you is far worse. Even golfers who needlessly leave bags in front of greens deserve not to be physically assaulted for the crime. But this is about those golfers who err too far the other way, cautiously waiting for every fairway to clear because one time seven years ago they hit a tee shot downwind that rolled near someone’s ankle. And then are those golfers delusional enough to think they can drive a green but have done so precisely once in their life. The rule in your group should be this: if you hold up play by waiting for a green to clear and come up pathetically short, you are contractually forbidden from “going for it” for three months. You must lay up. End of discussion. You’ll be doing everyone around you a favor, including yourself, because a decision that is supposed to be difficult is no longer yours to make. And you were bound to mess it up regardless.