As the golf season kicks into high gear in almost all areas of the U.S., with it comes the playing of the year's biggest events at clubs: from member-guests to your Saturday morning two-ball. In between are the $5 Nassaus with your buddies. One thing all of these formats have in common is that you are playing with another person or a group of people. Certainly “team golf” can be great fun. But it also can be a colossal time suck if you’re paired with the wrong people. Just like any other team sport, chemistry is a vital ingredient to team golf, along with teaming with the right kind of player. Here’s a guide to who you do—and don’t—want on your side on the first tee.
This is best ball, but with a twist. Because in best ball you can endure any clown for 18 holes as long as he’s got your back when you snapperdoodle it into the lumberyard. The member-guest, however, requires a different skill set. Yes, you want someone who is a compatible fit competitively, but you also need someone you can tolerate for three-plus days during painfully slow play and not want to stab yourself in the eye with a letter opener. The drunken friend is a bad choice. The husband of your wife’s friend is even worse. The co-worker who likes golf as much as you do and rarely plays competitive golf is a much smarter play. They’ll appreciate the event no matter what, plus you can always talk shop when the going gets slow. And since your entire office knows you are playing, you’re less likely to be bothered by work, and both of you will grind to the end. Potential ridicule is a strong motivator. Bonus points if they don’t drink. The bar bill for the week will be significantly less, plus he can drive you home.
You’re standing there as the pro is ripping off the names for the weekly Saturday morning blind draw 2-Ball and you hear shouts of “Might as well hand them the money now, pro!” as certain teams are called. You want to be in the pair getting that comment. So what makes a good best-ball team? Not necessarily as many strokes as possible. In fact, two high-handicappers usually leads to disaster because both players are likely to lose it on the same hole a few times during the round. You need to mitigate the odds of losing strokes to par and have enough dots on the card to get to a low number. The winning combination is often comprised of a high single-digit paired with a mid-handicapper (13 to 17, preferably) who can be coached. That’s because the mid-handicapper usually has skills better than their number, but doesn’t know how to get around the course. The single-digit can help with that (along with reading a few putts), bringing out the best in their partner. The end result is often a best-ball score in the low 60s and occasionally in the high 50s—usually good enough to hit the podium.
OK, you have four players and among them you need the following: The Bomber (an absolute must) as well as a guy who hits fairways so often you believe his actual name is “Frankie Effin’ Fairways.” This is needed because the Bomber will inevitably hit a bunch of balls into the woods trying to reach par 4s with his tee shot. From a camaraderie standpoint, it helps if you have someone to shoot yardages with a rangefinder, people who like to talk sports and entertainment but never politics and the ever-important teammate who can get your drink order filled faster than a Cracker Barrel waitress refilling your sweet tea. More importantly, you need four guys who can putt (including a lead-off man who can read the line and not yank it six feet left or short). A scramble is almost always won on the greens. Those who miss from 10 feet with four tries are usually the ones praying to get lucky in the raffle after the real prizes have been awarded.
You’d think with this format that the partners are already segmented since by definition, an ABCD takes the field and divides it in four equal segments by handicap. But you know so little, my friend. Time after time, the ideal ABCD team is pretty easy to spot. Your A can’t win it, but he can lose it so he needs to be steady, if not spectacular. Ideally one getting enough strokes to help, but not a double-digit that could blow up. A 5 masquerading as an 8 is perfect. The A also needs to be able to serve as team captain, shrink, bartender, whatever is needed to keep the other three horses running. Ideally, the A takes the D under his wing and coaches them along. Yes, it can feel like playing 36 instead of 18, but it needs to be done. That’s because the ideal D isn’t the 18-handicapper that bogeys every hole. You want the wild man. The young or middle-aged 25-handicapper who swings from the heels but can hit every green in regulation. Sure, they’ll only be in about six holes. But when two of them are pars and the other four useful bogeys with two strokes, he’s done his job. As for the B and the C, the B would preferably be close to an A—able to pick up the slack when the A goes astray and able to use those 11 blows to pick up a handful of net birdies. The ideal C is like the ideal D, except with more consistency.
You know that Best-ball partner you won the Saturday 2-Ball with? Grab him for the round-robin match play event as well. If he’s an Eagles fan like you it might help the results as well. It will certainly help the conversation.
Nine and Dine Step-Aside Scramble
Ah, the favorite couples format where often one couple pairs with another in a scramble format where the player whose ball is chosen has to “step aside” and can’t play the next shot. First things first here: You’re going to be sharing the dinner table with these people afterwards so make sure the women and guys all get along. As far as the golf, it is imperative to have at least two players who can make contact because one of you is going to be on the bench for almost every shot, plus if you have a weak player in the group you’re probably going to be hitting from some pretty unusual places. Even better if one of the strong players is female. Being able to take advantage of her tee shots from those forward tees can be a huge plus.
This format is a disaster for every day players. Hell, even tour pros have a tough time with it (see: Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods at Oakland Hills). Bottom line: the better the players, the better off you’ll be. That said, don’t partner up with some low-handicap donkey that will make you feel bad about yourself when you chunk the wedge shot after he blasted it 260 down the middle. Alternate shot is team golf of the highest order. Best to find someone you’ll enjoy playing with because, well, just about everyone’s score is going to suck.