Cover story: The Happiness IssueJuly 15, 2015

A Bull Without Horns?

Playing without keeping score is harder than it looks

A ski-lift ticket doesn't come with a stopwatch. Hikers win every time they make it back to the car. But golf loves a number. Only bowlers keep score more unfailingly, though for them the overhead computers don't really give much choice. But unless you keep score with the same absolute rigor as required when millions of dollars or Masters invitations are at stake, why do it to yourself? Sure, whether you shun mulligans or putt out two-footers for triple says something about your character, but for a lot of golfers, score is an approximation, a line item on a tax return. You could make a reasonable defense in the unlikely event of an audit.

"Stroke play is a nonsense game; I don't see why anyone would do it who didn't have to," says Geoff Ogilvy, who emerged least scathed by the format at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It's understandable how even a successful pro could develop this attitude. Having one's personal worth defined daily by two digits is hard on the soul. And to think most of us do it with no prospect of remuneration.

"You're spending your hard-earned money to do something that hopefully you enjoy, yet so many people come off the course miserable," says teacher and Golf Channel host Martin Hall. "I stopped keeping score years ago. I enjoy the look of a ball going through the sky the way I think it should, the feel of a chip I've nipped just right. I get pleasure out of the shots when I hit them rather than from a score at the end."

Well, bully for Mr. Hall, and any other hippies who claim to live in the present. Some of us can't leave the course without replaying every damn missed shot in our tortured heads. Enjoy the flight of the ball?! Might as well take up Frisbee. Be cheaper.

Dr. Gio Valiante, a sport psychologist and professor at Rollins College, says most golfers follow a common arc of motivation. As beginners, we fall in love with the game for self-discovery, to see how good we can get. As our golf lives continue, we shift toward playing to impress others, and that's when our egos get tied in knots. To reward students in his classes at Rollins, Valiante often organizes golf outings. Even among better players, he sees a generational shift: "These kids have inherited significant problems with the economy, the environment. They've realized the bankruptcy of the accumulation model of life. Broadly speaking, they're looking to take from golf something a bit different. A course is a unique place to connect with friends, and they recognize that score has a way of separating people."

Not keep score so the losers won't feel bad? Sorry we can't give each participant a ribbon, but this is golf. Some of us practice till our fingers bleed because we dream of going low. Which might be all the better reason to ditch the pencil.

"The first thing I teach tour guys is to play at a competitive level without keeping score," Valiante says. "To be generally aware of score is OK, but no more." In 2012, on the eve of a four-tournament stretch, Valiante posed a challenge to client Justin Rose: "I want to see 1,120 great routines. Thursday or Sunday, no shot is more important than another." Valiante estimated an average score of 70 over 16 rounds, or fairly flawless golf. "We needed raw data to audit his game. I told him to just immerse himself in the process of focusing the same on each shot, and we'd tweak on the back end." Rose came up short. He had only 1,108 great routines. With a cumulative score of 32 under, including a win, it was one of the best 16-round stretches of his career.

"It's exhausting to score," says Matt Thurmond, the men's golf coach at the University of Washington. "Rarely do you see a guy whose mechanics are better after a tournament. That's when it's good to just go play and not feel accountable. Stay in that competition mode too long, and you get off track. Don't get me wrong, keeping score drives results--in the weight room, the classroom, score is the whole point. But it's a fine balance."

Thurmond has his guys periodically play rounds without keeping score. Recreational golfers in America, at least those who want to be on the up and up, are not afforded such laxity. Ours is the most unrelenting handicap system in the world. In the United Kingdom, only "medal" (tournament) rounds count for handicap. Continental Europeans calculate handicaps with Stableford scoring, where only holes of net bogey or better are marked. Though the USGA's heart is in the right place--"enabling golfers of all skill levels to compete on an equitable basis"--asking amateurs to never leave a hole blank, even ones they didn't play (just give yourself what you most likely would've made) is perhaps a bit tyrannous.

"Stableford is a far superior system to Equitable Stroke Control," says Dean Knuth, the prime developer of the USGA's Course Rating and Slope Rating systems. For example, a 10-handicap butchering an easy par 3 in San Diego can post a quadruple-bogey 7, but in Spain he could've picked up after five whacks.

Of course, as Randy McPherson, 59, of Milwaukee, says, "There's no law that says you have to keep score to play this game." He likens golf to his other passion, bowhunting: "The outdoors is a reinvigorating environment. Focusing on results takes away from the moment. If I had to shoot a deer every trip, I would've quit a long time ago." McPherson says it took a full season to train his mind, but he can now play a great round, make tons of pars, and feel no compulsion to add them up.

"I don't play often enough to stress about score," says Mark Barker, 34, of Orlando, a lifelong solid ball-striker but streaky putter. "I just play for the spiritual experience. You know that saying, 'There are no pictures on the scorecard'? I wish my scorecard had pictures."

A four-footer with nothing riding on it? Sounds like a bull without horns. What about golfers who love the thrill of competition? "Then play match play," Ogilvy says.

"Beating an opponent or shooting a good score--those are just short-term results," Valiante says. "How good can I be at this game? That's a 20-year question."