The Myth of "Fair"

January 9, 2019

 

"Golf is the Great Mystery. Like some capricious goddess, it bestows favors with what would appear an almost fat-headed lack of method and discrimination." - P. G. Wodehouse

 
The word “fair” is often used by golfers, both professional and amateur, weekend and low handicapper, to describe a golf course.  But, when did “fair” become part of any discussion of the game?  How did it creep into the conversation?  More importantly, how is ‘fairness’ corrupting the game?

The game, in its purest, is based in strategy, “the line of charm” and execution.The essence of the game is to play as close to the hazard as possible to seek advantage. Golf is like life and life isn’t fair - bad things can happen and probably do.  Just as in life, it is not easy and it is not fair.  Risk is inherent in the game. The true delight of this game is how you react to ‘the rub’.    

The human experience is tied to adventure.  Golf provides a small opportunity for that man-nature experience. By ensuring ‘fairness’ [whatever that is], the game becomes less adventurous, watered down, limp, and sadly, predictable.   Golf has morphed into a game of equity and “protecting par”, slowly melting from “strategy”.  Fair implies a legal principle allowing for the use of discretion and equity when applying justice. Golf is not supposed to be fair. The instinct to make it fair has only made it more elaborate, torturous and more expensive.

Expectations for fairness in order to "protect par" demand high levels of maintenance.  Conditions must be ideal, perfect and manicured to ‘foster fairness”.  A pampered golfing constituency is now coddled to believe that without perfect conditions, par is not attainable.  Protecting par?  Since when? Golf is supposed to be an expression of freedom and freedom isn’t free.  Golf has morphed into a game of equity and “protecting par”, slowly melting from “strategy”.  

Course Architects offer a thoughtful composition including hazards, obstacles and imagery to make the game more thrilling and engaging.  Instituting fairness is impossible.  The perception that hazards enforce and impart an even measure of penalty is flawed.  Golf courses are not intended to be fair, or impose penalties at an equal measure. Golf and golf course architecture is dispassionate.

I have played incredibly difficult golf courses that are GREAT - not because of the difficulty and challenge, but because it rewarded proper execution while presenting substantial challenge. The best courses offer options and variant positions of play each requiring a consequent challenge.  Crystal Downs in Michigan is the most impartial and difficult golf course I have ever played. It is demanding, generous and rewarding. Great golf courses all share a degree of impartiality - they are strategic, challenging, generous and rewarding.  The best courses are unbiased. 
 
Recent golf course developments at Sand Valley, Streamsong and Bandon Dunes illustrate a style of golf course architecture that allows for multiple decisions and routes of play.  This is enjoyable golf that presents the golfer with several opportunities for success.  Width allows for strategic principles to be incorporated and varied abilities to be accommodated.  Success isn’t narrowly defined or demanded....  "The game" isn't rigged.

The game of golf was once played through pasture, around herds of sheep, through trampled grasses, over hillocks and deep burns and over sandy waste.  Golfers didn't waste time fretting over "fair": they played the conditions and accepted the challenges.  Just as in life, some take risks and are rewarded. Some take risks and are punished. There is no one way to play the game or a golf course and each must determine the most appropriate shot for their skill level.
 
If golf requires fairness then the game ceases to exist as a game of strategy and golf courses will become senseless duplications of accepted replications. Risks and punishments cannot, and should not be applied evenly.  Expectations and pressures in every sector of the industry have altered the game in an attempt to increase challenge while imparting fairness. Threats and rewards are inherent in the game and are the true arbiters of enjoyment. 

Golf is a pure expression of freedom…. the freedom to succeed and be rewarded. Golf should provide freedom to execute elegantly, or make mistakes spectacularly and be fully accountable – without complaint. Let’s eliminate the term ‘fair’ from the game.  It will do us all well to reorient our appraisals to enjoyment, pleasure, satisfying, fulfilling or rewarding. 
 
Golf isn’t fair.  

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