Match Play May Well Save Golf
“Don’t worry about par. The practice of printing par figures is literally a mental hazard”
“Immediately when we attempt to standardize sizes, shapes and distances we lose more than half the pleasure of the game.”
“Classic designers weren’t worried about par. They were worried about building interesting golf holes.”
The submission to length and par has shaped a generation of golfers now accustomed to stroke play. The entire golf industry is now defined by par. Because of par fairness has become a prerequisite and maintenance expectations soar; keeping score is mandatory so golf takes too long to play; golf is too expensive because maintenance and construction costs require pristine conditioning and “fairness”; and golf is less fun because par must be defended. .
Golf course architects responded with longer, more challenging, diabolical, deliberately difficult and maintenance intensive layouts in an effort to attract and challenge the better, more frequent golfer. Because the battle against an artificially imposed standard [par], golf course architecture devotes considerable attention to protecting “it” with length and hazards. Maintenance practices escalate to provide for par-saving fairness. The attentiveness given to length and par has resulted in golf courses that attract an ever-contracting market.
Because of par, numbers now define the game.
Once upon a time, match play determined the best golfers. The golfer battled the opponent and “played” the course. This was a duel, a match of wits, skill and will played out across the landscape. The less able golfer had options and alternatives to combat the longer, more aggressive golfer. Golf has changed and the effects are astounding. It appears that the game of golf has undergone a genetic mutation.
What’s the impact of par?
Pace of play golf surges because we need to putt-out and count all the strokes vs. pick it up.
Construction costs soar because design and development must accommodate par and length vs. providing an authentic and appropriate golf course based on unique site conditions with more distinct and interesting features.
Maintenance: costs rise to produce conditions for fairness vs. play it as you find it.
Difficulty and Challenge increase because the industry is focused on creating challenge for the 1% to protect par vs. strategic interest.
Strategy is melted because fairness is needed to attain par vs. the “rub of the green”, fate or luck.
The recent turn toward developing firmer, faster, wider, treeless, sand-based golf is a great first step. This recent trend is less about the design and more about width and options. It fosters playability and recreation over difficulty. Challenge is not lost, but engagement and enjoyment increases.
The next most important step is to encourage the PGA Tour to play more match play, on courses that are less green, with more personality. The USGA has been doing this with recent events at Pinehurst, Erin Hills, Chambers Bay and others to illustrate that golf can be accepted on conditions less than perfect.
Those events would have been better if they were played in match play conditions. Golf is a match, not a number.
Most of what complicates golf can be traced the defense of par. By defending par, the game was made harder and more arduous. Remember the “Tiger Proofing” of Augusta National? How’d that go? Now they are talking about lengthening the famed 13th. What a calamity. That charming hole provides drama, intrigue and requires courage, skill, tact and execution. Bogies, pars, birdies and a potential eagle can be had. By lengthening that hole strategic decisions are pre-ordained. So much for a “thinking-man’s game”.
There is cost to par, including length for added land, maintenance demands, golfer expectations, pace of play, design and construction costs. Why are we protecting par? The game erodes as we protect a number rather than creating engagement. There is no doubt that golf is better when the game is challenging. It is foolish to accept that golf is anything but difficult. Golf is better when you are tested, but the test shouldn’t be based on par.
The golf industry has witnessed remarkable growth and transformation, but little has changed in the game itself. Match play golfers weren’t consumed with fairness, because the ‘rub’ affected everyone without prejudice. The opponent was the competition, not the golf course. Match play golfers don’t fight the golf course: they managed the course and ‘played’ the opponent, using creativity, cleverness and skill. The golf course allowed for – even applied bad luck.
The future of golf is in its DNA. If we are to save this industry, we need to focus on the game as it was intended. Right now, we are too fixed to stroke play and its standards, rules and regulations.
Golf is about golfers and the wondrous places we play – the simple interaction of man and nature with friends, family or competitors. There is no magic potion, silver bullet, swing aid, or even divine intervention that will make the game less challenging. And it would damn the game into extinction if there was. Besides, no one wants to play a golf course that is not filled with levels of challenge, intrigue and engagement.
We live in an age where everything around us is a digital replication of the original. Par and length has a way of watering down golf course design to do the same thing. Yardage and “protecting par’ is costing us, including our imagination. Millions in maintenance, millions in construction and millions in hapless golfers who give it up because it’s too hard, too costly or takes too long to play.
Enjoyment is the ultimate arbiter. What if the golf industry forgot about length and its preoccupation of ‘protecting’ par - and encouraged designers to defend a golf course with strategy, not distance or hazards? What if golf courses were judged on the merits of its design tactics, shot values and with a match play perspective instead of maintenance, slope values or length? Golf would have a more wide-ranging appeal. If we reduce the impact of par we can resuscitate the game by improving the pace of play; mitigate escalating costs; improve the impact of hazards to promote strategy; and most importantly, encouraging a new generation of golfers.
The best golf courses are those that provide the most distinct and unique golf adventures. They are authentic, and genuine. They reveal your character and the land, simultaneously. This industry needs less standardization and more variety, more adventure and less calibration, more uniqueness and less duplication.
An industry strategy based on size is not sustainable. We have focused on the product and the brand, the style, the sale and profit, not the customer. Decisions about design, operations and maintenance must be developed with a more sensible long-term view.
Match play may well save golf.