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Could the game of golf be a lot more popular if it was half as long?

This has been a question which I have asked myself many times and a recent tale from a friend about a near 6 hour round of golf got me thinking again about the whole question of how long it takes to play a game of golf over 18 holes.

The following extract is from the website of the British Golf Museum:

‘There is no specific date for when 18 holes became the standard number of holes on a course. In 1858, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club issued new rules for its members; Rule 1 stated: “one round of the Links or 18 holes is reckoned a match unless otherwise stipulated”.

Clubs were not expected to follow this example, but by the 1870s, with more and more clubs looking to the R&A for advice, a round of golf was increasingly accepted as consisting of 18 holes.

The great Bob Jones said - “So although the 18 holes standard is now well established, historically speaking it is a relatively recent ‘norm’.

I can remember in my youth playing up to 54 holes in a day, so allowing for an ‘ailing physique’ I did a quick trawl through an inventory of possible reasons why a round of 18 holes of golf can now take so long to play and three key elements seem to be:
‘Championship’ golf courses

A personal bugbear of mine where many courses ‘Championship’, or otherwise, are ‘tricked’ up to be virtually unplayable by the average golfer with knee high rough just off the fairway, overly narrow fairways, long carries from the tees, etc.

This should bring to mind for many golfers strong echoes of those greens which the slopes are so severe that they seem to have had elephants buried under them and on which you need a piece of chewing gum under the marker to stop it sliding off the green!
To be fair some players need to know their own limitations and when playing a ‘Championship’ course they should be forced to play off tees commensurate with their ability levels (rather like the restrictions of ski slopes), but when in global terms the average golfer plays off a handicap of about 18, why on earth so many new courses are designed to ‘PGA Tour specs’ will remain a mystery to me.

Formats which are not appropriate to the playing abilities of the field involved -

This seems to apply especially to corporate golf days. 
Why event organisers choose anything but very team orientated formats is a continuing mystery. Individual events and better-ball playing
formats are just fine with a normal Club field of reasonably competent players who are on home ground.
However when a company is trying to make its field as inclusive as possible by including important clients and or suppliers who often play
infrequently, anything but a scramble / alliance type format (especially on a course that many players will not have seen before) is going to cause endless misery for those involved on the day.
Course set up - 

As an event organizer I always offer the host courses, for my clients' events, very specific guidelines as to what I want to see on the day in terms of the tee boxes in use, pin placement, etc.
These efforts pay dividends both ways as on a ‘properly’ set-up course the field moves well and if everyone has a challenging but enjoyable experience the ‘reputation’ of the course will be favourably enhanced.

Course set-up can be a ‘minefield’ as I recall one incident from the early 1980’s when I was based at Benoni Country Club.
The Club Championships are almost without exception the ‘blue ribbon’ event at all Clubs and the prevailing wisdom and instructions from the committee is generally to make the course as challenging as possible!

At Benoni one of the players said to me, at the completion of his first round in that year’s Championships; “Hey Pro – now you have managed to get such nice greens for us, why don’t you put the pins in the bunkers!?”

Looking at his scorecard it has to be said that he had had some challenges of his own on course, which included putting off the green into the water at the then short par 3 17th hole, so perhaps his remarks need to be seen in a personal context.
However the underlying message is very true – why should we play on one course all year round and then be faced with a ‘tricked up’ version for 2 days over the Championships?
So what is the cure: more Marshalls, score penalties, score bonuses for finishing in ‘quick-time’? Who knows for sure other than that the debate will definitely continue.

Golf needs to compete with other sports for people’s attention and the time factor is a key disadvantage for golf when compared against squash for example where the players will have completed their game, got showered and be on the way home before most four-balls have got past the 3rd hole of an 18 holes game. This is allowing for the golfers arrival hitting a few loosening shots, collecting their carts and scorecards before setting off to play.
From a Club point of view, especially in the light of falling revenues from the sales of rounds, and the ancillary revenue streams in F&B, pro shop sales, etc. the following tale might be illustrative of the type of initiatives which can work very effectively.

While I was the Professional at Southbroom Golf Club in the mid 1980’s and before some specific initiatives were put in place to combat the low levels of traffic off-season the Sunday field (except in the season) was always a bit of a damp squib.

In complete contrast the once monthly 5 holes meat competition on a Friday afternoon was a nearly always a ‘winner’.
I doubt if its popularity was because all of the competitors were rabid carnivores or mercenaries and therefore only there for the meat and or its prize value, but that the success of the event was based around it ‘compactness’.
The event was always played over the five holes which loop around the clubhouse from the 14th to 18th. Many players would come down and tee off for 9 holes using holes 10 through 13 as a warm up, before hitting the last five on which the competition scores would actually be based.
I can recall many a ‘meat comp’ Friday resulting in a full house of players and a long profitable and ‘jolly’ night for all (especially the Club’s finances!) in the bar – so it can be seen from this simple example that longer is not necessarily better.

5 club competitions are fun, generally played in quick time and good for the development of shot-making skills.

I would like to see a regular Club competition instituted where there is a cut off time - a bit like the Comrades marathon. Every 4-ball would be allowed to be on course for a specific time and once this had passed they would have to stop playing in the competition and any stableford points scored would only be counted only up to the point of the time limit.
Slow groups would have to let faster players through, etc. It should be fun and quick!
So – here’s to good golfing and a lot less time spent out on the links!
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