Why do we all obsess about making golf so hard for ourselves?

The Scoop

In this week's Notebook Mark Townsend provides a one-second cure to making the game more enjoyable, quicker and easier. And it only took him 35 years to work it out

Around 15 years ago I was lucky enough to play Kingsbarns. It hadn’t long been open and we were all giddy so spent too long on the practice ground and putting green before finally heading to the 1st tee.

Here we were met by a very friendly character who advised us of our teeing options and we all then lied about our handicaps so we could go as far back as possible on each hole. In that split second we wrote off the chances of two of our group, who were off 18 on their best of days, while the other friend, who played off 3, and I spent the next four hours hitting long irons to a good chunk of the par 4s.

Weather and companion wise it was the perfect day, I’ve got a picture in my lounge of the four of us on that 1st tee and we often reminisce about it maybe being the happiest any of us have been on a golf course, but it has always stuck with me how much more fun it would have been, particularly for the higher handicappers, had we not been so intent on trying to make it as hard as possible for ourselves.

You can want to test yourself and compare yourself in some tiny regard to the boys on tour – we always like to repeat ad infinitum about how this is the only sport where we can play under the same conditions as our heroes – and ‘hit every club in the bag’ but, with a bit of hindsight, this was appalling judgement.

And has continued to be for the last 15 years.

I grew up at a course in London that, at full tilt, was around 5,600 yards. Given how far everyone hit it in the 80s this was all fine, there were half a dozen par 4s of around 420 yards where you would struggle to reach. You couldn’t drive any of the other 4s, there were no par 5s, and you might hit a wedge on three holes.

It was a relatively short course, you would always go elsewhere and courses would be longer, but there was nothing that out of the norm and they were comfortably my happiest golfing days. I could chip back then and putts would run at the hole, it was amazing.

Long hole

Somehow in the intervening years my radar has switched to only courses marked ‘Championship’, I like to see at the very least 6,700 yards of full-on terror on the scorecard, any shorter and someone in the party will enquire about the whereabouts of some back-tee plates that haven’t been in use for a decade, I’ll spend too long looking for the back tees in some distant bund, I won’t pay any attention to playing into a 40mph wind so won’t deviate from this practice – but I will have the distinction of having played off the white tees.

And with that I will have missed more greens than usual, hit more chips than I would like to which, given the general scheme of the past two decades, will have involved turning a further three shots into four or probably more.

Now, with a bit of maturity, common sense and the fact that I can’t hit it very far I can’t get to the yellow tees quick enough. Ten years ago my swing speed was 110mph. These days, with a creaky back and oversized paunch, my clubhead speed barely nudges above 96mph so I tend to see things a little differently.

So, despite getting plenty of help from modern-day technology and some very strong painkillers, to play a course that is somewhere between 6,500 and 7,000 yards is pretty much a nonsense.

I am still up in the higher echelons of being able to carry a ball with the driver –maybe 230-235 yards on a good day – so, given the average total driving distance was 208 yards last year, we can safely assume that I’m not the only one struggling.

You do wonder what we’re all thinking.

One evening last week I played my home course off the junior tees so I pretty much got to see the course through the eyes of someone who could hit it close to 300 yards and it was amazing. All of a sudden you are faced with a collection of shots from 90-120 yards and, hey presto, there is the odd birdie in there. It wasn’t the cake walk that somewhere in my head I thought it might be and it was still the same game, with some flubbed chips and a similar tentativeness on the greens.

So, given that I won’t start hitting it 300 yards off the tee, this is how I expect my summer evening’s golf to play out for the next few months; with a half bag of clubs, round in two and a half hours and a big incentive to do it all again as soon as possible.

Royal Dornoch

Recently I went on my annual trip with 14 others, all bar three having single-figure handicaps. And for the first time in 19 years we agreed in just a few seconds to play off the yellow tees at Royal Dornoch, the logic being that there would be four rounds in three days, the golf would get worse as the effects of tiredness and cooking lager kicked in, and by playing a course that still measured more than 6,200 yards with penal bunkers, lined by big chunks of gorse, with half of it into a bit of wind, hard-pan lies, sloping greens, some terrifying run-offs and the fact that none of us are very good then we might still not tear it to pieces.

Which, amazingly, proved to be correct.

Other than one par 4 which you could get within the chance to putting length which, in my case is 50 yards, it was like ‘normal golf’.

At the two par 5s I missed the green at both, given the approaches were from 220 yards, the par 3s needed a 5, 6, 9 and a wedge. The short holes at Dornoch don’t thankfully don’t follow the modern trend of 230-yard slogs.

And at the remaining par 4s I couldn’t reach one – it was 464 yards and into the wind – a couple of hybrids, a 5-iron, three 6s, an 8, a couple of 9-irons and a wedge. The scores were possibly one or two shots better than going back to the ‘Tiger tees’ and the experience was so much more enjoyable.

There, thankfully and finally, seems to be a growing trend in golf of showing some common sense; be it with including women better, making the rules more fathomable, not being told what to wear and making the game more enjoyable and playable.

I’ve been playing golf for 35 years and the penny has only just started to drop with the last point.

‘These Guys Are Good’, goes the old PGA Tour slogan. Unfortunately most of us aren’t so we need a bit of a helping hand.

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