I started playing golf as a youngster more than 35 years ago. In the early 1990s, though, I walked off the public course I normally played and didn’t pick up a club for about five years. Why? Neither my temperament nor my personal life could handle taking 4 1/2 to 5 hours or more to play 18 holes.
For that reason, W. Eric Laing’s America! What Have You Done to the Auld Game? should be right in my sweet spot. In it, Laing, a self-described “grumpy old Scotsman,” uses a semi-autobiographical approach in lamenting and attacking how long it takes play a round of golf in the U.S. these days. While I wholeheartedly agree, Laing tends to overclub.
Laing starts where every golfer should — the rules of golf. Laing builds his case on Section I of the rules. It is entitled “Etiquette” and the first entry is “consideration for other players.” Laing hits it straight and true when he points out that much of the slow play today results from ignorance of simple courtesies that speed the game along for everyone on the course. Laing tells of personal experiences many of us have shared.
There’s the guy who’s walking back and forth on the fairway in range of the tee box talking on his cell phone while the rest of his foursome is up near the green. There’s the foursome that sees a twosome catching up to it and, through ignorance or spite, refuses to let the twosome play through. There’s the guys that look over each putt from four or more angles, plumb bob it each time and then start the same several minute procedure over again each time they run the putt past the hole because they never saw the line to begin with.
Where the overclubbing occurs is in repetition. For example, the book repeats the following basic argument in several chapters: Pro golfers play to put food on their table. Therefore, each shot and putt is critical to them. That is not so for amateurs. Thus, amateurs should stop imitating all the things they see the pros do during televised tournaments. Similarly, Laing repeatedly says match play (where the winner is decided by who “won” the most holes rather than total score) would speed things along. I’m a huge fan of match play and that is undoubtedly true. But after having realized Laing’s interest in this alternative, the reader tends to weary of having it repeated and repeated. It becomes too much like the mulligans he (rightfully) condemns.
Laing also lays blame on his belief that America treats golf as a business. Having paid their money, people figure they can take as much time as they want in a round. Likewise, courses fail or refuse to takes steps to speed up play for frear of irritating “the customer.”
All of Laing’s points are legitimate. But Laing also seems to have a slight bias against golfers like me, those who never have and never will play to a single-digit handicap. For example, in asserting that more golfers should use match play to speed things along, he says, “The average amateur has no business worrying about how many strokes he is taking for eighteen holes until his official handicap is less than ten.” There’s a couple problems with that.
First, the handicap is what makes match play most fair. It tells the golfers who, if anyone, is entitled to a stroke or two on any particular hole. Yet a golfer’s handicap is generally based on the best 10 of his last 20 rounds of golf. While the handicap system does allow a golfer to record their “most likely score” on a hole they do not complete, that may not produce the most accurate handicap. After all, how many of us have not two-putted from 5 feet? Granted, posting full 18-hole medal scores isn’t crucial but those of us with handicaps between 10 and 18 still enjoy those rare occasions where we legitimately broke 80 (or other magic number).
Second, my personal experience is that low handicap players are the biggest offenders when it comes to spending an inordinate amount of time over a ball or putting. I have waited more often on those players than people at my level of play. We mid-handicappers tend to view the game as just that — a game played for enjoyment. We’re not out there worrying about our handicaps or some convoluted betting game like many single digit handicappers.
At bottom, though, Laing is on a crusade I wholly support and many more golfers need to join. Moreover, he hits the ball squarely in starting with and reiterating the importance of consideration for other golfers. While the increasingly slow pace on golf courses likely correlates with the upsurge in the number of people playing, I don’t blame it on numbers alone. When I learned to play golf, the teaching pro at my municipal course made sure you not only learned the mechanics, you learned courtesy and etiquette and your impact on the people playing behind and around you.
Golf’s explosion, though, has led more and more people either to learn golf in mass lessons or from some friend or relative. Too often, these approaches look solely at trying to hit the ball and not the simple things that can avoid unnecessarily lengthening the time it takes to play a round of golf.
As a result, rather than seeing courtesy engrained in new golfers, they may be learning the opposite. And that is one area where Laing hits another tremendous shot. He rightly fears that “soon, we’ll have a whole generation of amateur golfers who think that the game is played over a period of five hours.” The question is whether that generation is already here.
By the way, when I did return to the links, it was at a private club with limited membership. While that course makes an effort to enforce a four-hour rule — one I never broke after joining — I’m still giving Laing’s book to the pro. After all, it can’t hurt. Maybe it will even become required reading for new members and those in their family who golf.