New rules for the old game

 

So, after fours years of searching and investigating the R&A and the USGA have come up with a raft of solutions for speeding up the game and making it more enticing for people to play and take up.

Personally, other than allowing people to putt with the flag in the hole I really don’t see how any of these changes are going to help speed up the game or make it more attractive to the uninitiated.

Three minutes to find a lost ball, doesn’t work for me, but then what do I know? Anybody who has lost a ball (and who hasn’t?) will tell you that five minutes is barely enough to look for it. The problem of cutting the search time to three minutes is this — a five minutes ball search can allow you to call the next game through while you continue to look for the errant sphere. With only three minutes, no one is going to call up the next four-ball. So, all this will achieve is to bunch up the field.

I won’t even get started on all of the other changes because I truly believe they will just add confusion to the game. I guess grounding the club might make some difference, but to me, it takes away from the point of having a hazard. It’s changing the rules to appease those who are not willing to learn the rules. What next? Shall we make the hole bigger to accommodate those who take an age lining up a tap-in?

Repairing marks in the green will just lead to abuse of the rule and leaving decisions up to people’s own judgment as to whether they broke the rules or not, can only be a bad idea. Wonderful in theory, but in practice — look out for more course punch-ups and clubhouse altercations.

Ready to play is dumb… firstly it’s dangerous, being in front of someone playing a shot could be dangerous. Also, it takes away from the nuanced pressure that is put on by the furthest away playing first. A player that’s winning that drives well and is left with a short wedge can play his second shot quickly and easily if allowed to. But if his playing partner has knocked his shot close, that puts more pressure on the easy wedge. Ask yourself why do people often putt out first? There is less pressure.

Having a maximum number of shots capped for each hole doesn’t work. Learning to play the game is about improving and capping a shot count will not help with that. As an example, a two-ball playing the last, a par 4. Player A is winning by 4 shots but takes 10 hits on the last. Player B shots a bogey and so wins the match by one shot. Yet, had player A’s score been capped at 9… the match would be drawn. How is that fair?

And while we’re on the point of changing the game for the better – it does not need pumping music or unnecessary cheering and whooping while the golfers are swinging, or shot clocks! Take a look at the Snookers Shoot Out. What an unholy mess that is. Has it done anything to grow the game? I doubt it. It is just another opportunity for the TV companies to exploit the game under the guise of being different.

So, here are my seven very simple ways of speeding up the game and enticing more people to play – I came up with the in five minutes.

1) Put the majors back on terrestrial television. It’s not rocket science, is it? The more people who see the game and enjoy it, the more people might be tempted to play – especially the kids. Take a look at the park’s tennis courts after Wimbledon has been on the BBC — Chockablock!

When I was a young assistant, I can bear witness that the Monday after any Open, more people turned up to play the course.

Offering the majors up to the highest bidders may swell the coffers of the game’s governing bodies, but it does little to grow the game. The majors on cable TV, are only seen by the few who can afford it, this must limit the exposure. Does anyone have any idea how many non-golfers watch the Masters just for the beauty of the course and gentleness of the BBC commentary? By natural osmosis, this process will bring more people to the sport. I am sure the huge fee Sky pay for the privilege of showing the sport, facilitates amazing thing within the hallowed halls of the governing bodies. But I doubt if that money really ever filters down to the games grass roots.

2) Stop building golf courses that are 7400 yards long and that have ninety bunkers. This is pandering the image of Tiger and Rory playing your course week in, week out. It’s not going to happen. The game doesn’t need more courses like this. They are far too tough for beginners to play, even if they could get on them and too tough and expensive for the average player.

3) Build golf course that are 5000 yards long. This is where the new players should learn to play and maybe those who are more comfortable at this length could also play. No doglegs, no trees, and no bunkers. Just straight up and down — tee to green. For any novice, this is challenge enough. A par is a par whatever the length of the hole, as proved at this year’s Honda Classic, only 65 players had an under par average on the par threes.

I learned to play on a 5700-yard, par 68 course, and getting under par on that course was just as hard and any other course I’ve ever played.

This isn’t a new idea. Henry Cotton explained the theory to me some twenty years ago. And it’s an idea I believe he tried to pioneer in South Africa. Glamorous no, but sensible yes!

The problem is, those in control of the game believe it is a glamorous sport. Go tell that to the pro at the local nine-hole course when he’s opening his shop at 7 am, in the middle of winter, with four inches of snow on the course and temporary greens in play.

4) Build ten-hole golf courses, six-hole golf courses or more nine-hole golf courses. Players would be around in less than two hours and wouldn’t feel cheated that they had missed out on the last of holes they didn’t get to play of the full-size course. And they wouldn’t feel that they’re being away from their family and loved ones for too long.

5) Accept that we live in a different time. The ‘R&A’s Virtual Open’ was a step in the right direction but it could have gone so much further. Getting kids onto a golf course was never easy; nowadays, getting them out of their bedrooms and away from the computer screens is near impossible. So, the R&A and USGA need to buddy up with the virtual game makers and not to just to sell them the rights to their golden egg. They need to challenge the Pro tour, who must accept their responsibility to keep the game growing! They cannot just cherry pick the top players without a commitment to nurturing the next generation of golfers. And those who want to licenses must find ways of enticing the kids out of their bedrooms. For example, invite them to come and try the game for real, by putting on traveling roadshows displaying the newest virtual games at golf courses. Let the kids play with the latest technology, but only after they’ve tried their hand at the good old fashion, swinging a real club at a real ball. I repeat — it’s not rocket science.

6) Accept that we live in a different time II. Get rid of the antiquated dress codes. Denim is here to stay – get over it. Some shirts don’t have collars, so what? Smart casual is acceptable at just about every function and so it should be on the golf course.

7) And lastly, to grow the game we have to be truthful. We are not! Private clubs and their members are often over protective of their courses and their tee times. They must open their hearts, their arms and their courses to new members — all races, all creeds, all religions, kids and women alike. We live in a world where members talk a good table about wanting to game to grow, but not on their own course, especially if it affects their own tee times.

The competition out there today from other sports, from time restrictions, and the virtual world, is too great and unless golf gets its house in order, the game will shrink and possibly be lost forever. Do not ignore the desire by many to tear up courses and used the green sites for housing. There is a huge secret in the game today that many refuse to own up to. While the well invested, high profile clubs with hotels and hospitality are doing well, a whole bunch of other smaller clubs with receding memberships are hurting and hanging together by the shoelaces of their spikes.

The governing bodies have to realize that the European Tour and the USPGA tour are not golf – they are businesses, businesses that look after their own interests and participants. The best the professional game can ever be to the amateur sport is an advert for the game. Just as the Premier League is an advert for those who play on Hackney Marshes. Yes, the sport is the same, but the game is different and one should not emulate the other. Otherwise, we will see the local Pub teams striving for the unaffordable Goal-line technology! I think we need to be clear, are we trying to speed up the pro game or the Sunday morning four-ball?

The R&A and USGA are fine upstanding people, a little dated maybe, a little Jurassic certainly, but they care passionately about the game. The unfortunate thing is that they are the custodians of golfing bastions like the Home of Golf, The Open championship, and the USGA championship. These sway them into the riches and fame of the Pro tour. Personally, I wish they would just give the Opens championships to the Pro to organize, enabling them to concentrate all their energy on the excellent job they do organization the amateur game and putting more effort into grass root development and using the professional circus just as the ultimate lure to bring people to the game.

 

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