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When Faster Is Better

Speedgolf record-holder Christopher Smith on how it can help your score with Guy Yocom

MY SHOT / SPEEDGOLFER AND PGA PRO / 57 / EUGENE. OREGON

A LOT OF GOLFERS have shot lower personal-best scores than the 65 I shot at Jackson Park Golf Course in Chicago on Oct. 16, 2005. What makes mine different is that I shot the score in a fraction over 44 minutes, carrying my bag with six clubs. It was at the Chicago Speedgolf Classic, and I beat a field of roughly 40 other like-minded players. It landed me in me the Guinness World Records for lowest Speedgolf score, and the record still stands. It’s not the kind of thing that gets me stopped in airports, but it’s led to an interesting life and career.

THE FORMULA FOR SPEEDGOLF scoring is simple and has never changed. You take the number of strokes and add it to your time in minutes and seconds, and that’s your score. The Jackson Park score was expressed as 109.06. My Speedgolf round of 66 on the Ghost Creek course at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, played in 48 minutes and 30 seconds, meant a score of 114.30. The formula is one of those perfect accidents, like the hole being 4¼ inches wide, or the bases in baseball being 90 feet apart. If the time aspect were weighted more heavily, it would just be a track meet, and if it were all about golf, players wouldn’t try to play fast.

ONE OF OUR COMPETITORS is Bernard (Kip) Lagat, the legendary Kenyan-American middle- and long-distance runner who is a five-time Olympian and ran the second-fastest 1,500 meters ever. I played with Kip for the first time in a practice round for the 2013 Speedgolf World Championships at Bandon Dunes and immediately thought he’d be a threat because he was so much faster than the rest of us it was a joke. But Bernard was a newbie golfer. Despite his smooth swing, he struggled with accuracy and had to cover a lot more ground between shots. His speed wasn’t enough to compensate for his wayward ball-striking.

SPEEDGOLF is a compelling TV sport—CBS Sports covered the Speedgolf World Championship in 2012 at Bandon Dunes—yet challenging to watch in person. It has its limitations, as Mike Keiser, the owner and creator of Bandon Dunes and for years a huge benefactor of Speedgolf, has lamented. Mike and I actually discussed building a golf version of the Circus Maximus—the Roman chariot-racing stadium—so spectators could view an entire round of Speedgolf and multiple players at the same time. Stay tuned.

YOU CAN PLAY Speedgolf anywhere, but the best courses are the old-school designs with little distance between green and next tee. Hilly courses can be brutal, and I never watch the Masters without imagining how hard Augusta National would be having to run up 18. I’m still waiting for my invite in the mail. Firm turf is a bonus, which is part of what made Bandon Dunes such an awesome venue. And be wary of hot or humid days. One of the toughest Speedgolf events I ever played was in Linz, Austria, in the middle of summer. Hot and hilly, it was survival of the fittest. Carry some water if you so choose, but it’s 18 holes at the most, not a 26.2-mile marathon. Some new Speedgolfers choose to start with just a few holes and intersperse some walking with the running. Just enjoy the slightly faster ride.

SPEEDGOLF is played all over the globe, with tournaments in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and in the United States. Like a lot of competitive tours, it’s been disrupted by the coronavirus. But I’ve always viewed Speedgolf as an end in itself, a sport you play for pure enjoyment, exercise and the challenge. It’s best played first thing on weekday mornings, preferably where you can go off as the first player. Check with your local golf courses—they might be more accommodating than you think for the individual who wants to tee off at the crack of dawn.

WE SPEEDGOLFERS are the rodeo clowns of golf. We’re mildly entertaining and good at what we do, but not as compelling as PGA Tour players. They’re the bull riders; we’re more a curiosity. But rodeo clowns are important. They protect the cowboys and add an interesting dimension to the sport. Speedgolfers serve a purpose, too, by setting an example for pace of play and showing why playing faster usually means playing better. I’ve been playing and coaching professionally since 1988, won PGA chapter and section awards, made top-teacher lists and been a master instructor at the Jim McLean Golf Schools. However, my best “nuggets” and insights come directly out of my Speedgolf endeavors.

THE LONGER YOU STAND over the ball, the worse the shot that follows. If you watch the video of Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters, you’ll notice he took longer to pull the trigger as the round went on, and awful shots followed his longest waits. Even casual fans could sense he was taking too long. You can sense the doubt creeping in as overthinking set in. You can tell that Nick Faldo senses it, too. Taking too much time is a killer. As one of my coaching models, the great John Wooden, put it so well, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”


“THE LONGER YOU STAND OVER THE BALL, THE WORSE THE SHOT THAT FOLLOWS.”

IN 1995, fellow teaching pro and competitive runner Tim Scott saw an article in Runner’s World about Speedgolf, which was in its infancy. We went over to Broadmoor Golf Course in Portland and played nine holes apiece, taking turns caddieing for one another, using a handful of clubs. I shot even par in under 30 minutes. I wanted to know: Why did I play so well?

THE ANSWER WAS, it was all instinct and intuition. That’s how humans are wired to perform. The quest for precision hurts performance. When you estimate you’re 150 yards away, the brain can grasp the concept, but when the range finder reveals you’re 151.4, the computer on your shoulders quietly rebels. With the precise number comes a silent demand to be perfect, the golfer’s nemesis. We’re much better knowing that we’re about 150 yards and reacting to the ballpark approximations. And the innate ability to factor in your lie, elevation, wind and pin position? For that, the mind-body system will blow away any piece of plug-and-play technology in your arsenal.

JACKIE BURKE JR., the legendary pro at Champions Golf Club in Houston, is big on the approximations concept. Recently, after a PGA Professional Golf Management teaching assignment (I’m an adjunct faculty member with the PGA of America) at Sam Houston State, I drove over to pick his brain. “If anybody needed precise yardages, it was the cave man, because he either speared the deer or starved,” he said. “Well, the cave man didn’t use a yardage book, range finder or green-reading chart, and somehow the human species survived.” Mr. Burke said the ultimate golf cave man was his good friend Ben Hogan, because he hit it hole-high repeatedly using only his eyes, feel and imagination. “Ben won a lot of majors while managing not to get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger,” he said.

WHEN I WAS 14, I was playing alone behind an older couple at a public course in Eugene. Patience was not my greatest virtue, and on one hole, my drive rolled into the back of the woman’s foot. Not hard enough to hurt her, but boy, was her husband mad. I apologized profusely and got a stern lecture. The next hole, I waited until they were 40 to 50 yards off the green, then proceeded to hit a nasty hook on my approach shot that one-hopped into the same woman’s backside. Yikes! Is it any wonder I fell into a form of golf played with no one in front of me?

SPEEDGOLF USES what I call the Suvorov Principle. Alexander Suvorov was an 18th-century Russian military commander who was 63-0 in major battles. Napoleon was a 19-handicapper by comparison. One of Suvorov’s techniques was to be efficient and ruthless in preparing his army for battle. His mantra? Easy training, hard battle; hard training, easy battle. Speedgolf by nature is far more demanding than conventional, slower golf, hence the game is easier. When’s the last time someone told you golf was easy?

BROOKS KOEPKA is a modern-day poster child for fast play, with Rory McIlroy a close second. Brooks has been amazingly forthright about golf being a slow game, and a boring one between shots. When another player is slow, he isn’t shy about pointing a finger. You know how in the closing holes of a major, the pace of play slows down? When Brooks is in contention, he sometimes stands with his arms folded, looking slightly annoyed by the delay. Even when there’s a lot at stake, he’s like, Can we please get on with it? Brooks is a Speedgolfer at heart, no doubt about it.

SO WHAT DO WE DO about slow players? The one thing we know is that punishment doesn’t work, not for PGA Tour players and not for the club player. The solution is incentive and reward. When golfers realize that playing faster improves performance—and who doesn’t want to get better?—the paradigm shifts. Prime starting times at the club for proven faster players. Golfshop credit to the laggard who improves his time the most. Adults are no different than kindergartners—they respond better to positive reinforcement. When you catch slowpokes playing faster, give them a cookie. Or maybe a Coors Light.

TIGER WOODS’ PACE OF PLAY is about average, but the way he apportions his time is fascinating. I was in the gallery at Pumpkin Ridge when he won the 1996 U.S. Amateur and noticed that when he arrives at his ball, he turns on his conscious mind (the “coach,” if you will) to gather all pertinent information. When it’s time to swing, he allows his subconscious (the “team”) to do its thing. You see, the coach doesn’t play, the team does. Tiger learned at a young age, with help from his father, Earl, and coaches John Anselmo, Rudy Duran and Jay Brunza, to be in a state of “receiving” information using his senses, rather than “sending” information with conscious swing thoughts. Feels, sounds and pictures were flooding his system during the motion as opposed to “how-to” scenarios. Works pretty well, apparently.

SOME UNUSUAL CHARACTERS have participated in Speedgolf. The most amazing is Karl (Speedgoat) Meltzer, a good player and ultrarunner who specializes in 100-mile trail runs. He’s won 38 of them. He broke the speed record for the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail in 2016 and ran the 2,000-mile Pony Express trail from Sacramento, Calif., to St. Joseph, Mo., in only 40 days. Karl blew through seven pairs of running shoes. On one of the days, he ran 23 miles, stopped and played nine holes of golf, then ran 24 more. Running 18 holes for Karl was like a walk around the block for most.

SPEEDGOLF MOST RESEMBLES the biathlon, which is the most-watched winter TV sport in Europe. You arrive at the ball completely out of breath, like the cross-country skier does when arriving at the rifle station. The challenge is to control your breathing and slow down your heart rate so you can steady your rifle—or in the case of Speedgolf, manage the clubface and swing. The technique is to take slower, deeper breaths through your nose rather than pant with your mouth open. It works really well under pressure. Tom Watson said it best: “When I learned how to breathe, I learned how to win.”

 


“THE QUEST FOR PRECISION HURTS PERFORMANCE.”

GOLF HAS ALWAYS encouraged conformity, and Speedgolf is sort of a nonconformist way to play. Talk about getting stared at. As a kid growing up in Oregon, one of my heroes was Steve Prefontaine, the great runner who at various times held American records at seven distances. Before he died in a car accident in 1975 at age 24, he confronted the AAU over its refusal to pay amateur athletes. He was living on food stamps and in a trailer when international runners were state-sponsored or paid as professionals. Pre stood his ground. “Just because you are one man and they are many, doesn’t mean they are right,” he said. Golf needs more participants, pace of play continues to be a detriment, and we’re bending toward the desires of youth and alternative forms of play.

AN ELDERLY GUY said to me once, “I’m getting so old, I’m hitting all my clubs the same distance.” Funny line, but most amateurs don’t generate enough clubhead speed to create meaningful gaps between clubs. So why are they carrying 14? The six clubs I typically carry are driver, 4-wood, 8- and 5-irons, 52-degree sand wedge and putter. A loftier wedge would help at times, but on the other hand, most players who carry multiple wedges are not very good with any of them.

 


“MAKE THE PRACTICE HARD, AND THE REAL DEAL BECOMES EASY.”

 

ONE OF MY FAVORITE coaching concepts is to reduce the student’s set from 14 clubs to half that and take them out for nine holes. On the first fairway, they almost always are faced with a shot that isn’t a perfect match for any of the clubs they chose. Do they full-nuke a 6-iron, or three-finger a 20-degree hybrid? The looks on their faces as they contemplate is amazing. The outcome of the shot, good, bad or ugly, makes them smile because it summoned their creativity, problem-solving skills and imagination—ancient human traits. They always leave having learned something meaningful about shotmaking and their innate ability to get the ball close to the hole. And if the lesson took place on Wednesday, they almost never fail to beat their buddies on Saturday.

I ENTERED the 2006 Oregon Open having played largely Speedgolf rounds carrying only six clubs. For the tournament, I added three clubs, bringing my total to nine. It felt like cheating. I shot 11 under for 54 holes and lost in a sudden-death playoff to Scott Krieger. At no point during the tournament do I recall thinking, I wish I’d brought my 6-iron or something else. Krieger, ironically, carried two putters because of ongoing issues on the greens: a long boy for some putts, and what looked like a kid’s lefty model for others. Used them both on the hole he closed me out.

GOLFERS ARE AMAZINGLY adaptive. In the 1987 Ryder Cup, Ben Crenshaw broke his putter on the way to the seventh tee of his singles match against Eamonn Darcy. Putting mostly with his 1-iron, Crenshaw took the match to the 18th hole before losing, and he putted pretty well. I was lead PGA instructor at Pumpkin Ridge for 18 years. One day in a Speedgolf training round, I discovered upon arriving on the first green that I’d left my putter in my office. I decided that rather than running back to fetch it, I’d simply putt with whatever club put me on the green. I was unconscious and made everything, like Chevy Chase in “Caddyshack.” On the back nine, I made five birdies in a row using four different clubs, none of them a putter. I shot 68 in 50 minutes and change. Immediately afterward, I emailed Dr. Christian Marquardt, friend, mentor, rock-star neuroscientist and inventor of the ultrasound-based putter measurement system, the Science And Motion (SAM) PuttLab. I was looking for insight and answers—and I confess, to brag a little. His response: “The task in putting is to roll the ball into the hole, and you rapidly adapted with whatever tool (club) you had in hand, as humans are designed to do.” He was very frank and not particularly impressed.

EVER HEAR of the shag bag? It was your personal bag of balls, and you’d take them to a field and hit them, then go pick them up. It made practice really productive because there was a price to pay for spraying shots everywhere.

With modern ranges, golf has become the only sport where the practice is easier than the actual game. The unlimited balls and automatic do-overs with no consequence are like using spellcheck on your device—you get it right eventually but don’t really learn to spell. Something else is doing the work for you. The shag bag isn’t coming back, and we’re all glad for it, but our practice would improve if we somehow could attach more importance to each shot—say, by donating a nickel or dime or whatever hurts your pocketbook to charity for every ball we hit.

SEVE BALLESTEROS was not only a brilliant bunker player, he knew how to teach it. He’d simply hand amateurs an 8-iron and say, “Use this until you can get the ball out.” It would take them a while, but little by little, by intuitively opening the face, lowering the handle and widening the stance, they eventually could hit decent shots. When they switched to their sand wedge, it was gravy. Seve was simply applying the Suvorov Principle—make the practice hard, and the real deal becomes easy.

STUDIES SHOW that the brain and body function better when you’re in motion physically. That’s one reason I’ve shot hundreds of rounds under par in less than an hour. But staying in motion is also the secret for enduring slow play. Lee Trevino, while he waited to hit, paced like a caged cat. It was his way to combat nerves and anxiety. It was an instructive way for his system to remain calm and engaged, so that when it was his turn to play, he could flow immediately into hitting the shot.

TREVINO’S CONSTANT chatter and movement were keys, too. Studies by Dr. Marquardt and Dr. Debbie Crews—both experts on the yips—note that talking (to occupy the conscious mind) and movement are critical to performance. Trevino’s talking allowed his powerful subconscious to take over and do its job. Heck, during the closing holes of the 1971 British Open, Trevino, who had watched his lead shrink, actually was talking while he addressed the ball, obviously to stave off choking. It worked, and he won by one.

THE BIGGEST TIME KILLER is looking for balls in the rough or trees. It’s part of why the USGA shortened the search limit from five minutes to three. It’s not just the player who spends time searching for his ball, his buddies have wandered across the fairway to help him look. Speedgolf taught me to develop a reliable tee shot, a little butter-cut that finds the fairway more often than not. My driving distance never impressed anyone, but short and straight keeps the big numbers off my card and keeps the pace up.

GIVE SPEEDGOLF A TRY. Find a moment when a few holes are empty, grab your bag and a handful of clubs and play three holes as fast as you can. I predict you’ll score darned well. And I promise that when you finish, a cold beer has never tasted so good.