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  • Mike Clayton

There's more to golf than the score

Why do we score at golf? Is it really the point of the game?

I well remember my father coming back from golf long before I began to play and the first question was always, “What did you score?” Kids understand that sport on the basest level is all about the score, who won and who lost.

When I started to play, the score was the measure of progress and we all obsessed about it. Breaking 100 then 90 and 80 and then par was a big deal. You had to get a handicap so putting cards into the handicapper was part of the game.

Luckily for me, our house was on the very edge of the Eastern golf course (unsurprisingly in the east of Melbourne), and so much of my early learning of golf was about playing holes and hitting lots of shots around the course. Why hit one ball into the green when you could hit four or five? Just fix the pitch marks and put the divots back.

While scoring was still important and tournaments were an increasingly important part of my advancement, I was learning to play by spending a lot of time not worrying about scoring. It was all about hitting shots, trying things and finding out what worked and what didn’t.

There are a few ways to learn how to play golf. The average handicap I assume is still somewhere around 18 (probably 27 for women) so by definition most learn to play average golf.

Fellow Golf Australia columnist John Huggan was the instruction editor at a big American magazine for many years and he, with some irony, notes when he started the average American handicap was 17.8 and when he finished – having completed copious numbers of ‘Cure Your Slice’, ‘Pick Up 25 Yards’, and ‘Never 3-Putt Again’ stories with the best Tour players and teachers in America – the average handicap, not really surprisingly, was 17.8.

While these articles might offer some fix, to play better than bogey golf you need to take tuition, practise more than barely at all and learn how to play as opposed to simply hitting shots. This is where it gets confusing. You have to learn to play and to ‘score’ but you don’t necessarily learn to score by only scoring.

The surest way to stay average is to play rounds of golf with one ball in competition. A few years ago I played with a friend, a diligent and more than competent female golfer who had invited two other women to play a course we had redesigned. It was as much about her having me understand the way women played and the problems the golf course posed for them.

The two were average players (not good yet far from hopeless) but staggeringly – to me at least – neither had ever played golf (1) on their own, (2) with more than one ball, or (3) in something that wasn’t a competition. Inevitably they found more than a few bunkers and flailed away, mostly unsuccessfully, and had they been scoring any hope of a good round was ruined by their inability to play competently from the sand.

How, I asked, could you ever learn to play a bunker shot other than to go out onto the course on your own and hit lots of shots? They had never done it, which on one level was amazing but on another not at all. Clubs all have these silly rules about hitting only two balls on the course and we wonder why the average handicap never moves.

A good practice bunker is almost as good as a real one but nothing replaces hitting shots on the course and while it isn’t the only way to learn, it’s the best way.

How can you learn to putt other than by going out onto the course and hitting putt after putt in order to learn touch and feel? Putting is the one part of the game that takes no physical skill to be competent. Anybody can learn to putt but you have to ingrain the feel and the best way to do it is to get onto the course by yourself.

We in Australia are more competition-obsessed than most other countries. Seemingly most clubs run some form of competition most days of the week. It’s one ball in play and it’s all about scoring.

Golf is about so much more than writing a number on a scorecard at the end of each hole. I understand for almost 30 years much of my own golf was entirely centred on that piece of cardboard in the back pocket and perhaps that has clouded my judgment and my antipathy towards scoring.

The game is about playing the holes and the course and thinking about the questions they ask. It’s about playing with like-minded people and the beautiful and unique Australian way of sledging and having fun. It is about hitting shots and trying things you would not try if your life depended on making a four at the 14th.

It’s about playing carefree golf and if you can learn to play carefree golf it’s a certainty you will score better – just stop obsessing about it. And, don’t do it so often.


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