News & Opinion

Golf isn’t fun, but it could be rewarding

Let me say this up front, and then I’ll explain later: Golf isn’t fun.

It bugs me that most industry ads aimed at promoting golf participation have a common theme, and it’s always some variation of “Play golf because it’s fun.”

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Industry veteran Barney Adams has some advice to make the game more appealing to the average player, and it's really quite simple.

Golf hasn’t been around for centuries evoking a unique passion among its devotees because it’s “fun.”

Golf is hard, maddening, frustrating and, on many occasions, a good walk spoiled. I’ve taken a few of those walks, believe me. Yet those of us who love the game keep coming back for more. Before I moved to the California desert to spend my golden years basking in the sun’s glorious warmth, I sometimes even ignored bad weather to tee it up.

Why? Because golf is rewarding, which isn’t quite the same thing as fun.

Look up “fun” in the dictionary and you’ll get this definition: “enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure.” Do any of those things describe your last round when you paid $48 for the green fee and a cart, lost half a dozen $5 golf balls, shot 97 and lost bets three ways to your bridge-playing buddies who aren’t going to let you forget it for a week?

We should stop trying to sell golf as “fun.” You know what is fun? Topgolf is fun. I take my grandkids there, and we have a great time. I skulled a 7-iron shot into a target and won bragging rights on our last visit to Topgolf. That’s correct: I skulled it. The last time I skulled a shot on a real golf course, the ball went into another ZIP code. That ball is still out there somewhere, as far as I know. Any jackals are welcome to it.

Real golf is rewarding but with different degrees of reward. Most of us aren’t going to shoot under par or hit 18 greens in regulation or be Ben Hogan-like shot-making virtuosos all the way around the course. That reward is reserved for the fortunate few who play the game at the highest level.

The rewards for you and me are much smaller. Maybe one well-played hole. Most of us can do at least that much every now and then. Sometimes, it can be a single shot, maybe even a lucky one like a skulled 7-iron that clangs off the flagstick and drops; a once-in-a-lifetime hole-in-one; an unlikely long putt; or hitting a bunker shot onto the green on the first try.

We play for small victories and small rewards because mastery of the game eludes us, and it always will.

So how should golf pitch rewarding instead of fun to attract more players? The answer falls under the heading of “course layout” and should be championed by the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association. I’ve got some examples using real data, not just my opinion.

Years ago, a former USGA technical director reported that his study revealed that the average golfer’s driving distance was 192 yards. Who are the 192 hitters? They are the overall majority of players who play and – this is the important part – financially support the recreational game. Their brethren and heirs are not coming onboard in numbers. A pure age analysis shows that they are a declining population, albeit with a huge revisor that is retiring and could decide to play.

These everyday players love to watch the 300-yard drives of PGA Tour players and marvel that the average iron hit into greens is an 8 by the pros, even if it’s from 170 yards or more. Even better, these pro-level iron shots are struck consistently – high and landing with spin, allowing these star players to shoot for targets within the confines of the green.

Those shots are fun to watch, but our 192 group doesn’t hit 170-yard 8-irons. If they make that occasional good swing, their 8-iron goes roughly120 yards, and rather than aiming for a precise spot on the green, they are simply trying to get on the putting surface.

What does this have to do with rewarding? I was recently asked to analyze a course that had installed forward tees. The course’s overall length was 5,900 yards, par 70. It should have been perfect, but something was wrong.

The problem was there were six holes that looked like this to the average player: Hole length, about 350-some yards. An average 192-yard drive left a 162-yard approach, and in each case, that meant a 162-yard approach over a forced carry, either a pond or bunker.

The 192-hitters don’t have a high, soft shot that flies 162 yards. They might have a low bullet that goes that far, but it’s not going to hold the green, so the sensible play is to lay up. That gets old, and it’s definitely not rewarding. Or fun.

If the average player’s second shot on a forced-carry approach was only, say, 125 yards, then he would have a chance to hit a solid shot onto the green. That would be rewarding. We 192-hitters aren’t good enough to hit center-face solid shots every time. Give us the chance that we’ll be rewarded with a birdie putt just some of the time, and that experience keeps us playing. That would accurately be defined as “fun.” Moving tee markers up 40 yards solves the forced-carry problem and is far more practical, as well as less expensive than removing a bunker or pond.

A 370-yard par 4 with a slightly downhill-sloping fairway into a green that’s open in the front again gives us a chance to be rewarded, as well.

This isn’t a simple distance issue. This means understanding the concept of rewarding and placing at least one set of tees accordingly. Golf courses are defined by fairway width, firmness, elevations, hazards and a few other things. That’s why the good folks who promote the game need to produce guidelines on how to make courses rewarding and, to be blunt, more playable for the masses and, therefore, more rewarding.

Years ago, I was very fortunate to play a few rounds with Lee Trevino, arguably one of the greatest ball-strikers of all time. He didn’t play the official tees as marked; he played from whichever tees he wanted. Some were forward; some were back.

I asked why and Trevino answered, “Barnyard, I just want to be able to hit the same shots to the green I always did.”

I never forgot his comment, but I didn’t appreciate the genius behind it until I came upon the concept of “rewarding.” It’s exactly what Lee was doing. He was playing golf to have the opportunity to be rewarded.

The PGA of America and the USGA need to build this into a movement by emphasizing more practical tee boxes and course setups: shorter holes, little or no rough and fewer bunkers, if possible.

Let’s stop trying to tell beginners who are struggling with our frustrating game that golf is “fun.” We’re not fooling them.

Golf isn’t fun. It is rewarding, if you stick with it. I know that’s a tough sell in our instant-gratification society, but that’s the approach we need to promote and grow golf. That’s the story we should tell.

Golf is fun? That lie looks unplayable.

Long-time industry insider Barney Adams founded the former Adams Golf company. Adams, who lives in Indian Wells, Calif., and supposedly is retired, is involved with Breakthrough Golf Technology putter shafts. Has he played golf all of his life? Not yet.