Things tend to slow down when you get to a golf course. It’s one of the joys of the game for, let’s be honest, who’s in a rush to get home to mow lawns or clean gutters.
While plenty of us are seemingly increasingly time-poor, may it forever stay that way. Let this tradition continue, I say.
And, until what I saw recently at Yarra Bend Golf, on the fringe of Melbourne’s CBD, those finest of established ways had few natural predators. Golf had to take time. This was a game that was supposed to be played unrushed. Until now.
Alarmingly, as one who enjoys the relief and escape provided by half a day strolling fairways and feebly negotiating left to right down-hillers, I can report that there is a new way of playing this great and ancient game. And it has a name.
It’s called speed golf.
You’ve probably heard about. But until you see it, you can’t quite believe it.
A player and his marker run Olympic 10,000m type splits carrying four to five clubs, with or without a bag. If no bag goes along for the run, the player wears a utility belt into which a couple of spare balls and tees are plugged.
They’re not wearing anything featured in Ian Poulter’s latest range, either. These players are dressed more for a half marathon than they are a Wednesday comp round. No debate about soft or metal spikes, either. Playing speed golf you wear Asics or Brooks, not Footjoy or Niblick.
The round starts with a countdown and once at zero, you are on the clock.
Every second counts, as does every shot. So everything is precious. Every fairway missed, every second spent searching, every missed green, every three-putt.
Putting is a particularly sensitive element of speed golf. There’s no time to read greens, but there’s a premium on playing extra shots so somehow, with your heart pounding and time on the fly, you desperately fight every physical instinct to keep rushing and force yourself to make as reasonable a stroke as possible.
Rob Hogan, Ireland’s world No.1 who had every intention of breaking the world record at Yarra Bend, putts one-handed. Every second counts, remember, so the scratch-marker, teaching pro, who spent time on Europe’s Challenge Tour, saves time by not laying down his clubs and picking them up once he’s holed out. He routinely breaks 80. In a tick over half an hour. He knows what he’s doing.
It’s other worldly watching these men and women play speed golf.
You arrive at the course to see players running at serious speeds alone (albeit for their marker). They are invariably running up the middle of the fairway because this is a national open and those participating have got game, not just wheels.
Somehow they’ve trained their brains to adjust once they need their short game, for they are expert at getting the ball in the hole. One of the variations of speed golf means that you leave the flag in the hole when putting. Once retrieved, it’s a check of the watch and then a sprint to the next tee.
It all sounds rather gruelling, I suppose. I can just imagine what Stan Wotherspoon, Neil Race and Stewie Foster would say about this (my regular playing partners at Kingswood, the youngest at 71, all of them keen on a post-round red), but having played nine holes after the good players were done in the Open, I must report a certain liberation that speed golf encourages.
I will declare that I’m a slow, once-a-year marathoner, so there is a very moderate running base that I took to Yarra Bend. But once away and into the round, the game becomes somehow simpler. No yardages (the much-loved Bushnell stayed in the car), no time for internal bickering about which club to hit, no fears about what the “Big Miss” might bring, no time to worry about grips and alignment and swing planes.
With the essence getting to your ball as quickly as possible and hitting it likewise, the stresses of the game are eliminated and there’s a freedom that you find. The good players told me about the zone they get in, they start talking about speed golf as one might talk about yoga. Having played nine holes, I have an appreciation for what they mean.
Playing alternate shots with my mate Mick Carroll, a 15-handicapper from Kew, we hardly missed a shot. I chunked my 9-iron on the eighth, but if you know Yarra Bend GC, I defy you to make a good swing having run up the hill from the seventh green. I was lucky to still be upright by the time I’d completed my stroke. We made a gutsy four, for the record, then parred the last for six over the nine in a tick under 25 minutes.
The thing was, we hit it great. Really! Missed two fairways, scrambled well when needed, found enough greens to make three or four pars all with hearts pounding and sweat dripping. There was no time to stress, we both just had to hit the thing and move on.
Putting was the hardest component of the game to get right. A beta blocker or two would’ve come in handy trying to stop the hands from shaking from the exertions of the run and making a smooth stroke was really tough. But with the clock never far from your mind, you don’t blame a blemish on the green for your poor stroke. You just move on. Quickly.
It was a fascinating experience. Golf has its challenges in the modern landscape with so many players unable to commit the time they need to the game. We see so many squeezing themselves into lycra and jumping on a bike. The images created by that are often bordering on crimes against humanity, so speed golf offers a genuine golfing alternative and hope that the sight of 40-year-old men in lycra might actually decline.
I can genuinely see a day when players, short of time and keen to stay fit, are given access to time sheets at clubs around Australia. Before the traditional players hit off, the speed golfers are away. At first light, on courses everywhere, players will be running all over the place. I’m yet to be convinced of its suitability should there be three or four in a group, but I’d love to see it unfold.
Other than marvelling at the good players’ ability to play so well, so quickly, if speed golf keeps people playing, that has be a very good thing for the game.
FOOTNOTE 1: Mitch Williamson, from Orange, NSW, did break the world record at Yarra Bend that day. He shot 77 in 31 minutes and 54 seconds.
FOOTNOTE 2: Suddenly the bride isn’t as reluctant to let me go and have a hit. “You can play 18-holes in an hour?” she noted. Sharp as a tack, my wife. Not so the creator of speed golf!