Golf is a simple game but hard to play. In essence the rule is very simple. One just has to hit a 1.68 inch diameter ball and put it into a hole four and a quarter inches wide. And one has to do it with the lowest number of hits of the ball, or strokes as it is called. Simple. That is when things start getting complicated. The golfer has a choice of fourteen clubs with which to hit the ball. And that includes a putter that is almost exclusively used in what is known as the green.
A typical golf course
Ok, let us look at a typical golf course. Most reasonably decent golf course comprise a series of eighteen holes, divided into two halves, called the front nine and the back nine. Unlike all other sports, golf does not have a set template on which courses are laid. Each course is different from the other, and each course might vary from one day to the next depending on where the hole is located on the green, whether the hazards have been modified, how rough the “rough” is, which tee box one is using, etc. Not to mention the wind conditions, weather conditions, and the temperament of the golfer on a particular day.
Par for the course
Let us look at a typical hole. There is a tee box from where you start playing the hole and there is flag in the distance depicting the hole in which the ball must finish in. Usually, an 18 hole course is a 72 par, meaning that it is expected golfers use no more than 72 strokes to complete the entire course. Most holes, usually 14 are par 4 while two each are par 3 and par 5 respectively. The distance from tee box to the hole also differs from hole to hole and from course to course. The total distance from the first tee to the 18th hole, is usually in excess of 6,000 yards, with championship course much longer. Most weekend golfers find it difficult to complete the course in 72 strokes and require considerably more strokes. The higher the number of strokes required to complete the course suggests that particular golfer’s handicap. For instance, if the golfer finishes the course in 90 strokes, the handicap is 18, since he has taken 18 extra shots to complete the course.
Most weekend golfers aim to “break 90” meaning they feel satisfied if they complete the course in no more than 18 extra strokes than what is considered par for the course. A good golfer aims to break 80, meaning they attempt to finish the course using no more than 8 extra strokes. This handicap is decided by the course one is playing in and the golfer cannot decide for himself what his handicap is. It is usually an average score after several rounds (usually at least 20) on that particular course.
The handicap system
So far, golfers were awarded handicaps by their home course. This was inconvenient since each course is different and when a golfer plays on another course, which could be more challenging, the handicap might well go up. There is a process that is now underway worldwide where a person’s handicap is calculated on a number of factors, including the level of difficulty of a particular course, the weather conditions on a particular day, etc. The erstwhile handicap system is giving way to what is called the World Handicap System, whereby each golfer is given an Index that balances the capabilities of the golfer with the difficulty of the course. This makes for a more even playing field.
The layout of a hole
Ok, let us take a look at a particular hole. As I mentioned, there is a tee box and there is the hole. In between the two is what is called a “fairway”. Fairways have mowed and manicured grass and this is where the golfer aims to land the ball. Each hole is laid in a way that it becomes easier for the golfer to reach the hole as long as the ball lands on the fairway. On the edges of the fairway is what is called the “rough”. Usually with much taller grass, maybe even vegetative debris into which the ball buries itself. It is much more difficult to hit the ball well from the rough. More often than not, it is when the ball lands in the rough, the golfer knows that a stroke or more would be required to complete the hole in addition to what is a par score for that hole. Most golfers attempt to hit the ball back onto the fairway for a clearer line to the green.
Further from the rough are what are called OBs or out-of-bound areas. If the ball lands in the OB, one or two stroke penalties ensue and the golfer has to get the ball back within what is within bounds of that hole, no more than two club lengths from the edge and continue the game. More often than not, this is also in the rough.
The inventors of the game and designers of golf courses were and are sadists. Roughs and OBs are not all what satisfies them. Sometime they put hazards right in the middle of the fairway, or around the green. These are either sand bunkers or water hazards. Sand bunkers are easier to get out of, in the sense that no stroke penalties are awarded. The golfer has to hit the ball out of the bunker and continue the game. Not as easy as it sounds. Good golfers always aim the ball in a way that it does not land in a bunker. Water hazards are trickier since they attract a stroke penalty. Additionally one loses a ball since it sinks to the bottom of the lake or pond or stream, whatever the case might be. Some courses even have island greens, where the green is surrounded by a body of water, making the shot on to the green very very challenging indeed.
Some holes are laid out in a tricky manner. It is not a straight line of sight between tee box and hole. It turns either to the right or left. This is called a dog leg. And usually the turn is at a distance that is either shorter or longer than what the person’s desired distance would be. For instance if I normally hit a ball with a driver a distance of 250 yards, the dog leg might be at 180 yards or 270 yards. This brings in the challenge of where to land the ball so that the next shot can become easier. The attempt is to land the ball in an area of the dog leg from where there is a clear line of sight to the green. When that pressure is on the golfer, often times the ball gets hit into the rough or out of bounds, making the score for that particular hole eminently forgettable.
Why fourteen clubs? Well, the difference between clubs is essentially the distance the ball flies through the air. A driver will send the ball the farthest. With each subsequent club the distance reduces by approximately ten yards. And this with the same swing, the same effort, the same force, same club speed, etc. The angle of the club head becomes steeper and steeper with each shorter club thus making the ball fly higher and therefore shorter.
When I was playing more than three decades ago, my fourteen clubs comprised four “woods”, (driver, three-wood, four-wood and five-wood), seven irons (from three to nine), two wedges (sand and pitching) and the putter. Life has changed, technology has advanced and golf has evolved. Nowadays one does not hear so much about the traditional woods. The driver is still there and people now use what are called hybrids. Some even use what is called a rescue wood. And they are not made of wood anymore with titanium or other such fancy material. The shafts on my clubs are made of steel, while the modern clubs are made from graphite. Much lighter, easier to use and much more forgiving to the wrists.
By the way, now that I have re-entered the magical world of golf once again, I am still using my clubs that are more than 40 years old. Soon, I will need to walk over to the dark side and get myself a modern set of clubs. Technically more advanced, and much more forgiving for bad shots.
What differentiates a weekend golfer from a good player?
At the same level of fitness, athleticism, experience, stance, grip, posture, etc? To my mind, it is the green. For an 18-hole par-72 course, if we take two shots on the green to putt the ball into the hole, that is 36 shots over 18 holes. Or 50% of the game. Another 25 odd per cent is the shot that puts the ball on the green. It is the short game that is 75% of the game. Anyone who has mastered the short game can hope to play to a single digit handicap.
Yet I see beginner golfers and others spend much of their time on the driving range with their drivers or long irons trying to hit the ball 300 yards. That is just one of the four shots on a par-4 hole. People spend inordinate amounts of time to try and hit a long ball, without realising that the real game starts much closer to the hole. Let us assume that a particular hole is 375 yards from tee to hole. How does it matter if one hits a 250 yard drive and mess up the next three shots. Personally, I would prefer to hit a controlled 200-225 yard drive, leaving me 150 to 175 yards to the hole. At least get on the green with the second shot. How does it matter if I use a 5-iron or a pitching wedge to get to the green as long as I get there? We are looking at landing on the green in regulation. That is, land on the green that leaves you two putts for a par score. People should spend most of their time perfecting their short game compared to beating the stuffing out of the ball with a driver. And that is where the final score gets impacted and the total comes out to be many strokes over par.
My remedy … perfect putting. Take no more than two putts on each green. As a beginner, maybe three. The first putt should place the ball within inches of the hole. That is the key to becoming a good golfer. A great golfer of course has an overall good game, but the difference lies in how well he plays the short game. If you want to break 90, or even 80, concentrate on your short game. When you go the driving range, hit balls a distance of 30 yards, 40 yards, 50 yards, 100 yards. Use your short irons. My personal favourite club is the 7-iron, followed by the 9-iron.
By the way, I am in no way a good golfer. I am still a beginner though my target is to play to scratch within the next few months.
An easy game that is hard to play
So that in essence is what golf is all about. Remember golf is not an easy game to play. It requires dedication, patience and practice. And I am yet to meet a golfer who is 100% satisfied with that day’s game. You are bound to have some bad shots. Over time and with practice the number of such bad shots will hopefully reduce. Raymond Floyd said, “They call it golf because all the other four-letter words were taken. If profanity had an influence on the flight of the ball, the game of golf would be played far better than it is. It is a game of endless tragedies and frustrations, but that is what makes golf what it is.
I’ll see you on the course.