It's a Tough Game!

When we talk about the game of golf at the professional level, the comment that almost always comes up is “Yeah, but it’s just a tough game!” Recently, a broadcaster admonished his audience “Mothers, don’t let your children grow up and play golf for a living.” A friend of mine facetiously classifies junior golf as organized child abuse. Yet we have over 26 million golfers in the United States who continue to play the game for both recreation and enjoyment. Amazing, isn’t it? Burleson Consulting published the following article this year in its on-line forum:

Golf: The world’s hardest sport?

Depending on your definition of minimal proficiency, it can take hundreds of hours of practice to be able to enjoy playing golf. My Dad used to say that you must strike at least 10,000 gold balls to be proficient, while other claim that you must hit at least 100,000 golf balls to achieve proficiency as a golfer.

To play “bogie” golf (a score of 90 or less), most experts estimate that it takes an average player six years of regular play and weekly golf lessons. On the golf channel they claim that an average proficient golfer takes about 300 weekly lessons while playing at least 32 holes per week over a period of many years. This is a major investment of time, over 20,000 hours of practice. For example, if you take 5 hours to play 18 holes, you are looking at a time investment of at least 10 hours per week, 40 hours per month, totaling 360 hours of yearly practice. It’s not just a sport, it’s a second job.

I have heard that PGA professionals like Tiger Woods always hits hundreds of balls every day and becoming proficient in golf requires lifelong dedication. Golf is not a casual game, and mastering the basic sub-games within golf requires dedication and commitment:

  • The long drive – A proficient golfer must be able to control club speeds at least 70 miles per hour to hit the green proficiently (1 stroke on a par-3, two strokes on a par-4, and three strokes on a par-5), and most male golfers strive to achieve a 100+ MPH swing, a club speed that can translate into a 300 yard drive (the length of three football fields). It’s even easier today because of the high-tech drivers, huge titanium milk-jugs (e.g. the Callaway FTi, and the Sumo) which can add 100 yards to a duffer’s swing and straighten-out a shanked drive.
  • The short game – It is incredibly challenging to pitch a high wedge shot to drop and stick near the cup at 50 yards, and it requires the same trajectory skills of a cannon artillery officer. You must be able to mentally calculate the height and distance of a long pitch, and then command your muscles to replicate your desired swing. It’s amazing to watch a PGA pro drop a 8-iron shot from 150 yards that lands inches from the cup, denting the green and sticking with a backspin.
  • Putting – Putting is a whole game unto itself, and proficiency in putting required incredible skill. Proficient putters must learn to read the breaks, understand the grain of the grass, and learn to “read” the speed of the putting surface. You must become a grass expert and understand how the “grain” of the grass affects a putt strike. It’s no coincidence that most of the winners of competitions on southern Bermuda and players from the south who have had the most experience reading the nuances of reading Bermuda greens.

There are many people who make fun of golf because of the incredible difficulty of the game. Golf is a great game for people who work in a “perfectionist” profession, like computer scientists who must create code that works perfectly each time, every time.

Unlike the bowler who can roll a perfect 300 game, nobody can ever master a golf game. Even the top pros have bad shots, and getting a hole-in-one is a rare occurrence, even for the best PGA professionals.

Golf is a humbling game, and most people with perfectionist tendencies will abandon the game before they get good enough to enjoy playing. The barriers to entry are high, and becoming good in golf requires acknowledging your shortcomings and tolerating months of double-par scores.

In today’s business world, all executive are expected to be at least minimally proficient in golf. Golf country club memberships are a common perk for executives because many business meetings are conducted while playing golf. The easiest way to ruin a multi-million dollar deal is to anger your clients by taking too long to complete a round of golf.

If golf is so hard, why do people play?

Golf is unique among sports because all players occasionally get a glimpse of greatness. Even a beginner will get the occasional adrenaline rush from hitting a long strait drive or sinking a 30 foot putt, and that’s what makes golf an addicting game. Even a modest player can play the same courses as the pros, and that’s what makes watching golf on TV so much fun. You can follow Tiger Woods playing the same course that you have played and you come to appreciate the amazing skill that comes from many years of dedicated practice.

Golf is also a great game because it does not require high athletic skills, and even a fat middle-aged duffer like me can achieve 100 MPH club speeds. Golf is more about flexibility than raw strength, as testified by the tall and lean Tiger Woods, who has no great muscle bulk, but amazing flexibility. It’s the stretching and release of your muscles that make for a long drive, not brute force.

In sum, golf will always be a game with barriers to entry, but for those who are committed to suffer the humbling trials of becoming proficient, golf is without question the greatest sport in the world!