Conversation: The Importance of Par and Making Golf More Fun

June 27, 2011

This year’s US Open was played at Congressional country club. While more of the pre-tournament coverage was focused on the lack of a clear front runner than any other single story, one of the more interesting stories, for me, came from the course itself: the controversy over the par rating of the course. For the members, Congressional plays as a par 72. For Tiger’s AT&T National championship, the course plays as a par 70. For the US Open this year, it played as a par 71. This metamorphosis got me thinking about the value that golfers place on the concept of par.

Par derives its name from Latin, in which “par” means equal. To me, par means the number of strokes that an accomplished golfer should take to complete a given golf hole. This number is usually based on the length of the hole from tee to green. With that basic definition, the concept ends, and of you want to see the variety of interpretations of “accomplished” that this phrase has generated, you need look no further than any two courses designed by different architects. By way of example, the 9th hole at the Davis municipal course that I learned to play this game on is a narrow hole that measures 237 yards from the back tees. That hole plays relatively flat and the prevailing wind is a left to right cross wind. The hole has a relatively small green that is protected by a bunker in front and on on both sides. There is a small run up between the bunkers in the front and on the right. On the other hand, 12th hole at Las Campanas is 247 yards that has a large green that is protected by a lake on the left that runs from the tee to the green and a bunker on the right. There is also a small run up, but the elevated tee prevents lower trajectory shots from being as effective as they may be on other topologies.

Despite these similarities, The 9th at the muni is a par 4, while the 12th at Las Campanas is a par 3.

Now, realistically, there is very little difference in how a given golfer should approach these holes. If he or she is capable of carrying the ball 230 yards off the tee and hitting it reasonably straight, the hole should be played as a par 3. For the rest of us, the hole is more likely a short par 4 that should be played with a layup short and right of the trouble surrounding the green with a short pitch remaining to the flag.

So what gives? How do these course designers or raters come up with these seemingly arbitrary par values for holes? What difference does it make? And for me, why isn’t par different for different players?

I heard recently about a new movement to help golf draw new players called “tee it forward” which encourages golfers to play one or two sets of tees forward of tees they are playing now to help bring some of the fun back to golf. While the theory is sound in principle, to me, it makes little sense to ask a weekend player to move forward because of the simple fact that his or her short game is the real reason why they are shooting high numbers. It doesn’t really matter if I hit driver-hybrid short of the green or driver-7 iron short of the green, it is my short game and putting that will determine the number that I write down on the scorecard. Also, for the average hacker, hitting driver into the woods from tees that are 25 yards forward of his usual tees does not make searching in the woods any more fun or less irritating. Finally, for the male ego, shooting 96 from the white tees is infinitely more humiliating than shooting 101 from the tips. (what happened out there today, Sally?) At best, rounds may take slightly less time, but are not likely to produce lower scores that will ultimately lead to more “fun.”

Since scores are what ultimately drive entertainment for most players, why not change par to reflect what the “average” golfer should shoot rather than what the accomplished golfer would shoot? I can’t imagine a more fun round for the average hacker than shooting -2 (even if par is 90). Short games may not improve, driving will not improve, and technique will not improve. Indeed, none of these will improve from a national “movement.” Instead, entertainment value for a round will go up, and hopefully course management skills will improve. I am not naive enough to think that people will not try to make eagles on every hole instead of birdies, but the resulting pars will take the sting out of the poorly hit second shot, and possibly encourage some players to play safer routes to the hole to make birdie. Indeed, for players striving to break 100 or even 90, why not think of every hole’s par value as one more than the value listed on the scorecard? This strategy is exactly how I broke 90 for the first time with an 87.

JK, if we assume that something has to be done to make golf more appealing to new players, and massive overhauls to courses are not practical, what do you think courses can do to to draw new players?

Response from JK:

To me, there are 2 reasons that interest in playing golf is waning (playing, not watching; we all know TW is the reason that interest in following golf is waning): (1) it takes forever, and (2) it costs a lot of money. I justify #2 by looking at my current golf bag, for which I got bargain basement deals on most of the equipment and still have spent over $700. The balls I play are $4 each, and they are the most commonly played balls in the game. In most areas, $90/round is not an uncommon price. Even in Atlanta, where golf is “cheap,” a typical course charges $55 on a weekday morning and $75 on a weekend. Although it is 4+ hours of entertainment, it’s easy to see why the average joe isn’t going to break into this sport.

So, for those who can swallow the cost, they have consigned themselves to the fact that the game is addictive, interesting, and fun. The thrill of achieving a new level is what brings us all back.

However, you know just as well as I do that there’s nothing worse than spending 5 hours on a golf course on a Sunday. Picture the scene: a beautiful spring day; it’s 80 degrees and a little breezy; you can smell the grass clippings from the early morning crew. You’re standing on the first tee, ready to tee off, looking at a wide, green fairway. Nothing but open possibility in front of you. You start to approach the ball to go into your pre-shot routine. All of a sudden, you hear the crack of a golf ball squarely contacting a pine tree. 2 golf carts come flying out of the woods into your fairway. 4 golfers get out of their carts, crack a beer each, grab a 3-wood, and proceed to take 9 practice swings each before topping the ball 40 yards ahead of themselves, into a bunker. You watch painfully as they struggle just to make contact. One slices into the woods right of the green. One puts his in the left front bunker (with a back right pin placement). One thuds 3 shots out of the fairway bunker trying to get it out, then just gives up, picks up the ball, and throws it back in the fairway, then spends 8 minutes raking the bunker he just obliterated, only to take 9 more practice swings from the fairway and top his ball, hitting the worm-burner onto the green. His friends tell him he’s hit a “nice shot,” which you can hear because they’re speaking at a volume normally reserved for movie theater sound commercials. Finally, after this ordeal, the fairway is clear. You stripe your tee shot down the right side of the fairway. But you know that, as soon as you get to your perfectly hit ball, you’re going to be paying for their mistakes again, waiting for the group in front of you to putt out on the green.

This is the main reason why I don’t want to play weekend golf. While I like the idea that the game is available to everyone, I don’t like that everyone cannot manage themselves and their games in a courteous manner for the betterment of all of the golfers behind them. This fact alone makes the game less enjoyable for the new golfer starting out. It’s impossible to enjoy the game with either (a) people holding you up in the fairway, or (b) people behind you pushing you to play faster. One or the other is not going to be happy.

This is why I don’t have as big of a problem with Tee It Forward as you. I think you’re spot-on that ego is the biggest reason that golfers won’t play the forward tees, but how often is that a reasonable justification for anything? The game is about putting the ball into the hole, not about how far you hit it, how good you play from the trees, how well you can drive a golf cart…nothing; all that matters is that the ball goes in the hole. The problem with playing the back tees is apparent for the weekend golfer. Most of them don’t hit the ball over 240 with a driver. They slice it more often then not, but never play for the slice. If you’re playing the tips, that combination of shortness and inaccuracy is deadly, not only for score, but also for round length. If there’s a 230-yard forced carry over water, my 275-carrying driver doesn’t even come close. But the weekend golfer is knocking knees trying to make it. And, if he doesn’t, he has to re-tee his ball and try again. Not exactly the best way to ensure that the game is enjoyable.

Your example re Davis Muni and Las Campanas is a little skewed. 247 yards is not a reasonable length to call anything a “par 4,” unless it’s playing straight uphill. Oakmont has a 290-yard “par 3.” Plus, you misrepresent Las Campanas a little, as 237 yards downhill in the desert plays closer to 210. Your point is well-taken: just because you call it a par 4 or par 3 doesn’t make it so. However, I don’t think it’s a realistic strategy for making the game more enjoyable. Telling someone that par is 90 only exemplifies the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. While golf is about you and you alone, the achievements made are universal. “Birdieing” a difficult hole only matters when it’s against an objective standard. For some people, birdie is an incredible score; for others, it should be expected one of four times playing the hole. But you can’t cheapen the value of that by saying my 3 is a birdie when your 5 is a birdie.

Moreover, what you’ve suggested is already accounted for by the USGA handicap system. A player of a 15 handicap “gets a stroke” on each of the 15 most difficult holes, giving him or her a relative value to par. When was the last time you actually saw someone use this system?

I agree with your advice that par is only a suggested number. For example, I played a 502 yard par 5 this weekend. After a good drive, I played it like a par 4, as I had only about 200 yards into the green. 500 is a reasonable length par 4 on the PGA Tour. However, most golfers can’t do that. If they play a 450-yard par 4, they should realistically think of it as a par 4.6 or 4.7, wherein they will par it only 1/3 or 1/4 of the time. But that determination is based on the player’s length, not their playing ability. Certainly, that player should not be upset with a 5, unless the hole is 80 feet downhill. However, teeing it forward alleviates this problem altogether, in that no forward tees will force a 450-yard par 4 on a player that can’t drive the ball over 240. Your strategy–thinking of each hole as a par of one greater than it actually is–is a good suggestion for course management. But that’s all it is. Few players will actually be encouraged by using that strategy to make the game more fun or enjoyable.

At the end of the day, the average golfer needs to accept that the tees you play are only a determination of the total length of the golf course. They are not an indication of how good you are. Some golf courses (i.e., the Judge) are insanely long, even from the forward tees. Others are short (i.e., Harbour Town), even from the back tees on a professional course. Shooting 96 from the forward tees may be the same in your mind as shooting 105 from the tips, but at least you broke 100. And if you shoot 72 from the forward tees, is anyone going to say “oh, well, you were playing the forward tees; it doesn’t count unless you’re on the tips”? Once people get over their own egos, the game naturally becomes more enjoyable. You stop worrying about your results, and you start worrying about enjoying the process of improvement.

2 Responses to “Conversation: The Importance of Par and Making Golf More Fun”

  1. JK Says:

    reply posted

  2. RR Says:

    Keep up the good work, gents. Your writing is getter better and better, and you’re providing me with great Bar study breaks. 🙂

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