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That dirty three letter word

The 13th at Devil's Paintbrush -- a whimsical place to play golf.

Yesterday I had fun playing golf.

Yes, you heard it right. I wasn’t worried about the slope rating, or how long the course was, or whether the food in the clubhouse was great. I simply played golf in a strong breeze and enjoyed myself. I didn’t get worked up about my score or playing a match. I just played with three friends and took what the course gave me — sometimes some breaks and occasionally a black eye. Didn’t matter much either way.

A big reason the round was so enjoyable was the course. A couple of times a year I have the good fortune to get to Devil’s Paintbrush, the unique Hurdzan/Fry design hidden in the Caledon hills. It is wide, weird and whimsical. There are crazy elements, easy bits and some damned difficult parts as well. In a 30 km/hr wind, like the one that gusted up often during our round, it had enough width to make the course playable even in extreme conditions. Often lost amid the talk of the most difficult or best courses are the ones that are the most enjoyable to play, places you’d like to return to over and over. That’s how I feel when I play the Brush — or as one of my playing partners said on the third hole: “How cool is this place.” I think it was intended as a statement more than a question.

I have a great deal of affection for a number of courses for this reason. Sure some aren’t crazy about the rough edges of Tarandowah, located in a farmer’s field half way between London and Woodstock, but it fits my sensibility. I like its value, the different ways some holes can be played and the fact I can grab my bag, throw it over my shoulder and walk. It is also one of the places I usually play golf with my brother, which helps. Indeed, some of the holes are more than tough — I’d put the 450-yard 11th against any hole in Canada in terms of difficulty, but that isn’t what makes Tarandowah special. I’d say those that don’t “get” Tarandowah have become too ensnared in the game’s minutia — details like fairway mowing patterns, yardage guides, big clubhouses, guys who carry your clubs from your car and whether the cart paths are paved. Give me a great course and I could care less about many of the other elements — and I can carry my own clubs from my trunk to the first tee, thank you very much.

I’d fit Cape Breton’s Highlands Links in the same category — delightful fun and great golf. People seem to always worry about conditions. But I’m more intrigued by the nuances of the land, how the green on the second hole blends seamlessly into the hillside, or whether I can carry the pond on the right of six from the back tee. I love Dick Zokol’s Sagebrush for the same reason — the conditions are secondary to the play — or Blackhawk near Edmonton or the new Cabot Links in Cape Breton are delightful for the same reason. The small greens at Lookout Point, and the course’s throwback nature, are always attractive to me. These are places I’ll seek out.

Lost in the discussion of many golfers is the notion of play. Golf is a game. It is meant to be fun. Far too often the goal seems to be how hard a course is or shooting for a low score. I appreciate a hard score, and God knows I’m always trying to post a decent score to take a part of a shot off my handicap. But those are secondary to me to having to hit a variety of shots and even occasionally being confounded by a course.

I see that the PGA of Canada and Golf Canada have recently gotten on board with the U.S. “Tee it forward” initiative:

“TEE IT FORWARD as a suggested guideline for golfers to play the tees that best match up with their abilities simply makes sense,” said Scott Simmons, Executive Director and CEO, Golf Canada. “Playing the most appropriate yardages goes a long way to improving golfer’s overall enjoyment on the course. We are thrilled to partner with the Canadian PGA by showing our support for this terrific initiative that we feel can have so many positive impacts on our sport.”

I appreciate the sentiment, though I think the goal is to make the game play more quickly by having yardages adjusted, even if that issue is not addressed directly in the news release. That’s the one other thing I didn’t mention about yesterday’s round. Perhaps it was because of the threatening clouds or the fact we were on a private course, but the round took 3 hours and 45 minutes in a group that walked. We didn’t rush. Instead we just played at a nice pace. Recently on a trip to Ireland, I played a 3-ball match with the two golf architects I was traveling with. We finished in 3.5 hours, having played a couple of the holes twice and taking lots of photos. One of the designers turned to me after the round and asked, “When people play five hour rounds, what are they doing for that extra 90 minutes?” No one had an answer — but slow play kills the game for me. I’d rather not play than play in five hours.

It is easy for a golf writer to get lost in the business of the game. But at its core it is just that — a game. Golf is meant to be fun. With all of its baggage — food, conditions, opulent clubhouses, expensive clubs — the notion of fun has become lost. It is a great game, played on some of the most remarkable landscapes in the world.

That was what I was remind of during my tour around the Paintbrush. If the game is to thrive, we’re going to have to focus less on the extraneous details and more on the elements that make the game such an obsession.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Earlier in the year while at Pine Needles in NC my threesome played the second half of a 36 hole day as a scramble. It was mid-February and our games were in no shape to take ‘scoring’ seriously, but we wanted to pack in as much golf as possible without torturing our fragile golf egos. That turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It was fun to play as a team and not worry about the bad shots that would usually turn a good round sour. Each of us finished the round with a couple of good shots and putts to feel good about, while the bad shots were easy to forget since they didn’t mean anything.

  • I can not agree more! I played Tarandowah for the first time 3 sundays ago with a marshal and a member guiding me through the course. I chose to go on my own and play with who ever I was paired with. I went back the following Sunday I enjoyed it so much and will return soon.

    Recently at my home club in Milton, my three some (2 single digits and a 15 handicap) played the 1-12 in 1 3/4 hours. We caught the group ahead of us that had teed off 2 hours ahead on the 13th tee. We played the next 3 holes in 1 1/2 hours! I asked if they would let us play through as no one was in front of them and was informed they did not believe in “letting people through” and that would ruin their enjoyment. I left on the 16th. They played in 5.5 hours. I asked why they didnt let us play though the next day and they informed me they wanted to get there “moneys worth” out of their round!

    Speed of play is killing golf!

    • Slow players need to give their heads a shake. At Muirfield in Scotland, there is a prominent sign in the Locker Room that reads something like – “Gentlemen golfers are expected to play their round of golf in 3 1/2 hours. Simply keeping up with the group in front is NOT a valid reason for taking longer than the 3 1/2 hour allotted time.”

      One interpretation of this sign could be…if you come across a slow group, hit into them…

      Slow play is a malaise that needs to be addressed. Everyone talks about it but there are few solutions that actually work. Likely the most effective is peer pressure but this is hard to do in a public setting. Some private courses have a fast pace culture where members themselves police each other.

  • Pace of play is the biggest issue when it comes to Golf in North America. It really has to change.

    I’m not the biggest fan of Tarandowah and it has nothing to do with the criteria you mentioned. There are simply weak holes that keep it from being great and I think most people see that. Although a good golf course, I don’t call it great, I don’t think it’s worth the drive specifically to play from the GTA let alone across Canada and put simply its just a solid public course.

  • I wonder about egos and and psychology of golf. The idea of tee it forward is good but some guys just don’t want to hit from the “whites” I wonder as an experiment if the blues were painted black, whites blue, reds white what would happen?? I know I generally look for a yardage I am comfortable with generally 6,500 give or take and play whatever the colour is that matches but, I am thinking some less experienced golfers tend to go by the colours and if the new black are now called “pro” tees, they may move up…I guess the old black would have to be diamond tour tees?????

  • Robert,

    I cannot agree more with you. Golf is supposed to be fun, and I believe that a large number of golfers should be reminded of that fairly often.

    Fun can be had with less than pristine conditions, and at any course length. If golfers focused a little less on their scores, and more on the experience they are having playing a golf course with their friends, maybe golf would be more popular and less expensive these days….

    Just a thought. Great post.

    Yannick Pilon

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