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.