The controversy over the United States Golf Association declaring solo rounds ineligible for handicap purposes is just the latest salvo in a war on solitary golfers that has been raging for almost as long as the game has been played.
Golf Canada should, of course, be commended for its own thoughtful and considered decision not to follow in lockstep behind the USGA and the R&A, declaring instead that unattested rounds should continue to be allowed to shape a Canadian player’s handicap. But don’t be fooled: single players are no less discriminated against at golf courses across Canada than they are elsewhere in the world.
Want proof? Pay a visit to any self-respecting golf course in the country during peak season hours — private, public or anywhere in between — and tell them that not only are you by yourself, but that you’d like to play that way, too. See what they say.
I play a lot of golf alone — almost always late in the day and more frequently late in the season, when the course is quiet, the conditions a challenge and the serenity on full. Precious daylight is at a premium, but time seems to stand still when you’re out there trying to work out a swing change, or mapping out your wedge game, or trying to show your young son the subtle breaks in the gloaming.
My dad felt the same way.
Under the boundless Alberta sky, we would circulate the Windermere Golf and Country Club on the banks of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River well into the evening, from early spring to late fall, when the frozen ponds allowed a nine-year-old’s tee shots to skip across hazards that at other times of the year rendered certain par 3s unplayable for a kid my age.
We lived nearby, on a farm a few miles down Ellerslie Road. Some nights we’d just play four holes. Other times, we’d just look for balls, or pick cranberries, or scout for rabbits. On weekends, homemade milkshakes often greeted us when we returned home.
Alone time on the golf course is like nothing else in the world. It’s powerful, it’s magical, it’s theraputic — and as far as I’m concerned, it should be considered sacrosanct. I expect a lot of golfers would agree. So why don’t golf courses?
Earlier this past season, during a welcome day off in the middle of what was otherwise proving to be a busy week, I stole away to a nearby course in hopes of hitting the range and, perhaps, getting in a few holes. Nine, 18 — whatever. If circumstances required that I join a group of strangers, no problem — I was happy to accede to golf’s conventions.
I arrived at about 11 AM, noticing the parking lot was half-empty and there was virtually no one milling about outside the clubhouse. Inside, I was informed that the course was very quiet and that I’d be welcome to venture to the first tee at my earliest convenience. Excellent, I thought — a chance to work out the kinks by myself, free from distractions.
When I arrived at the first tee, I told the marshal I was headed to the first tee and gave him a wave. He frowned, told me to hold on and looked around almost frantically, as if desperate to find another golfer to accompany me.
“They said in the pro shop to go ahead,” I told him anxiously, annoyed that he was now actively trying to thwart what was an otherwise perfectly fair and legitimate bid at getting on to the golf course alone.
“Well, I don’t know about that. All I know is that I’m not allowed to let anyone go as a single.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just heard. It seemed to me that he was bound and determined to make me wait for a group in need of a fourth to come along.
From this point on, I’m not proud of how I treated the poor fellow, who was merely enforcing the rules as he understood them, which of course is the job of the marshal and the player’s assistants. But I let him have it, believing he was being officious and overly literal in his reading of the facility’s rules and regulations.
Seething, I stormed back to the pro shop (like I said, not proud) and told the pro of my encounter with the marshal. I said I was surprised — nay, incredulous — at having been told I couldn’t play by myself when there was clearly no one else around. The response? “I’m glad he told you that, because that’s what he’s supposed to do.”
I was eventually allowed to tee off — no other players showed up during this entire contretemps, which took about 15 minutes, by the way — but with a very pointed admonition: should it get busy at any point during the round, “you have to join up with someone.”
Still gobsmacked but anxious to get underway, I nodded deferentially, hustled to the first tee and apologized profusely to the blameless marshal, and then went about my way, brooding about the whole encounter all the way around. I spent the day wedged between two foursomes, dutifully keeping my distance from the group in front, as is my usual practice.
Admittedly, it can be tough out there for a onesome.
As a boy, I remember my father dropping me off with my clubs, warning me about how singles — especially juniors — were expected to behave. “A single has no rights on the golf course,” he would tell me. He was citing the Rules of Golf, and he meant right-of-way, of course, but I soon came to learn that the expression rang true in more ways than one.
“A single player has no standing and should give way to a match of any kind,” the etiquette section of the rule book used to say, without even a hint of irony. The phrase — a long-standing bit of language from a bygone era that presumed single players were practicing, not playing — was first added to the rule book in 1899.
“I believe that one of the main reasons for the ‘no standing’ status is that golf was very much a gambling game in 18th and 19th century Scotland, and elsewhere, probably,” rules expert John Hutchinson explained in a recent email.
“Those players playing for money (often big money, and followed by a crowd of punters) expected a free run through the course. Of course, any single player could not be competing in any manner, only practicing really, and thus was expected to keep out of the way of the serious players.”
It wasn’t removed until 2004. But it was removed.
Furthermore, four years later, the Rules of Golf were updated to spell out the pace-of-play obligations of a “group” of golfers, and to explicitly define a single as a “group.” In a nutshell: “Priority on the course is determined by a group’s pace of play.” If there’s a full hole separating your group from the group in front, invite the group behind to play through — “irrespective of the number of players in that group.”
And: “The term ‘group’ includes a single player.”
Of course, none of this is about granting single players an inalienable right of way on the golf course. On a busy day, too many singles would wreak havoc on pace of play, forcing everyone to let them through multiple times during a round of golf. It makes complete practical and economic sense to pair them up, just as it does to force skiers to share the chairlift.
But the fact that single players get sideways glances on a quiet course is just one more example of how out of touch the game’s international governing bodies continue to be with the average golfer — Golf Canada’s recent attack of common sense notwithstanding. After all, if the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient — both of which govern the game pretty much everywhere else in the world — consider solo players untrustworthy, the biases that gave rise in 1899 to the “no standing” stipulation are still all too present.
By the way, here’s some more of what the Etiquette section of the Rules of Golf have to say to golf courses about dealing with slow play:
◆ “Increasing the number of players per group increases round times.”
◆ “Try to avoid mixing two-balls and three-balls in amongst four-balls.”
◆ “Consider restricting certain forms of play, e.g. four-balls, to certain times and/or days.”
◆ “While there is a temptation to get as many groups on the course as possible, this will have a negative impact on pace of play and, potentially, a long-term impact on your business.”
◆ “Do not overload the course by using short starting intervals – this simply results in players being on the course longer and enjoying the game less.”
Here’s a thought: what if golf courses set aside a brief window in the golf calendar — maybe 45 minutes late in the day, when daylight is dwindling — when singles and parents with young junior players can pay a premium to have access to the first tee? The parents will be happy to let the singles blow past their playing lessons with dawdling youngsters, while the singles pace each other all the way to the 18th green.
On Twitter: @froghairgolf