Industry ads aimed at promoting participation have the same theme, “Play Golf Because It’s Fun.” I disagree with the presentation, but admittedly it takes explanation. Fun is considered, light, enjoyable among other adjectives. Golf hasn’t been around for centuries evoking a unique passion because it’s “fun.” It’s hard and frustrating yet we come back sometimes—even ignoring weather we wouldn’t otherwise be outside in.
Because it’s rewarding! Not on the whole, that’s reserved for the very few who are excellent players. “Rewarding” for the masses will be a well-played hole, even a singular shot. We are rewarded in small victories, not mastery.
How then do we focus on the concept of reward? The answer falls into what we call course layout and must be championed by those organizations promoting the game—the PGA of America and the USGA. I’ll proceed with some typical examples with real data, not opinion.
This is data-centric: Years ago, the former Technical Director of the USGA reported that his study revealed an average driving distance of 192 yards. Who are the 192s? The short answer is they are the overall majority of players who play and financially support the game. Their brethren are not coming on board in numbers, and pure age analysis shows that they are a declining population, albeit with a huge reservoir that is retiring and could decide to play.
They love to watch the 300-yard drives of Tour players and marvel that the average iron into greens is an 8—albeit some 170 yards. Further, these iron shots are struck consistently, high, landing with spin allowing them to shoot for targets within the confines of the green.
The 192 group doesn’t hit 170-yard 8-irons. If they make that good swing, their 8-iron goes roughly 120, and rather than a spot on the green, they are trying to get on the putting surface.
What does this have to do with rewarding? I was recently asked to analyze a course that had installed forward tees, but something was off. The overall yardage was 5,900 par 70, which seemed perfect.
However, there were six holes in various forms of what follows: yardage 354, a 192-yard drive leaves 162 and in each case, it was a forced carry of 162 yards. The 192s don’t have a high soft shot that carries 162 plus yards. They may have an occasional low bullet that doesn’t hold, but the sensible play is to lay up.
This gets old and it’s not rewarding. If their second shot on forced carry holes was, say, 125 yards they would have a chance to hit a solid shot onto the green, and that’s rewarding. We 192s aren’t good enough to hit center face solid shots every time. Give us the chance that we’ll be rewarded with a birdie putt just some of the time and the experience is one that keeps us playing (“fun,” if you will, but more accurately defined).
Further, a 370-yard par 4 with a slightly downsloping fairway into a green wide open in the front—and again we have a chance to be rewarded.
It isn’t a simple distance issue: It’s an understanding of the concept of reward and setting one set of tees accordingly. Golf courses are fairway width, firmness, elevations, hazards and the list goes on. That’s why I say the good folks who promote the game need to embrace the concept. Produce guidelines on how to make courses rewarding.
Years ago, I was very fortunate to be able to play a few rounds with Lee Trevino, arguably one of the greatest ball strikers of all times. He didn’t play “the tees” he picked the ones he wanted, some forward, some back. I asked why and he said, “Barnyard, I just want to be able to hit shots to the green. I always did.” I never forgot his comment, but I didn’t appreciate the genius behind it until I came upon the concept of rewarding golf. It’s exactly what Lee was doing!
Of course, I’m just one small voice. The PGA of America and USGA are the leaders and it’s up to them to turn the concept of rewarding golf into a movement designed to increase participation.
An open letter to golf
I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.
It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.
On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.
This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.
As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.
I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.
When you are able to return in full, I will be here.
Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)
The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact
One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.
As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.
I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.
So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.
So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.
I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.
I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.
If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.
[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]
It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.
On Spec: Interview with Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion
In this episode, host Ryan speaks with Trevor Immelman about his career, what it was like growing up around the game as a competitive amateur in South Africa, and what it’s like being a Masters champion.
Topics also include his experiences working with the design team at Nike Golf as well as his current “What’s in the Bag” which includes equipment from Titleist and the process he went through to get it dialed in.
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