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Opinion & Analysis

The Next Great Olympians

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By Jamie Katz
GolfWRX Contributor

We piled out of the car, grabbed the bags and hit the course. I had five lads with me, all between 16 and 20 years old. We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of our strenuous training for golf’s newest, biggest prize: an Olympic medal. In 2016, golf comes to the Olympics in Brazil and with persistence, effort and a bit of luck, my boys will be there, representing what we hope will be a newly-great golfing nation: Ethiopia.

Okay, so what if the course we were going to was on an indoor simulator? And so what if the Ethiopian guys I had with me knew only one thing about golf: that Tiger Woods played? And so what if I’d never taught anyone, other than my daughter, a damn thing about golf? The quest was on.

A bit of background. My family is, in itself, a rainbow coalition. We adopted my daughter from China. I have one surfer-dude, California nephew; a niece born in the great state of Massachusetts; and three nieces and two nephews born in Ethiopia adopted by my sister, a single mom.

The boys, Amanual and Dawitt, are natural athletes and good runners. Skinny and strong, they played lots of soccer as kids, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other sports for them. In the US, they picked up basketball, football, dreams of making money and girls along the way. We live in the Boston area, so they’ve become Boston sports fan, with a particular passion for the Celtics.

Ethopian 2

I live in the same town with Amanual and Dawitt. I’m 60 years old. Where they are lean and fast, well, I’m neither. Not even close. I can beat them in swimming, skating, tennis and other sports they didn’t play in Ethiopia, but they’re catching me in everything else.

We live within a half-mile of a driving range that also has a pitch and putt course. In the vain hope that my daughter might like golf, I took her to the driving range a number of times when she was younger and had her take a few lessons from a good pro there — that’s a story for another day. I brought Dawitt along for a couple of the lessons. The pro loved his smile and his enthusiasm for trying to hit golf balls, though Dawitt didn’t have much early success at it. He and my daughter, who is about four years younger, trash-talked each other as they wailed away, balls going in many directions, while they tried to follow the pro’s instructions.

I played with the two of them once on the pitch and putt. Dawitt loved the fact that I only beat him by six shots. Of course, I didn’t explain to him that on most holes, we kept my score from the first shot but didn’t start keeping his score until he’d taken two or three shots off the tee and had one that was playable. The highlight for all of us was when my daughter hit a beautiful 9 iron about 90 yards. Trouble was, the hole was only 30 yards long and beyond it was a fence, then a road. She missed a car driving past by about two yards.

Back to my Olympians. When late November hits Boston, it’s time to take the clubs to indoor simulators. So one weekend afternoon a few years ago, I told Dawitt and Ahmanual to grab a couple of their friends so we could play golf indoors. At first, they didn’t understand what I was talking about. But since so much of the lives of teenagers is spent online or on video games, a golf game on a simulator is just as real to them as a real golf game. But they were still thrilled to play — if they could play Tiger Woods on Xbox, they figured they could play with real golf clubs.

The owner of the golf facility gave me a quizzical look as we approached the simulator. I’d been there a number of times, but always on my own to use the practice bays or occasionally to use the simulator to work with specific clubs.

“Who you got with you?” the owner asked me.

I was stymied for a moment, but then it hit me.

“The Ethiopian Olympic team.  Training starts today,” I said.

He laughed, but in that moment, I realized I’d found my destiny.

In that first session, only two of the guys had had golf lessons. The other three had never used a club before. That did not stop them, of course, from assuming that since they were all good athletes — all of them some were some combination of runners, basketball, football or soccer players — they would easily master golf. And, of course, they would beat me.

Ethopian 3

The simulator, thankfully, was like hitting into a cave. It had heavy vinyl curtains all around and on top, except for the front. Nobody could see in and no balls could get out. But, of course, other golfers could hear the sounds of balls hitting everywhere but the screen, along with a heavy dose of trash-talking that came in English and Umparik, the Ethiopian national language.

I gave the kids quick lessons in the grip, the stance and the swing, and had them take practice swings with balls off the tee to start. Very few of their shots went straight or far, but they kept bashing away. I did my best to instruct, but they were too busy dissing each other to pay much attention.

Then we started on the course. I picked the easiest course, with wide open fairways, and I put them on the shortest tees. I let them play the first couple of holes themselves. Nobody hit the ball more than about 70 yards towards the hole, a 300-yard par four, though one hit a long out-of-bounds slice. They all took between six and nine shots to get on the green. They gave the most verbal abuse to the youngest player, who hit the shortest, but straightest shots. When he managed to sink about a 30-foot putt, against all odds, the trash-talking actually stopped for a moment.

At No. 3 hole, I let them all hit first. Somebody had a drive close to 100 yards, but again balls were splayed all over the place and multiple mulligans were taken. Then I stepped up to the tee. I played from the back tee and hit a good drive for me, about 250 yards down the middle. For the second time, silence, but then, “Oh, my God, that’s like Tiger Woods,” “Look how far that is,” and a bunch of Umparic comments that were probably along the lines of “How did an fat, old guy do that?”

We finished the day a slight bit more polished than when we started. But only a slight bit. We’ve gone back a number of times since and will be back there this winter. I figure we’ll ramp up the training this year. More balls go straighter now. Guys are now getting out there close to 150 yards. The guy who owns the indoor range welcomes us with a smile on his face, knowing he’ll have a bunch of happy, enthusiastic golfers, even if their shots don’t quite yet merit the enthusiasm.

Despite the grueling training I put them through, the young men all have fun. I figure that after this winter’s intense training, I’ll get them on golf courses next summer at least a few times. We have to step it up — I have three years to whip them into shape.

You’re skeptical, I know, I can read it in your eyes. But hey, I believe in these guys. And as for their places on the Ethiopian Olympic team, I figure we’re in pretty good shape. Last time I looked, Ethiopia had one nine-hole golf course and a six-hole course at the British Embassy. How good can their competition be? And after all, we’re getting better and playing a harder course — Pebble Beach on a simulator. What could be tougher training?

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1 Comment

  1. Charles Brown

    Jan 23, 2013 at 10:37 am

    First class teacher means first class student-there is no other logical way.

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Gary Player joins our 19th Hole podcast, talks past and future of golf

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Hall-of-Famer and career Grand Slam winner Gary Player joins host Michael Williams for an exclusive one-on-one interview at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament and Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri. Player talks about the past and future of the game, including his take on everything from reigning in the golf ball and golf courses, to advocating for more testing for performance enhancing drugs on the Tour. Steve Friedlander of Big Cedar Lodge also appears.

Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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TG2: What’s the most annoying breach of golf etiquette?

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What’s the one breach of golf etiquette that gets under your skin more than anything else? Equipment expert Brian Knudson and GolfWRX Editor Andrew Tursky discuss what drives them crazy. Also, Knudson talks about his first round with new irons and a new shaft in his driver.

Follow @tg2wrx on Instagram to enter the Bettinardi inovai 5.0 center-shaft putter giveaway.

Listen to the full podcast below on SoundCloud, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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