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Bowden: Speed golf can help your game
Mark your calendars.
Coming up on April 13 at 1:30 p.m. EST (Masters Saturday), CBS will be airing the Speed Golf World Championships from Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, where yours truly notched up a fifth-place finish.
For those not familiar with the sport, speed golf combines your normal golf score with the amount of time that it takes you to finish the round. For example, if you shoot 85 in 75 minutes, your speed golf score would be 160.
The rules of speed golf are basically the same as regular golf except you are allowed to putt with the flagstick in the hole to save time, and lost balls or out-of-bounds balls are treated more or less as lateral hazards. This was done because it was thought to be too severe of a price to pay to not only be assessed the penalty stroke but also the lost time from having to run back to the place where you played the original shot.
Elite speed golfers can shoot in the 60s and 70s in under an hour. Take a look on YouTube at my friend and fellow speed golfer Christopher Smith as he breaks 70 in less than 54 minutes.
Obviously, speed golf won’t be for everyone. However, there are numerous things that regular golfers could learn from speed golfers to help them play better. One thing in particular that I’d like to bring up in this article is how to control your distances when you are between clubs.
You see, speed golfers typically only carry four to seven clubs in their bag during a round of speed golf. For example, in the World Championships, I used a driver, 20-degree hybrid, 5-iron, 8-iron, 52-degree wedge and a putter.
As you might imagine, very rarely will you encounter a shot in speed golf where you have the exact distance for a full shot with a particular club. For that matter, speed golfers usually don’t even bother checking the distances to their targets because it wastes time.
Playing this type of golf where you don’t know the distances isn’t new. As I understand, courses weren’t marked with distances as extensively prior to the 1960s, except for maybe a bush or something like that at the 100- or 150-yard marks. So back in the old days, everyone would have had to play like this.
But in our modern era with all the detailed course guides, distance markers on sprinkler heads, etc., and having fancy launch monitor technology like Trackman or Flightscope to get your yardages dialed in, I think the general mindset has trended more towards using your clubs only for their full swing distances.
Maybe you think of your 7-iron distance as 140 yards (or whatever else it might be), but really it’s 1 to 140 yards. There’s no rule that says you can’t use it for 80 yards, 120 yards or whatever other distance. Aside from technology, perhaps there’s also an aspect for some of us men with our egos and needing to show our playing partners that we took less club than them for the same distance shot. In any case, the skill of playing anything less than a full shot on approach shots seems to have become more of a lost art.
So how do you know how far to hit the ball on those non-full shots without knowing the distance?
There’s a number of ways to develop the skill, but one of my favorite drills to work on it is called the “all clubs all flags” drill. Basically, when you are at the range, take out every club from driver to your highest lofted iron or wedge and hit a ball to each flag that is within range of that club’s maximum distance.
For example, for the 75-yard flag at the range, I’ll hit my lob wedge, sand/gap wedge, pitching wedge, etc., all the way up to the driver. Then I repeat the same thing for the 100-yard flag and so on and so forth. I don’t consciously think about anything technical like how far to take my lead arm back. I just look at where I want my ball to go and instinctively react with a smooth swing.
It’s sort of like baseball. If an outfielder catches a ball in the outfield, he doesn’t suddenly whip out a range finder from his back pocket to laser the exact distance that he needs to throw the ball back in to an infielder. He simply identifies his target and intuitively makes the throw necessary to get the ball to the target. It’s the same mindset with golf.
What I suspect you’ll find is how relatively quickly you can get good at your distance control doing this drill. Once you feel comfortable on the range with it, try it out on the course for a few rounds too. You might even bring only your odd or even irons to force you in to have to hitting more of those in-between type of shots.
The first round trying this may be very scary. It was for me. But over the course of the round, it became easier and easier to trust myself. The more I trusted the better I got. After several rounds of doing this I became just as good at my distance control either with or without knowing the distances. In fact, these days I would say I’ve become better at distance control when I don’t know the distance to my target, which I’ve found interesting because when I first was taking on golf I was a very technical player.
Interestingly, this skill has other benefits as well. Aside from taking less time to play my shots and becoming more target-oriented with less swing thoughts, I also have found it more fun to play this way. To me, I feel like I’m playing the game more creatively like an artist.
And when I get in trouble, I have a nice repertoire of shots to choose from as well. For example, I remember one time when I posted 69 (3-under) in the first round of the Long Beach Open at El Dorado, I decided to take out my driver on the short and narrow 377-yard par-4 No. 15. I missed a little bit right and found myself just under a tree. I was inside 100-yards but I had no room to hit a normal shot. So instead I took out a 5-iron and hit one under the trees up on to the green right next to the flag and made an easy birdie.
Similarly, I’m not sure if it will get shown on the telecast, but the par-3 No. 15 at Bandon Dunes during the Speed Golf World Championships had the tees up and was only playing 131-yards. Using my 8-iron was my first choice since I only had six clubs in the bag and hitting my 52-degree accurately that far would’ve been difficult. However, as I was running up to the tee box I felt utterly exhausted and was too tired to even make the shorter length of swing I would have needed for my 8-iron. Instead I quickly decided to play a cut bump-and-run with my 5-iron up that funneled around the bunker through the front of the green and up to about 10 feet. I missed the birdie putt, but having that skill from the “all clubs all flags” drill gave me an additional option for playing my approach shot and I ended up with a great opportunity for birdie.
I hope you have fun with the drill and find it as useful for your own game as I have with mine.
See you at Masters Saturday in April on CBS!