Is golf the ultimate Slow Sport?
Golf is famously slow. Shooting a round on an 18-hole course can take three, four or more hours. Which is part of its charm. Fresh air, a bit of nature, some friendly banter and exercise a very relaxing way to while away an afternoon. And yet some people like nothing more than a bracing round of Speed Golf. I suppose the acceleration of golf is inevitable in a world with Speed yoga, Speed meditation and Speed Dating. Speed Golf is pretty simple: players carry only six clubs and sprint between shots, with the fastest rounds lasting about 45 minutes. I have to admit that this holds a certain appeal to me: I’ve given up golf because now that I have kids I don’t have time to be blowing off a whole afternoon on the course. Is squeezing a round into an hour the solution?
What I find most fascinating about Speed Golf is a comment from Christopher Smith, the sport’s world-record holder: “In Speed Golf you don’t have the option to think,” he says. “All you have time to do is size up the situation, look at the target and hit the shot. So golf becomes a reactive sport rather than a deliberative one. It’s more like tennis where you’re responding to the something coming at you.
This jibes with my own experience of golf – that dreadful, sinking moment when you think a shot to death. Once the second thoughts and self-doubt start to flow, you know you’re going to mess it up even before you swing. That is why I prefer faster sports. I love squash precisely because you have no time to mull over a shot.
Does that mean that golf is too slow? Or that we play it too slowly? While almost everything else in the world has accelerated over the last century, golf has been slowing down. The star players of yesteryear, like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, played quickly. What changed was that golf became a TV spectator sport at exactly the same time that Jack Nicklaus was at his peak – and he was remarkably slow. The upshot: around the world, both amateurs and professionals began spending long, tortured minutes circling their ball, sizing up the path to the green, testing the wind, visualizing the perfect shot, regulating their breathing.
Whether this helps us to golf better is unclear. Smith finds that he often racks up a better score speed-golfing a course than when playing it more slowly. He recommends that we all experiment with acceleration try a few rounds with no practice swings, for instance, or take no more than 10 or 15 seconds to play a shot after pulling the club from your bag. Since I won’t be venturing onto the course any time soon, I’d be interested to hear if this acceleration works for any of you out there.
A final caveat, though: even the fastest golf player needs to make room for slowness. When Smith reaches the green, he always walks. The idea is to slow down his heart-rate so that he can putt smoothly, calmlyand accurately.
Last week I shared a stage in Chicago with Michael Sokolove, the genial but sharp-eyed author of a compelling new book called Warrior Girls.It explores the same terrain that I look at in the Sports chapter of Under Presure, but in greater depth (it’s a whole book on the subject, after all) and with the focus on girls. Our insistence on treating children like professional athletes, with punishing training regimes, long seasons, win-at-all-costs competition and early specialization is taking a heavy toll, but in some ways the damage is worse for girls because their bodies are simply not as robust. Less testosterone means less muscle and more oestrogen means laxer ligaments. That makes girls more prone to chronic knee pain; shin splints; stress fractures; ankle sprains; concussions; hip and back pain. They are five times more likely than are boys to rupture an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Just look at the roll call of female athletes hobbled by over-training in their youth. Katharine Merry, the fastest girl in the world at 14, was laid low by a series of knee, achilles and foot injuries. Martina Hingis hit the pro tennis tour at 14 but was forced by foot and angle injuries to retire at 22. Foot trouble ended Anna Kournikova’s tennis career at the same age. Of course, sports are wonderful for girls and we should be encouraging more of them to take part. But this needs to be done in the right spirit – that means without turning sports into a fight to the death. Like boys, girls need to learn to push themselves hard without pushing themselves over the edge.