As you can see, Christopher Smith shoots under par in under an hour at Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Intrigued by the video, I searched around on the Internet to find out what more I could learn about speed golf.
After some research I found that speed golf, similar to the biathlon that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, combines running and golf. Your total score is the aggregate of your running time plus your golf score. For example, if you shoot 90 in 75 minutes, your speed golf score would be 165 (90+75).
From what I could decipher, the sport started in California in 1979 when former American record holder in the mile (3:47.69 in 1982) runner Steve Scott dashed around a golf course in 29 minutes and 30 seconds shooting 95 with only a 3-iron.
After hearing about Steve Scott, a former Ironman triathlete and teaching pro named Jay Larson became the person who many considered the top speed golfer of the 1990s. Larson once shot a 75 in 39 minutes and 9 seconds on a 6,500 course with a slope rating of 125 (using the old rules of speed golf where you could have a caddy in a cart riding out in front of you carrying your clubs and calling out distances as you approached the ball).
Towards the end of the 1990s, in an effort to help promote the sport, Oregonians and speed golfers Tim Scott (a former teaching pro turned school teacher) and Jim Kosciolek (a Chicago-based lawyer) founded a company called Speed Golf International.
Since that time, Tim, along with their friend Christopher (the guy from the above video), have been considered the top speed golfers in the world. Guinness Records has actually recognized Smith as having the lowest speed golf score ever. He shot a 65 (-5) in 44 minutes and 6 seconds for an overall speed golf score of 109.06 in the 2005 Chicago Speed Golf Classic on the relatively short Jackson Park Golf Course.
The rules of speed golf are basically the same as regular golf except for two things.
- First, in the interest of saving time, you are allowed to leave the flag stick in on the green when you are putting.
- Second, when a ball is lost, you are allowed to drop it anywhere along the estimated point from where it was lost back on the line of flight to where the shot was originally played. It was decided to adopt this because it was thought to be too severe of a penalty to not only have the stroke penalty for the lost ball, but also to be penalized the additional time of having to run back to replay another ball.
These days it’s normal for a top speed golfer to carry anywhere between 4-7 clubs. For example, the speed golfer might bring a driver, 18-degree hybrid/iron/wood, 5-iron, 8-iron, 52-degree wedge, and putter. With a setup similar to this, you can play nearly every shot you would need out on the golf course.
While you can simply carry the clubs freely, it gets quite tiring to bend over repeatedly to pick the clubs up after each shot, so most speed golfers will also play with a special Sun Mountain stand bag made specifically for speed golf that can be carried in only one hand. The bag has a small pocket that can house a few balls, some tees, your valuables, and whatever else fits.
Since one can sweat quite a bit, rain gloves are also often worn to prevent your hands from slipping on the grips when you swing….and most wear running shoes versus regular golf shoes.
Right around the time when I originally came across the video of Christopher at Bandon Dunes, I also saw an ad for the 2012 Speed Golf World Championships.
Being a Professional Golfer and having previously ran a variety (5K, 10K, etc) of running races for recreation in my early and mid 20s, I thought it would be fun to try to compete. Plus, I had always wanted to play at Bandon Dunes and, although I wasn’t in bad shape, I figured it would give me some extra motivation to get back in better shape and lose an inch or two off my waist. So I contacted the championship organizers and as it turns out I was eligible to get in to the field based on both my previous results as a professional golfer and also my prior running times.
The distance you have to run depends on a number of factors. A 6,500-yard course is about 3.7 miles. After you factor in the distance from tee to green on each hole and the fact that you are not going to hit every shot perfectly straight, it’s normal to expect that you will have to cover 5-6 miles over the course of a round of speed golf.
Armed with this knowledge, I went out to a track to see how fast I could do 5-miles (8K). Given my then present conditioning, I was happy to find I was able to finish the 5-miles without stopping, but it did take me a little over 55 minutes to do…good, but not really what I thought would be fast enough to be competitive. Fortunately, I had about 2 months to improve my conditioning and through a series of treadmill, trail, track, and street runs I was able to whittle my 5-mile time down to a little over 36 minutes.
Additionally, I went out to a local golf course a little before sunset one day to see what it would be like to run and play a few holes of golf. It was a bit tricky at first to hit shots being out of breath, feeling a little delirious, and having tired legs, but I was surprised to find that my body was able to adapt rather quickly.
Fortunately, I had previously trained to play without practice swings, to pick clubs by instinct, and to hit to targets by feel without knowing the actual yardage (you can practice this on the range by hitting all of your clubs to all of the flags that are within reach of each respective club), so that aspect of it was an easy adjustment for me.
On the greens, while I could read my putts well enough from just glancing at the green as I approached it and with only a quick look as I got to the ball, keeping steady and not getting yippy was a bit more difficult. Yet, even with that, I soon found a way to get my breathing under control and calm myself for just long enough to hit each putt.
By the time I arrived at Bandon Dunes, I felt pretty good about my chances. However, at the same time I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had never competed against any of these players at the same course and conditions.
Plus, in addition to speed golf legends like Tim Scott and Christopher Smith being in the field, basically every one in the Pro/Elite field was either a top golfer (Ex. Kris Moe played in two British Opens) or a fast runner (Ex. Gretchen Johnson, the only amateur and female competitor, played golf for NYU and qualified for and ran in the Boston Marathon).
Despite a 4-putt and two 3-putts (easy to do even for good putters if you are on the wrong tier of Old Mac's large and undulating greens), I played the first round at the Old Macdonald course with a 75 in about 61 minutes and found myself sitting in 5th…in contention and right behind Tim Scott and Chris Smith. I was interviewed by CBS who, by the way, will be airing a 30-minute special narrated by Jim Nantz before the 3rd round of the upcoming Masters.
Going in to the final round held at the Bandon Dunes course, I figured if I ran 5 minutes faster and cleaned up my card, I could get under par and get the win. Fortunately, I was able to get done in 56 minutes and, despite not playing as well that day, I knew I was close at the end because the CBS cameras were following me the last 3 holes. Unfortunately for me, it ended up not quite being enough and I finished the competition in a respectable 5th right behind Christopher Smith and Tim Hval.
The big hitting recent Notre Dame graduate and standout Chris Walker ended up sneaking in a birdie at the last hole to edge out Tim Scott (who amazingly was still competing after having been diagnosed with eye cancer earlier in the year) for the victory.
Although I was hoping for the win, I still had a great time and I was certainly pleased to be right in the mix with guys like Tim and Christopher and finish in the Top 5. Very much like the running crowd, despite being competitors, there was also great camaraderie and we all pulled for one another. In fact, many of us have since gone on to become friends.
Furthermore, Mike Kaiser and the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort were exceptional hosts. If you’ve never been to the resort, I definitely recommend it. In addition to the Old Macdonald and Bandon Dunes courses, they also have three others. Despite the amount of courses, it didn’t feel overcrowded at all. Each course was it’s own. Similar to St. Andrews, they all play like true links golf (Ex. I played the 131-yard 15th with a bump and run 5-iron) and yet have the Pacific coastline beauty of Pebble Beach. Shuttles are always available within a few minutes to take you anywhere you want, the food is excellent (I really enjoyed the local salmon), and the service (say hi to “Shoe” when you arrive) is as good as any golf resort I’ve been.
Those that enjoy running and golf will like speed golf. You can knock out 9 or 18 holes before work and at the same time get in some cardio…all before heading in to the office. If you don’t get the first tee time of the day, you can alternatively go out an hour before dark, or maybe loop a couple holes on the golf course (provided there's space and you don’t hold someone up behind you).
For those that aren’t in to running, there are still certainly some things you can take away from speed golf.
- First of all, slow play is a problem in general in golf and it is one of the reasons many people don’t play the game. You may not get around in less than an hour like we do, but there’s really no reason for 4-6 hour rounds at the amateur or professional levels. During our practice rounds, we played normal walking golf and as foursomes we were finishing in 3-3.5 hours from the back tees despite each hitting multiple shots on numerous holes. We didn’t feel rushed and still had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and nature...and even took some touristy pictures.
You can pick up the pace of play by minimizing or eliminating your practice swings, not spending so much time determining yardages or reading your putts, being ready to hit when it’s your turn, putting out versus marking your ball, leaving your bag on the side of the green where you will exit it to get to the next hole, etc.
- Second, in speed golf it’s wasted time to sit over the ball and over-think a shot. Not to mention, grinding so much over your swing and what to do can really wear you down over the round. Often times we pick out a shot and a club before we even get to the ball. Once we’re there, we get set up (without overly rushing), give it a whack, and move on. Eliminating a lot of extra conscious thought can free you up to play better shots, plus you won’t be as exhausted by the time you head to the 19th hole.
- Third, speed golf can teach you to become a better player and shot-maker. When you play with only 4-7 clubs, you will probably find you have to manage your way around the course a little more carefully, be more target-oriented, and very rarely will you encounter a situation where you have a shot that is a perfect yardage for a full swing. Therefore it’s useful to learn how to play draws or fades, hit high and low shots, and to make swings of varying lengths.
Try playing a round with only your even or odd clubs, for example, or maybe play a few rounds where you don’t check the distance and pick clubs out instinctively and simply react to your targets. It can be a bit scary at first, but it’s amazing how good you’ll probably find you can play. With a little practice, most people end up shooting the same speed golf scores as they do in regular golf.
So be sure to tune in and check us out!
Jaacob Bowden is a Professional Golfer, Swing Speed Trainer, and President of Swing Man Golf
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