If you play competitive golf, you are a loser

You'll be in a fraternity that includes Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods
If you've played golf, you've tasted the agony of defeat, which puts you in great company.

Every competitive golfer is a loser.

The club champion at your home course? A loser. The hotshot junior golfer from your town or county? Loser. Every player at every elite amateur or professional level? Losers, every last one of them.

Even legends like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are losers. They may have lost many fewer times than their peers, but even the greatest golfers of all time have still lost far more than they’ve won.

To play competitive golf is to lose. You tee it up as part of a 100-person tournament, even as one of the best players, chances are you’re going to lose. The game is simply too complex and inscrutable for anything else to ever be the case.

As of press time, Brooks Koepka is the odds-on favorite to win the 2020 Masters at +800, or 8-to-1, or 12.5%. The best anyone can hope for against peers – a two-person field, as in match play – is even odds.

“There’s golf, and then there’s tournament golf.”
golf adage attributed to Bobby Jones

Whether or not the quote originates from Jones, it’s true. Having played competitively at the junior, high school, collegiate and amateur level, I can say that while tons of fun (especially on a compelling course), casual golf has its limitations. To me, competitive golf is the superior form of the game, be it the state amateur or a $1 Nassau with your fellow 15-handicap pals. Stroke play or match play (my personal preference), the game takes on a particular meaningfulness when the end result is some sort of hierarchy, however temporary. Still, any golfer who tees it up in competition is almost certainly bound for disappointment.

Because every golfer has been exposed to professional golf on television, even those who have never played a competitive round have some sense of the gravitas competition adds. It’s easy to be seduced by the glory heaped on winners; golf crushes almost every delusion of grandeur that any golfer has harbored, and yet the seasoned competitor loves competing all the same. Why?

The answer is that we competitive golfers are not just losers. We’re a community of losers. Step into the bar after a tournament round and there are several fellow competitors available – eager, even – to commiserate about errant swings, tough breaks and boneheaded decisions. Play enough rounds under the gun and you’ll have plenty of battle scars to display in friendly company. There is no shortage of comfort in our hapless fraternity.

So why bother compete at all if the results are so demoralizing? Is the occasional thrill of victory worth all the failures? Yes, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I’ve had occasional individual golf success, and if I’m being completely honest, while winning is fun, it’s not as exhilarating as might be expected.

What does make competition worthwhile is, well, competing. The act of trying to put together a round of golf, be it on a scorecard or against an opponent, is heroic and even a little romantic. The difficulty of the game gets amplified when you know you’re going to post a number or return a match result. It triggers the fight-or-flight response that connects us to the rest of the animals.

The formality of a round of count-‘em-all golf turns the golfer into Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted “man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” (And missed four-footers.)

If standing over a 12-foot birdie putt when nothing is at stake rates a 4 out of 10 for drama, the in-competition version of the same shot rates a 9. If it’s late in the game, and that putt might get me a shot at victory, it’s a 15.

Even though I’ve failed far more than I’ve succeeded in those moments, there is always the possibility – a delicate balance of expectation and hope – that the next one will be some kind of breakthrough. A casual round of golf can never produce the chains of physical sensations, from high to low, that result from preparing, executing and reacting to competitive golf shots.

Remember: even though some sort of loss is almost guaranteed to lie at the end of a competition, it’s the feeling of being in the arena that makes it so damn much fun. If you enjoy golf as recreation, you just might fall in love with the game as well.

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
6 Comments
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Commented on

I am 68 and love to go golfing with s good friend and we often do not keep score. I have another friend that LOVES it when he BESTS other players. My question is this, since there is NO offense and NO defense in golf, how can it truly be a competitive sport? Isn’t each golfer ONLY playing against the COURSE, since neither he nor she has ANY control over another golfer’s score?

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Commented on

Mike, interesting perspective. I think you're correct in many cases, though I think there are subtle exchanges that happen in match play or stroke play situations with two or three players battling it out. Certain club and shot choices by Golfer A can have an effect on what Golfer B does, and on truly superlative golf courses, those constantly evolving situations can get very interesting and turn golf into more of a chess match than what we normally see on TV.

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Commented on

The article is true. Competitive golf IS the best even though we lose most of the time. However when you do win you never forget it. As an example, I will never forget making birdie to win the Club Championship (2012) in my men’s association at Paradise Hills GC in Albuquerque. Playing in the last group with three better players than me in the final round, I gave up a three shot lead after about 4 holes only to come to 18 tied with one of my playing partners. He was damned good golfer.. After watching him smash one right down the middle of the fairway about 265, I hit one of the best drives of my life on the slightly uphill 18th just passed him. I ripped it! Leaving about 150 yards into a middle right pin placement I hit a very solid 8 iron that nearly hit the hole leaving a makable birdie putt. His approach left him about 20 foot. Being in the last group the rest of the field was standing around on the 18th watching, waiting to see what happens. LOL. Well my competitor missed his putt, and I stepped up and rolled mine in. Thing broke about a foot left to right and went right in to the middle of the cup. It was one of the coolest moments of my golfing life! The rest of the second places and less be damned!

Staff
Commented on

What a cool moment - thanks for sharing, Matt! As much time and effort as people put into practicing golf, it seems only right to take a few opportunities per year to see how they stack up against their peers, be it in gross or net competitive play. I love it, and am glad to hear of your fulfilling experience as well!

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Commented on

My best competitive round was in my club championship back in 1957. I beat a better golfer than me in the semi-finals of match play. My worst competitive round was the next day when I got beat 9 and 7 in the championship match. I still treasure the memories of those rounds and still play in two leagues a week at age 86. Golf is life!

Staff
Commented on

That's awesome, Bill! What other sport enables us to be competitive across such a stretch of time? Like you, I look forward to my own journeys in competitive golf to come. Keep hitting 'em straight.

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If you play competitive golf, you are a loser