Taking speed golf for a test run

It's 8:30 am on a Monday morning and I'm ready to begin the work day. I've already played 18 holes, ran five miles and ate breakfast.

What might sound inconceivable is all too easy if you're willing to try speed golf.

During the epic U.S. Open-Dustin Johnson rulings fiasco and subsequent Twitter gripe-storm, I connected with Scott Dawley. Based in Houston, Dawley is a former mini-tour golfer and consulted for Golf Channel's Altered Course. These days, he is committed to growing speed golf in Texas and hosts the "Pace of Change" podcast. We found common grievances regarding the modern game: Too slow. Overly regulated.

So a week later, we arranged a round in Austin at Bluebonnet Hill for a tee time at the crack of dawn.

Speed golf has been on the outer fringes of the game for decades now, going back as far as the 1970s. It's received some brief publicity flashes. Mike Keiser put up a $50,000 tournament purse thru KemperSports for the Speed Golf World Championships at Bandon Dunes (the 2016 event will be held in Chicago at The Glen Club).

But while there are some pro events and various pockets of aficionados across the nation, it remains a sub-genre of the sport bubbling beneath the surface.

I'm a lifelong golfer and more recently an avid triathlete, so the idea of turning golf into multi-sport was intriguing. But intrigue-turned-necessity with the birth of our first child a few weeks back. Finding five hours of free time isn't going to be easy for awhile.

My first round of speed golf

A speed golf setup is as such: seven clubs maximum in a lightweight bag or silo. Wear running shoes and a comfortable, moisture-wicking shirt. It's recommended you wear rain gloves to cope with sweat on your hands and dew on your grips.

Your total score is your strokes + time from the opening tee shot to final putt falling into the hole. In competition, golfers play single-file with a scorer in a golf cart following along, but casual or social rounds work best in twosomes, as long as no one is crossing anyone's line of flight.

On this morning, four of us headed out in two groups of two, and with the faintest sliver of daylight, our tee shots were in the air and we were running, literally, down the fairway.

So, how’d my first speed golf round go? My stats, according to Strava:

Surprisingly, early on, I played pretty well. I made the turn in 39 strokes, my only miscues being a big bounce into a hazard on a par 3 and a sloppy three-putt. But my drives were all quite solid, and most of my approach shots were finding the green despite the lack of a full iron set and using only my eyeballs to glance at the 150- and 100-yard plates and the flag.

Like a lot of golfers, I'm one brain away from being any good at this game, and the less time thinking about a shot, the better. It was a gloriously stress-free way to play. My heart rate was generally in the 150s (about the same as my moderate, weekend runs training for distance runs in Zone 2), but it certainly raced faster running up hills on the back nine. The experience reminded me a lot of the style of playing windy links golf in the U.K., when the game is more about tempo and feel than precision (not to mention, less waiting between shots). Rather than trying to make a perfect swing to an exact number, I thought more about a slow backswing and following thru towards the target.

Admittedly, my back nine was a little sloppier as my play digressed from carefree to lackadaisical. I hadn't run much more than 2-3 miles since becoming a dad and I was winded down the stretch (and sore the day after).

But all things considered, I shot a respectable 84 in 76:30 minutes (160:30 total score) and had the type of ball-striking round many of my regular rounds don't live up to.

Managed properly, speed golf could thrive

Of all these new off-shoot golf experiments: footgolf, golf bikes, Golf Boards, Fling Golf, etc., speed golf strikes me as the most natural fit between the time-crunched, fitness-craved modern golfer and golf course operators. Facilities don't need expensive, specialized equipment like Golf Boards. They don't have to build and manage a separate course like footgolf.

The biggest barrier to speed golf is, of course, open fairways in front of you, and finding facilities open to accommodating speed golfers.

In the Los Angeles area, speed-golfer Garlin Smith has built a grassroots group of players over the last three years that meet up every Wednesday morning during the summer months. They play primarily at three courses: Lakewood, Chester Washington and Westchester, all American Golf-managed facilities. Garlin has a list of 35-40 interested golfers and can get between 4-12 to come out each week. They pay a discounted rate, about the cost of a 9-hole walking rate. They slow down to repair ball marks and rake the sand traps. They expect to bring courses between 180-220 rounds this summer. That's not huge, but the facilities' lift is virtually nothing.

"The courses dig it," Smith said. "It's incremental revenue, and they're showing traditional golfers that golf doesn't need to take four-and-a-half hours."

Few courses are as crowded as L.A.'s publics, and that means Smith's group will often times play the back nine twice rather than disrupt any regulars with the standing first-off tee time.

It's great to see county-owned courses be proactive in this regard. But in my opinion, the most natural opportunity for speed golf to thrive would be at private and semi-private clubs looking to introduce fitness programs and attract non-members in the process. Also, resort courses could encourage local play by holding speed golf outings on a certain weekday morning, since vacationers don't clamor for first-off times like at the munis.

Speed golf and the USGA

The governing body of speed golf is Speedgolf International. At the competitive level, the sport is basically USGA-legit with a few exceptions. Speed golfers observe out-of-bounds as a lateral hazard instead of stroke-and-distance (but the USGA should have gone to that long ago once golf course communities made O.B. on every hole and sometimes on both sides of a hole commonplace). Speed golfers don't bother with pulling the flag stick on the green (some putt one-handed, too).

But there's nothing in the USGA rulebook about only playing with half a set of clubs or how you to get between shots, and with that in mind, I felt fine with entering my speed golf score into GHIN. Considering the USGA has essentially given up on penalizing slow play, they wouldn't start thinking about penalizing play that is too fast, right?

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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I think this, and programs like this,is the best way to get new golfers to try out the game. People don't have the time for a 4-hour if lucky golf experience, especially while new to the game. Too much trouble to find a course to play while learning, pay the money and stand idly for 97 per cent of the time. Today's active lifestyle and cramped schedule doesn't allow it. I was part of a "Sub-60" Golf group that walked 9 holes in less than an hour. Pretty much same idea as Speed Golf. Great way to get out, get in some golf, and introduce new players. Take people that like a quick morning walk- put them in a beautiful environment, give them a few clubs and let them work up a little sweat and raise the heartbeat. Even new players are given a ball and a putter, eventually getting a chipping club, and eventually a middle iron. It was VERY rewarding. We didn't look for lost balls---who says the rules should get in the way of a good idea.

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Wrong on posting your scores for handicap purposes.   First of all, you do not play by the rules of golf when you leave the pin in the hole and treat lost balls and out of bounds as lateral hazards.  So by section 5-1a of the USGA handicap manual, the scores are already considered unacceptable to post.  In section 1-1 (Purpose), the first basic premise of the handicap system is that each player will try to make the best score at every hole in every round.   You're hardly trying to make your best score running around with your heart beating at 130 beats per minute playing half a set of clubs in running shoes.   Might as well post your scores using a hickory shaft and feathery.   Under unacceptable scores 5-1e (iv) you can't post when the maximum number of clubs allowed in a tournament is less than 14.   Although SpeedGolf might not specifically have this limitation, for practical purposes nobody is out there carrying 14 clubs.   And if you're playing alone, you can no longer post those scores.   So I really think you're kidding yourself thinking you can pump up your handicap legitimately by posting Speed Golf scores.

Commented on

I was playing with someone else on this morning, so that rule is not being broken. 

I don't agree with your assessment of breaking 1-1. In that case, every time I have a beer or three during a round, my score would technically not count. I also don't believe the clubs you use (hickory or whatever) should dictate your handicap. There are actually numerous advantages to playing speed golf, which I mention in the article. 

But yes, I broke the rule about leaving the pin in. I don't understand what advantage leaving the pin in affords me. 

The funny thing is, the score I entered for Speed golf was in fact a lot better than many of my recent "traditional" rounds. My most recent traditional round was a 95. Atrocious yes, but legit.

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Taking speed golf for a test run