Tee to green

Lessons in Speedgolf

Speedgolf pioneers hoping sport will soon take off AND teach slower golfers

Zack Hall

Don't bother telling Tim Scott that slow play leads to quality golf.

As one of the pre-eminent “speedgolfers” in the world, the former Bend resident can play 18 holes of par golf or better in less than an hour.

It is a fair bet that Scott, the newly minted executive director of speedgolf's governing body, Speedgolf International, is probably not the reason three foursomes are stacked up on a par 3.

The fledgling sport combines distance running and golf, a coupling as unlikely as oil and water or Felix and Oscar. Yet Scott — a 49-year-old who recently moved from Bend to the Sacramento, Calif., area — thinks there could be an opening for growth. And that as a product, speedgolf could serve as inspiration to solve one of conventional golf's most vexing problems: slow play.

“With the pace-of-play issues that have really come to the forefront in the last few years, the numbers of golfers have gone down across the country,” says Scott, a former golf pro who played for the University of Oregon golf team in the 1980s. “People don't have 5 1/2, six hours to spend (on golf).”

To understand how speedgolf can change conventional golf, one must first understand the sport itself.

The aim is simple: Shoot the lowest score possible in the shortest possible time. Playing with a small bag with five or six clubs, speedgolfers add their stroke score with their elapsed time over 18 holes to come up with their total score. For example, a score of 80 carded in a time of 60 minutes would result in an overall score of 140. (Speedgolf is played primarily under the United States Golf Association's Rules of Golf.)

And to see it played well is a sight in itself. Portland-area golf pro Chris Smith, who discovered speedgolf with Scott after the two friends read a 1999 story on the sport in Runner's World magazine, is in Guinness World Records for his speedgolf success. Smith set the record at the 2005 Chicago Speedgolf Classic by shooting a 65 on a regulation, albeit short, course in a time of 44 minutes, 6 seconds.

That is some awfully fine golf to be played that quickly.

Smith thinks there is a lesson in speedgolf for conventional golfers.

“What if finally people realize that if they played a little bit faster — and speedgolf is an extreme version of playing a little bit faster — they played better?” asks Smith, who is the lead instructor at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. “What speedgolf does is that it demonstrates — and granted, these are elite athletes and it is an extreme version — is that you don't have to play slowly to play well.”

For any lesson to be taught, there must be some exposure.

That could come this Saturday, when CBS airs a short documentary on speedgolf at 10:30 a.m., just before third-round coverage of the Masters begins.

The show centers around the first-ever Speedgolf World Championship, played last October at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern Oregon Coast.

The documentary was produced by Bandon Dunes and has been promoted by the famed course through email blasts as “Our way of celebrating the origins of golf more than 500 years ago when a round was played at a faster pace.”

In addition, small speedgolf clubs are popping up in locations across the U.S., including at RedTail Golf Center in Beaverton, where a handful of players meet just after dawn each Wednesday, Smith says.

Speedgolf International is also trying to spark a professional tour, starting with a June tournament in Richmond, Va., with a purse of about $35,000.

Such promotion of the sport has both Scott and Smith thinking that the future of speedgolf could be bright.

“There just seems to be a lot of momentum in speedgolf right now in a way that there hasn't been,” says Scott, who spent 10 years as a school teacher in Sunriver. “It's really the first time we've had resources and really the interest.”

With this region's love of running, golf, and relatively obscure sports, it seems Central Oregon could be a hotbed for speedgolf. Yet the sport has gained little traction here, other than tournaments that Scott helped organize in 2003 and 2004 at Eagle Crest Resort in Redmond.

That could be changing. Sunriver Resort is planning to host a speedgolf tournament over Labor Day weekend this summer at its Caldera Links short course as part of its Sunriver Marathon for a Cause breast cancer charity event.

“We heard that speedgolf is growing in popularity and we thought it would be a nice, fun activity as an add-on to our marathon weekend,” says Scott Ellender, Sunriver Resort's director of operations.

Speedgolf will likely always be a “niche sport,” Scott says. But how many niche sports have the potential to improve a more mainstream counterpart?

Smith was shocked at how well he played when he first took up speedgolf and decided to do some research, speaking with neuroscientists, motor learning specialists, and human performance experts.

He says they all came to the same conclusion: Playing slowly actually hurts a golfer's game.

It's not that every golfer should become a speedgolfer, Smith says.

“With the time-crunched society that we live in now, there's going to have to be some radical, drastic, creative ways to keep people in (conventional golf) and keep people coming into the game,” Smith says. “Speedgolf might be for a few, which is fine. But the catch is that everybody wants to play better and most people would like to get off the golf course in less than five hours.”

Playing faster might just help on both fronts. Just ask a guy who can play a round under 70 in less time than it takes most of us to get from the parking lot to the first tee.

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