I played my first round of golf in 1946 at the Blue Bonnet Country Club in Texas. I played with my father and my Uncle Earl. On that day I got the first golf lesson that I can still remember. My father told me that I had to keep up. Uncle Earl said, "Yes, you've got to learn to hit it and go git it." I became a good golfer with a +1 handicap when health forced me to stop playing about 18 months ago. I became a golf coach in a large Texas high school. I later became the chairman of the handicap committee at a large Texas country club with two courses and about one thousand playing members. I was also on the golf committee.
I love golf, but I don't like the way it treats the players unfairly. Well, the game doesn't treat people unfairly, but the men who control it do. The following little fable explains.
Once upon a time, deep in the heart of Texas, there lived a happy couple named Jack and Jill.
Their life was perfect except for one thing—they loved to play golf and it frustrated them very much. Their frustration on the course would sometimes follow them home, upsetting their digestion and their cat, Sha-Sha.
Their story was like so many other golfers around the world. Both Jack and Jill knew in their heart of hearts that they were far better golfers than their scores and handicaps would indicate. They both believed strongly that they were just one lesson, one practice session, one putting drill, one new driver, one lucky day away from shooting a par 72 round. But the happy day never came.
Then, as luck would have it, Santa Claus gave the happy couple a wonderful present. He gave them an electronic range finder. This device utilized Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to determine distances on the golf course. Jack and Jill were ecstatic. They thanked Santa over and over, because they both believed that this handheld device would be the answer they had sought for years. They knew that getting precise distances would solve all their problems. No longer would they have to guess how far away they were from the pins. They would know exactly. They could select the perfect club, and with the confidence this accurate knowledge would give them, they could make the perfect swing, and make birdies and eagles, and carry over hazards, and… and…
But alas, their dream did not come true. They found that they did do a better job of club selection, and they found that they played faster, but their overall scores did not really improve. Their dream of a perfect round of 72 was still far, far away. What could be wrong? They knew that they were perfectly capable of shooting a round of 72.
Then one day they heard that the old man who lived in the woods had been muttering that he had found the secret to golf. Everybody knew that the old man was addled and harmless and so no one really paid any attention to his claim. But one night, after a bad day on the course, Jack and Jill became desperate; they had to do something. Their distress upset Sha-Sha and she raced around the house making loud catcalls. So that very moment they jumped up and went deep into the woods where they finally found the home of the old man who was known only as Hestal. It was a strange name, and no one knew where it, or the old man himself, came from. But no matter, this was a time for action.
Jack knocked loudly on Hestal’s door. No answer. He knocked again and again, but still no answer. But then they heard a voice from high up in the oak tree that stood in the yard. The voice said, “What do you want?” Startled, they looked up but could see no one. So they lifted their faces to the moon that they could see shining through the leaves of the oak tree and said together, “We want to know the secret to golf.”
Instantly they heard a commotion in the oak tree and suddenly a figure dropped to the lawn, and as he stood up they could see that he was dressed in bright yellow polyester slacks, with a comfort waist band, and his shirt was white polyester with a large collar that stood up stiffly, and his white straw hat said, “Bluebonnet Country Club” across the front. His shoes and his belt were made of white patent leather and his hair was as white as the Les Strokes golf ball he held in his left hand, with a pink plastic tee ready to stick in the ground. In his right hand was a persimmon driver, polished to a high shine, with a steel shaft painted to look like wood, and with a worn, leather grip.
The old man moved his feet as he gained traction with his spikes and he began to slowly swing the driver back and forth with one hand. Jack and Jill knew this had to be Hestal, and he said, “Everybody wants to know the secret of golf, and everybody already knows it, that is, except for golfers. Boxers know it. Wrestlers know it. Automobile racers know it. Sailboat racers know it. College football teams know it; even high school teams know it. Basketball too, and baseball, and probably even weightlifters and karate fighters—they all know it. It is hard for me to think of anyone who doesn’t know the secret of golf, except for golfers themselves. You can tell golfers the secret until hell freezes over, excuse me lady, and they just don’t get it. So why should I waste my time telling you the secret to golf, when I know very well that you will not believe it? I don’t know if golfers are too dumb or have too much ego or whether they just have too much dumb ego.”
Jack and Jill were astonished. They looked carefully at Hestal. He did look a little wild, but he also had a smooth tempo as he casually swung the driver and his footwork was perfect. Then he teed the Les Strokes golf ball on the lawn and with no hesitation gripped his driver with a perfect interlocking grip, took a perfect stance, and made a perfect swing. The sound of driver head contacting the ball was like a perfect bell and the ball shot off into the darkness leaving a luminous vapor trail like the tail of a comet. Jack and Jill were convinced. Jill said, “We will believe it. Just tell us.”
Hestal said, “Well, I have been wanting to tell somebody for a long time now. I tried it a few years ago and nothing came of it. But maybe now, maybe the world is ready for it. Okay, I’ll tell you the secret—it is only one sentence. But it may take some explaining.”
He paused and held up his left hand and suddenly the Les Strokes golf ball flew back into his grasp as it returned from its unknown journey. Hestal smiled and said, “The secret to golf is this: a good big man will beat a good little man every time.” He waited.
Jack and Jill looked at each other and then looked at Hestal. Jack said, “I believe what you said, but I don’t see how it applies to golf.”
Hestal said, “Now that’s a good start. Let me ask you something about boxing. Is there only one world champion? No, there are several, one for each division or class, right?”
Jack said, “Sure, there’s the heavyweights, the lightweights, welterweights, featherweights, bantamweights, probably more.”
Hestal said, “Right, and every class is established by what?”
Jill said, “I know, it is the weight of the fighter. So big men don’t fight little men. So I see what you mean, a good big man will beat a good little man every time, because he is bigger and stronger and has more knockout power.”
Jack looked happily at his wife. He loved this woman.
Hestal said, “Now you’re cooking. That is why there are classes or divisions in other sports, such as weightlifting, wrestling, and karate fighting. College and high school football and basketball and even baseball divisions are not determined so much by the size of the players, although that is certainly important, but they are determined by the size of the school. Big high schools don’t play little high schools except for entertainment and exercise. Sure every once in a while a little college team will upset a big college team and it makes sports history, but usually the big ones beat the little ones.”
Jill said, “So you are saying that this principle applies to golf. How?”
Hestal said, “The answer is easy. Who is the big man in golf, Jack, the World’s Best Player or you?”
Jack admitted, “Why the World’s Best Player is the big man, of course.”
Hestal said, “Yes, he is and he is in a separate division from you, right? You are an amateur and he is a professional in the biggest division on the planet. So there is a little dividing of the golf world already, but there is not enough. The secret to golf, put another way, is that we don’t have enough divisions for each of us to find one that fits us. Once we find our natural division, the one that fits our power, then the whole world changes. You will find that you have become the golfer you always knew you could be.”
Hestal continued, “The closest thing we have to golf divisions for everyday golfers is different tee boxes. But there are two things wrong with this idea that immediately come to mind. One is that the tee boxes are not coordinated with the natural power groupings of ordinary golfers, and the other is that when it is time for the club tournament the champion is determined by playing from the back, or the longest, or the championship tees. They will sometimes have different flights for age, gender, or handicap, but even those don’t coordinate with ordinary golfers.”
Jill asked, “So how should we determine golfing divisions?”
Hestal said, “By average driving distance, that is all. You should play against people who can hit the ball the same distance as you can with the driver. What is your average driving distance?”
Jack said, “Mine is 250 yards.”
Jill said, “Mine is 150 yards.”
Hestal asked, “What tees do you play?”
Jack said, “I play the Blues and Jill plays the Reds.”
Hestal said, “Which of you is the better golfer?”
Jill said, “Jack is. He shoots from the high 70’s to the low 80’s, and I shoot in the middle to high 90’s.”
Hestal said, “Well let’s take a look at what you have told me. First Jill plays the Red tees which are 5,116 yards long. If we divide 5,116 by 150, the length of Jill’s average drive, we get 34.1. So Jill’s course is 34.1 times the length of her drive. Now if Jack, who drives it 250 yards, were to play a course that is 34.1 times the length of his drive he would have to play a course of 8,525 yards. So to play a course of equal difficulty, Jack would have to move up from 6,633 yards to one that is 8,525 yards, or 28.5% longer.”
(As you can see Hestal competed in Number Sense in high school, and even there big schools did not compete against small schools—each division was based on enrollment and each had its own state champion.)
Jack and Jill looked a little confused.
Hestal said, “What this means is that Jack is playing a course that is easier than the one Jill plays. This is not unusual. Women are almost always playing more difficult courses than the most difficult courses that men play. Men seem to like it that way. So Jack may not be a better golfer than Jill. He definitely is playing the easier course in relation to his power, his weight class, you might say.”
Before Jack or Jill could comment, Hestal went on, “But it is probably true that both of you are playing courses that are too hard. You are both playing golf out of your class. The course you are forced to play does not suit your game.”
Hestal said, “Now let’s take a look at a particular hole. Say number 5, the par five that goes along the highway—the one that usually plays into the prevailing wind. For Jack the hole is 496 yards from the Blues. From the Reds the hole is 433 yards for Jill. So the men who designed the course generously gave Jill a 63-yard advantage from the tee boxes to account for her power as a woman. But I don’t think they gave her enough.
(By the way, Hestal also competed in Slide Rule in high school, and, you guessed it, divisions were based on school enrollment and each division had its own state champion.)
“First let us look at how Jack plays the hole. He hits his driver 250 yards. Good shot, Jack. Now he hits his three-wood 223 yards. Jack has moved the ball 473 yards in two good shots and he has a 23-yard pitch to the pin. He should hit the green in regulation with no trouble. With a good pitch and putt he can make a birdie four.
“Now let us take a look at Jill’s situation. It makes sense to me that if the two courses that you play matched each of your driving distances then Jill should have a driver, a three-wood and a short pitch for her birdie chance. Fair is fair, right? But first Jill hits her drive 150 yards and then hits her three-wood 134 yards. She has moved the ball 284 yards with two good shots. But she still has 149 yards to go. So she hits her three-wood again for another 134 yards. Now she has only 15 yards to the pin, but she has taken three shots to get close to the green while Jack only needed two. Something is wrong here. Jill, through no fault of her own, has played a harder hole. The course designers have not been fair with Jill. In order for Jack to play the hole in the same way he would have to add another three-wood which would make his hole become 223 yards longer.
“Let me make it really clear. Based on her average driving distance, her weight class in boxing parlance, Jill played a hole that was the equivalent of 719 yards for Jack. So when you are watching the big-time pros play long par fives on television, such as a 613-yarder somewhere, just remember that women play holes longer than that every time they go out. Women have been playing the longest courses ever played. Men are softies. I’m beginning to wonder if a man really is the World’s Best Player.
“These cockeyed situations are normal for golf. Men would not stand for it. They would never play a course as hard as the ones they force women to play. But if they did their scores would go up, and the time required to play a round would also go up. For example, I have already said that Jack would have to play a course that covers 8,525 yards instead of the 6,633 yards he now plays. This 28.5% increase in yardage and score would mean an increase in time. If Jack now plays his course in 4.5 hours, he would find himself spending another 1.28 hours to finish the longer course. No wonder women take so long to play, they are playing much longer courses. But men, in their special way, blame women for the faults of male course designers.
“So, at this point, it is unclear if women or men are the better golfers.”
Then the light dawned, and Jack said, “But Jill could play a shorter course, couldn’t she? If she did that we would be in balance.”
Hestal said, “Good idea. When we divide your 6,633-yard course by your 250-yard drive we get 26.5. If we then multiply Jill’s 150-drive by the 26.5 factor we get 3,975. This would be the length of Jill’s course in order to make things apples to apples.”
Jill said, “But there is no such set of tees. The Reds, that I play now, are already the shortest tees on the course.”
Jack said, “Yes, that’s right. We have five tees now, four for men and one for women. We need to add three more tees for women. That could fix the problem.”
Hestal said, “You’re on the right track. The secret to golf is to establish classes, similar to weight divisions in boxing and other sports, but in golf we will use average driving distance as the dividing factor. When we determine how long your individual course should be you can use your GPS range finder to determine where each tee box should be. In that way you will have a course that has been customized to fit your game. Once that basic idea is accepted there are a few more tweaks we can do to make golf easier to learn, faster to play, and a lot more fun.”
Jack and Jill turned to each other and hugged. They smiled at Hestal, and they all lived happily ever after. And Sha-Sha purred contentedly.