Does Golf Need Par?
I’ve always wondered where the concept of par developed and how it became such a significant standard by which the game measures success. I did some digging and found some history on the subject. Disclaimer!! I’m not claiming to be an expert on this subject, and most definitely there is more on the topic than what can be found on the internet, so the following is hopefully an accurate saga of how the concept originated and established as the games scoring standard.
It seems the first scoring system was developed in the late 19th century by Mr. Hugh Rotherham. Hugh was Secretary of the Coventry Golf Club in Great Britain, and in 1890 he sought to establish a standard number of shots an accomplished golfer should take playing a hole. This system became known as the “ground score”. This standard was later adopted for match play competitions at the Great Yarmouth Club, where during a match Mr. C A Wellman exclaimed to the club secretary, “This player of yours is a regular bogey man”. This was probably in reference to a popular song of the day Hush! Hush! Hush! Here comes the Bogey Man, but after this interjection the ground score concept became known as the “bogey score”. What’s more interesting is the term bogey is derived from a 16th century Scottish term “Bogle” which was a Scottish goblin, and the term bogey-man was commonly used to describe a goblin or devil. Consequently, 19th century golfers considered themselves playing against Mister Bogey when measuring themselves against the bogey score. So it seems from the outset that even golf’s measure of success was based on the age old notion of good vs. evil!
The first use of the term “Par” precedes bogey in Britain by some twenty years. In 1870 golfer writer A H Doleman borrowed the term "par" from financial circles where it was commonly used to describe the normal value of a stock. Prior to the start of “The Open” at Prestwick that year he asked professionals David Strath and James Anderson the expected winning total for the competition. Their response of “perfect play would produce a score of 49 over Prestwick’s twelve holes”, was labeled “Par” for Prestwick by Mr. Doleman. However, Par was not firmly established until much later when the United States Golf Association, in 1911, established standard yardages for determining par, and much to the vexation of British golfers, American’s began referring to a score of one over par as a bogey!
So there you have it in a nutshell. In my opinion there seems to be a recurring premise in the development of Par. From the inception of the modern game, it appears Par evolved as a standard by which the elite players were measured. This is not surprising since most everything in life is measured against excellence and not mediocrity. But it begs the question….what if the standard had not been set as a measurement of what was considered excellence nor mediocrity, but against what was truly normal for the day? Had Mr. Doleman asked a group of normal golfers their expectations over Prestwick’s twelve holes he probably would have received a much different answer. If a score of 49 was expected by the professionals of this era then the Bogey score for each hole would resemble the Par score for courses of today, so it’s not as if the score of that era was lower or higher by today's standards.
It seems we continue, to this very day, to measure everything in golf against what has become an exaggerated standard. For a long time courses have been designed with the elite players in mind, and the average golfer as a secondary concern. I’ll certainly admit falling prey to this approach on a couple of my designs. Maintenance expectations for many players has been influenced by what we see on television every week, not realizing the course has targeted a single moment in time to look its absolute very best. Some golfer’s even try to measure their abilities against the players they see on television every week. Talk about an unrealistic standard! Those guys are not just good, they’re REALLY good!
I am not proposing all golfers should aspire to normality. Just the opposite in fact, I hope all golfers strive for excellence. I have deliberated on this matter for a long time prior to writing this post and have come to ask myself….would the average golfer enjoy the game more if there was not an impractical standard looming in the background? I am an average golfer and play most of my golf with other average golfers, and although we might play a good round in terms of hitting a few really excellent shots, playing a lot of good shots and playing some really stinkers, this is mostly forgotten at the end of the round when I compare my score to the mythical standard of Par. I enjoy every opportunity to play a round of golf, and have fun without putting too much emphasis on score, but occasionally I certainly fall into this trap of measuring my success against Par. More often than not this leads to expectations, frustration and disappointment. I have to admit it’s not always a fun experience. But sometimes in the middle of a round, when I’ve lost track of how far over Par I am and start to simply play the course with no scoring expectations, a truly remarkable things happens…I go from simply enjoying the round and truly delight in the golf experience.
For me the game becomes a lot more enjoyable when the expectation of Par disappears in my mind, and I wonder if other players have a similar experience. So this got me thinking, “what if we could truly make Par disappear”? Would golf be better, worse or indifferent if the concept was no longer part of the game? What if we tuned-in on the weekends and the score was not depicted in plus or minus figures, but as an actual total score. Is it any easier to understand the guy with the lowest red number wins, as opposed to the guy with the lowest total number does also? After all, it’s the total score that is recorded for posterity. What if every course simply listed total yards for a hole and that was it? Or better yet listed nothing and simply provided a diagram of the hole. No expectations of what your score is supposed to be and you simply played. If the expectation or pressure to obtain a certain score was removed would it free golfers to experience an entirely different game? I remember the first, and only time I played Cruden Bay in Scotland. It was during an ASGCA annual meeting, so our group consisted of all American golfers with no caddies for assistance. This aspect alone presented quite a challenge, but despite these handicaps we were enjoying the round and the wonderful golf course. By the time we reached the eighth hole my score had become less important to me, and I was not paying homage to yardage or par and was simply playing the course as it lay out in front of me. The eighth at Cruden Bay is a very short par-4 hole, which I had mistaken for a long uphill par-3. After finishing the hole with a score of 4, I was relatively happy with what I thought to be a bogey on what appear to be a demanding par-3. When it was pointed out the hole was actually a par-4, I was ecstatic I had actually made par! But, at the same time slightly disappointed I didn’t make birdie on a somewhat benign par-4!
But guess what, a four is a four and it made no difference to classify it as birdie or par, my score at the end of the round was still the same. It was then I realized how strongly the concept of par can influence your experience and your approach to playing a hole….both good and bad.
I'm certain there are golfers around the world who love par and feel it is a scared part of the game. I’m certainly not saying they are wrong or their feelings are ill founded. I'm certainly on the fence as far as the matter goes. And I know there are people who would assert this endeavor to be impossible, and I agree it might be impossible for the current generation of golfers to simply erase this concept from their mind. However, if a concerted effort were started now, eventually future generations of golfers would not find themselves competing against the Bogey-man. If this were to transpire would they be open to an entirely new golfing experience....for better or worse? It might be a worthy debate and who knows it just might be the best thing to ever happen to the game.