The golf industry needs a pick-me-up and it figures comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004, is just the guy to hack its way out of the woods.
No joke. The United States Golf Association thinks a dead comic, a guy who made his millions pranking himself over lack of respect, can resurrect the game, make it a bit more hip, and most important, help it convince everyone to play at a faster clip.
What next, Clint Eastwood asking an empty lawn chair how to cure a duck hook?
Actually, I’m OK with the whole thing. We all know golf is far too slow, if just to watch, never mind play. Dangerfield was never my choice of chuckles, but his 1980 performance in “Caddyshack,” the golf sendup, is widely considered a comedic classic. The USGA has clipped one of his iconic lines, “While we’re young!’’ as the title to its campaign to speed up the pace of play.
If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, the ever-impatient Dangerfield hollers, “While we’re young!’’ while standing aside a tee box at the fictitious Bushwood Country Club. The golfer about to tee off, Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), is dithering far too long over the ball, prompting Dangerfield’s character (Al Czervik) to swipe him with the sardonic, easy-to-remember one-liner. Haven’t we all wanted to scream, “Hit the [expletive] ball!’’ in such tedious moments?
Recreational golfers (read: hacks who fill courses around the nation) know that a full round of 18 holes often easily eats up five hours or more. And that, notes USGA president Glen Nager, “is incompatible with modern life’’ and “saps the fun from the game.’’
Meanwhile, golf participation across the nation has eroded in recent years for a variety of reasons, slow play included. According to the National Golf Foundation’s most recent numbers, there were 25.7 million golfers in the US in 2011, down 3.1 million (10.8 percent) since 2000. As for rounds played, they dropped from 518.4 million nationwide to 463.1 million, a fall of 10.7 percent, in that same stretch.
Ergo, “While we’re young!’’ The USGA has enlisted an all-star cast, including legends Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, to deliver a series of 30-second video spots, each of them weaving Dangerfield’s one-liner into the script. The spots are good fun and easy to find on YouTube.
My favorite of the bunch has Palmer trying to coax the aforementioned Eastwood to play faster. Acutely aware of Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry’’ quick trigger, Palmer initially employs the “While we’re young!’’ line, then a bit sheepishly adds, “Please.’’
It’s all aimed at changing mentality, a lesson in behavior modification and cultural shift. It won’t be easy. Courses get bottlenecked for myriad reasons, and playing psychology is just part of it.
The “While we’re young!’’ initiative is not the only one aimed at giving the game some giddyup. Golf Digest, the PGA of America, and the USGA combined to create “Time for Nine,’’ which encourages golfers to play nine holes instead of the standard 18. I’ve always liked this approach. If I’ve chopped up the course, I head for home thankful that it was only nine holes and I didn’t waste the entire day. If I’ve blistered the joint (anything around a 50), I pull away eager to return.
Another uptempo initiative is the Three/45 Golf Association, founded by Lucius Riccio, a Columbia University professor whose mantra is that 3 hours, 45 minutes is about right to cover the course. With a name like Riccio, one would think he’d insist on a Ferrari cart and a checkered flag at No. 18.
Personally, I think this all boils down to mentality, golfers in desperate need of loosening up a little out there. Which means I think Nager nails it when he emphasizes “fun.’’
Searching for balls in the woods for 3-5 minutes is not fun. There’s nothing amusing about being in a foursome that has one guy taking 60 seconds just to read a putt, another 30 seconds to get comfortable over the shot, yet another 30 seconds to pull the trigger. Really? Two minutes for one 15-footer? If all four golfers did that on each hole, the time consumed would be 2 hours, 24 minutes to execute those 72 putts. Uh, fellas, “While we’re young!’’
Obviously, I’m a pretty bad golfer. I am also competitive, which is a horrible affliction for a bad golfer. Caring about one’s score, I think, is at the root of the whole time problem and kills the concept of fun. If I could tell the USGA something — now there’s true comedy — it would be to try to convince its target group, recreational golfers, to forget about keeping score. I reached that point years ago when I decided only to tally my good shots. No pencil, no card, no math degree, no angst.
A golfer who keeps track of only his or her good shots will leave the course thrilled over 10s, 20s, and 30s instead of peeved over 90s, 100s, 110s or worse. Of course, that doesn’t do anything for those who are out to lower their official handicap. It also won’t win the beer at the end of the round, provide bragging rights the next morning at the office.
All in all, the game of golf as we know it, as we learn it, is all about keeping score, and score is all about studying and fretting and, most of all, taking time. Often too much time.
Late one recent Friday afternoon, on a beautiful New England day, my 16-year-old son and I played for the first time this year. The course, 40 minutes west of Boston, was virtually empty. We played nine holes. We each hit 15-18 good shots. If we smacked a ball in the woods, we took a cursory look (30 seconds max), then dropped a ball at the edge of the fairway if necessary. If we hit one in the water, we dropped one on the far side of the water. If we landed in a bunker, we blasted out in one, or we picked it up and tossed it on the green.
Total time, nine holes: 95 minutes. We were not home just in time for dinner, but in time to help make dinner. And we cannot wait to go back. You know . . . while we’re young.