Par. The measuring stick we’re all compared to.
“Is this a par 5?” “What did you shoot?” “…3 over.”
In golf, everything is related to par, and I think it’s doing more harm than good.
For any non-golfer’s reading this, the term “par” is defined as the number of strokes an expert player should normally require for a particular hole or course. A par 3 means that the golfer should be aiming to complete the hole in three strokes or less. For an 18-hole course with a traditional layout, par is 72. When hearing announcers on TV refer to a player’s score, a player who shot “two under” means the player shot 70, or two under par for the entire course.
I’m going to tackle this topic in two ways. First, the number of strokes per hole and how, in a lot of ways, that’s forcing players to make bad decisions based on unrealistic expectations. And second, the total number of strokes not being compared to par, 72 in most cases, but rather to their personal scoring average.
When playing any hole, a player is met by the par rating at the tee box. Instead of basing their strategy on the par rating, a more proactive approach might be to consider the total distance of the hole. Rather than thinking, “it’s a par 4, so I need to get on the green in two strokes,” reframe that thought to something like, “this hole is 400 yards long. I only hit my driver 230 yards on average, which will leave me somewhere between 165 and 185 yards to the pin for my second shot.”
The par rating can also force players to make some overly aggressive decisions in an effort to play against par. For example, when a player hits a tee shot in to the trees, instead of playing conservatively and punching out in to the fairway, they play with par in mind, and force a shot that needs to fly between two trees and under branches.
After completing this hole, the golfer is faced with another battle of comparison, where they add up their score compared to the par rating of the hole. Shooting a six on a par 4 is considered a double-bogey, but maybe for their normal scoring average and how far they hit the ball, this is actually a great score.
A famous example of this way of thinking is Coach Rudy Duran, who mentored a young Tiger Woods from the age of 4 to 10. Rudy would take Tiger on the course for their lessons and created what he called, “Tiger Par”. Duran took in to consideration how far Tiger hit his clubs and created a par system that would encourage young Woods to push past realistic boundaries. Tiger’s original par was 67 around the 2,143 yard Heartwell Golf Course.
Duran’s approach had a two-fold benefit. First, Tiger was held to a realistic standard, not striving to attain something that wasn’t possible. Second, the par of each hole was suited to his abilities and gave him a chance to shoot under par, feeling as though he was “winning.”
The reality of golf is, most people don’t practice, have unrealistic expectations, play from tees that are far too long for them, and hold themselves to an unreachable standard. Sounds like fun to me!
This theme is also present in other things like video game design. Programmers are always striving to find what is called the “challenge point” where it’s just hard enough to keep you interested and push your skills. When a game is too easy, it is boring. When it’s too hard, you feel defeated. This why almost every game has a setting where you can adjust the skill level of the computer and turn on or off certain assists to determine what parameters you play with. As your skills improve, the game grows with you.
What if we played golf with no par rating at all? What if the third hole was 405 yards, and you just tried to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible? If you made a five on the hole, but didn’t know it was a par 4, maybe you wouldn’t beat yourself up on the way to the next tee box. For a lot of better players, knowing that they are 1-under par heading in to the last hole can make it more difficult to close the round out.
The second topic here is the relationship of your total score to the par rating of the course. At the Sean Foley Performance Academy, our students play in various junior tournaments all over Florida and the United States. At least once a month, I will say to a player, “great playing this weekend!” which is swiftly met by, “coach, I shot 75-77, that’s not great.” That player is soon reminded that their scoring average over the last six months has been 79.2. So, in comparison to their average score, they played great! Compared to par, they shot eight over in two days. Compared to their scoring average, they shot six under. Which way of looking at it will build confidence and encourage them to stay on the path they’re on?
Creating little victories can build momentum and fuel you along your journey as you improve your skills. It is these little victories that teach you how to work hard, face adversity and overcome obstacles. No golfer, let alone professional athlete, got to their place in sport without encountering difficulty and learning how to rise above it.
When you are held to someone else’s standard, rather than your own, you are a victim of their reality. I encourage every player I work with to track their scores, as gaining an understanding of their results over time will help them frame future results in the proper light.
At the end of the day, par is just a number. What it means is up to you.