Ty Butler, ASGCA, looks at the history behind “par,” and the value it has for the game today.

It sometimes seems we 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. Some golfers 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!

The concept of par has evolved over the years as a standard by which to measure results of the elite players of the game, and not what is truly a normal yardstick for a majority of golfers. 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 is not set as a measurement of what is considered excellence nor mediocrity, but for what is truly normal for a majority of players?
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 for a long time and come to ask myself: Would the average golfer enjoy the game more if there was not an impractical standard looming in the background?

I remember playing Cruden Bay in Scotland. It was during an ASGCA Annual Meeting, so our group consisted of all ASGCA members with no caddies. This aspect 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 appeared 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 the experience and the approach to playing a hole….both good and bad.

I am an average golfer and play most of my golf with other average golfers. Although we might play a good round in terms of hitting a few really excellent shots, a lot of good shots and 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 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 thing happens…I go from chasing Par to simply enjoying the round and truly delighting 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. If the expectation or pressure to obtain a certain score was removed would it free golfers to experience an entirely different game?

I’m certain there are golfers around the world who love par and feel it is a sacred part of the game. I’m certainly not saying they are wrong or their feelings are ill-founded. I’m on the fence as far as the matter goes. And I know there are people who would assert this endeavor to be impossible, and 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 the best thing to ever happen to the game.

For more thoughts and perspectives from ASGCA members, be sure to sign up for our e-newsletter, ASGCA Insights.