The pure fun of golf

Ivan Morris

Rory McIlroy in the Hickory Challenge during preview for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at The Old Course (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

During the winter I like to play a quick nine or twelve holes on my own, which isn’t always easy when there is ‘traffic’ (other golfers) on the course ahead of you. Casual winter golf should be more about “exercise and fresh air” than playing flawlessly. Leaving my mobile phone at home and enjoying the walk and company I am in (if any) more than trying to do a score or relishing any good shots I might manage to hit, gives me a feeling of freedom and serenity that is elusive in the middle of a hectic golf season.

The weather this past winter was atrocious but I did manage to squeeze in one highly enjoyable round at my favourite winter course, Lahinch Castle, where I shot 77 playing with 7 hickory clubs. It was a cold 7ºC too with a wind chill factor that made it feel even colder. That’s a lot of 7s with nary a single one of them on the card (if I had one)

Mind you, I didn’t know what my score was until I began calculating after hitting an arrow-straight Deep Face Mashie (equivalent to a modern 5-iron) second shot onto the 18th green to set up a 10-foot birdie putt. I shouldn’t have begun counting. I might have made the putt if I hadn’t known what it was ‘worth’ and had simply concentrated on the joy of making up shots on a true links beside the sea, in the manner and location that the inventors of golf intended.


Playing with 7-clubs (or less) and creatively making up shots as you go along is so much fun. It’s also surprising how well you can score (if count you must) playing with a reduced bag of artillery. You can become good very quickly at hitting ‘knock down’ 5-iron shots that travel about two-thirds of the distance they are supposed to when you are forced into manufacturing shots you’d never hit normally. There is something special about playing with a limited arsenal of clubs. I have always enjoyed hitting different shots, high ones; low ones; curving ones. To be honest, I probably do too much of it especially when I don’t have to.

It makes me smile and wonder if they understand the game of golf at all (at least what it is supposed to be – a game) when top pros complain about being outside their comfort zone. All because they might have been asked by circumstances to play a few shots that were ‘in between clubs’. Has creativity become a liability in the pro game? Is there no longer any self-reliance? If so, being a pro golfer must be a crushingly boring job devoid of stimulation and self-discovery.

Golf loses much of its appeal when it becomes too reliant on high tech equipment, caddies, coaches, sports psychologists, fitness and diet gurus. Of course, golf is not a game if you play it for a living. It becomes a business; a particularly harsh and cruel one. Nor am I advocating a return to the era of rut irons, long nose play clubs, cleeks, mashies and greens that are more rough than smooth but I do wonder if the true fundamentals and essence of the game have been eroded to the point of diminishing returns?

As I have become more used to playing with a reduced bag of clubs, the fewer I bring onto the course it seems the more fun I have. Although, it is fair to say that playing on a links beside the sea like Lahinch Castle suits that style of play ideally. Links golf allows one to make better use the ground and encourages a wider variety of shots than playing the game through the air. Playing without a Distance Measuring Device is not as difficult as you would think. I managed well enough without one for over fifty years.

Golf, they say, is played between the ears and too many numbers inside one’s head can cause confusion. The usefulness of knowing the measured distance of every shot is exaggerated. After all, what happens when you find yourself making allowances for ground conditions, elevations, temperature, moisture and wind? Hitting shots as you see them in your mind’s eye; ‘feeling’ them instinctively works better than is given credit for.

I’m no longer a good enough golfer to be worried about my score every time I play. I can have a perfectly enjoyable game with as few as four clubs. The real fun begins when you are unable to reach a green in regulation and have to knuckle down and concentrate on rolling three shots into two. That’s the essence of golf!

Those who think the game is hard enough as it is and feel they need every available piece of high-tech equipment available to help them are missing the point. If enjoyment is why they are playing the game, playing it with a limited number of clubs is definitely worth a try. They will have to think better and use their imagination better. Using a device to measure the yardage and pulling a club before whaling away can be mindless and adds nothing to one’s performance and ball-striking ability.

When I play with my hickories, I have to put my ball into positions that will make my next shot viable i.e. finding a corridor with no obstacles in the way that allows me to play a low-flying ‘runner-inner’. Creating these angles of approach may be challenging but it is fun. Being able to hit the ball straight consistently is of huge benefit but no golf course was ever designed to be played in straight lines.

I love my hickory clubs, but I have no feelings (or loyalty) towards my modern golf clubs, which I regard as utilitarian tools without souls. I’d buy a new set in the blink of an eye but, my hickory clubs are ‘keepers’ with individual characteristics that one gets to know and understand intimately. My frequent golfing companions say they’d be too embarrassed to use hickory clubs; golf is hard enough as it is, they say, and they’ll never master it. It’s true that golf is a humbling game whatever equipment we use, so why not experiment? We shouldn’t allow our fragile egos to get in the way of discovering ‘pure golf fun’.

For the uninitiated hickory-wise, the difference in distances achieved with modern clubs and hickories is surprisingly little (10%) when using a modern ball. I hit my hickory driver close to 200; my Deep Face Mashie (5-iron equivalent) 140; my Spade Mashie (7-iron equivalent) 125 and my Niblick (Gap wedge equivalent) 90. With a rubber gutty ball, you could take another 20% off but I admit to not being brave enough to play ‘gutty golf’ very often. Once a year is enough.

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