By Alex Narey
VIDEO: We played Speedgolf...
I often try to explain to people why I love golf. Is it the courses we play or the company we keep? Is it the release from those stresses of everyday life or that feeling of escapism away from work?
It is all those things and more, but really, what I love about golf is the ‘next shot’. Whether I am playing poorly or playing well, the next shot is all that matters. It is why I never want my round to end.
But today, I’m not interested in the next shot. Today, I want my round to end. It is approximately 7.34am on an early autumn morning and while half the country is still asleep, I have played 14 holes and lost seven golf balls. The legs are shaking and the heart is pounding. I have hit rock bottom.
Then something happens. Standing over my third shot on the testing par-5 15th at Springs Golf Club in Oxfordshire – and with about 120 yards to the flag – a voice shouts from across the fairway: “Just let go. Don’t worry about the ball. Just let go.”
Free of any fear, I swing smoothly and make a clean connection, punching an 8-iron below the thick mist which checks and spins back towards the pin. Not only is it the best shot I have hit during this round, but it is probably the best shot I have hit all summer. It was creative and quirky – not the kind of shot I would ever think to play.
I miss the short birdie putt, but that doesn’t matter. Encouraged by that one moment of magic, I play the next three holes solidly to complete my round in 99 strokes. Trust me, it could have been so much worse...
The Iron Golfer
‘The voice’ from across the fairway was that of Luke Willett, a PGA Professional and former head teacher at Burhill Golf Club. Willett is no ordinary golfer, and as you may have gathered by now, this was no ordinary round of golf. This was speedgolf, a fitness-orientated alternative to the standard format of electric trolleys, bacon sandwiches and plodding Sunday-morning fourballs.
Speedgolf’s aim is to ‘unite two of the largest lifestyle communities in the world, golf and running’. Played competitively, it takes the combination of strokes played plus the time it takes to complete your round.
Unlike regular golf, those pre-shot rituals of practice swings and lining up your putt should be ignored. There is no time to overthink things; overthinking only leads to poor shots.
Willett’s own journey to the highest ranks of speedgolf – where in September he was crowned British champion – has been typically unconventional. He turned pro at the age of 18 and enrolled as a teaching professional at The Belfry.
“I was fortunate enough to spend time with the likes of David Leadbetter and Denis Pugh,” he says. “But while I was teaching, it got to the stage where I asked if this was the way it was always going to be; I wanted to know if I could do something else with the game. I wanted to be a trailblazer.”
What followed was a series of personal challenges; going on, in his own words, a ‘crazy journey’ which started playing urban golf down the middle of Oxford Street in 2018.
Willett – dubbed ‘The Iron Golfer’ – has continued to take the game into uncharted territory, like his ‘Three Peaks Golf Challenge’ (climbing while golfing up Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon), ‘Golfing Coast to Coast’ (a 225km cycle trek from Cumbria to Whitley Bay playing 18 holes – six on three separate courses – along the way), and his ‘Iron Golf Challenge’ (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and marathon, followed by 18 holes at Windermere Golf Club).
But it is his journey playing speedgolf that appears to be stoking his passion for the game he now loves more than ever, and this is the reason I have dragged myself out of my bed at 3.30am to run the best part of five miles loaded with a pencil bag and nothing more than a driver, 8-iron, wedge and putter.
To play the round I am joined by Golf Monthly’s editor, Mike Harris. Pre-round, we both seem unsure of the task ahead. We meander and kick our heels by the putting green, while Luke warms up on the nearby practice area.
Approaching the opening hole, I reach to find a tee and pull my driver from my bag. “I don’t use a driver,” Luke says. “Teeing the ball up only wastes time.”
My opening tee shot on the short par 4 sets the early tone: an ugly hook that finds the adjacent 18th fairway. Luke fires his down the middle, as does Mike. I meet them both on the green about three-and-a-half minutes later.
A par follows on the par-3 2nd, but then the wheels come off as the breathing becomes heavier. An attack of the ‘unmentionables’ begins on the 6th hole and I genuinely start to worry that I may run out of balls. By the turn I am sweating profusely.
Sensing my struggles, Luke offers a helping hand.
“Put the driver away to keep it in play,” he says. “Don’t worry about where the ball goes. It is all about getting over the finishing line today.”
And so it goes on: a fairway missed, another lost ball, double-bogey, triple-bogey, before Luke’s divine intervention on that 15th hole, which helps me understand what the last half hour has been about.
I have approached it with the wrong attitude, but now I only see the benefits. Speedgolf has nothing to do with the emotions you feel during a regular round of golf: it is not about compiling a score and the heartbreak of those near-misses. Rather, it is about stripping everything back and cleaning the slate. It’s good for the soul and, speaking quite frankly, good for the ticker, too.
The finishing line
As I finish up on the 18th green with the most satisfying double-bogey six of my life, there is a sense of real satisfaction for what we have just achieved: completing a round of golf in a few seconds over 70 minutes.
But more importantly, I realise I’ve been given a ‘golfing lesson’. Forget ball position and grip pressure; forget the result; forget the yardage. Trust your swing and the rest will follow.
“Speedgolf is the best lesson any golfer can have, even good golfers,” adds Willett. “Real learning happens when you just let go.”
Amid all the personal carnage, it is important to note that Willett, for all the quirkiness and all those crazy challenges, remains a seriously fine golfer. So fine, in fact, that he completes the par-72 layout in a one-under-par 71 strokes – quite remarkable when you consider he had only three or four clubs in his bag, and no driver.
So what next? As well as targeting the world championship next year, Willett wants to be the first player to break speedgolf’s 100 barrier (for example, a round of 66 with a time of sub-34 minutes). But there are even bigger aspirations.
“I want to grow it,” he says. “It is snowboarding to skiing. It is running; it is for the masses. You need pioneers and I want to be that person. It has reignited my love for the game.”
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