Christopher Smith on Speed Golf

Perhaps you’ve seen the four-minute video on YouTube. A golfer in a pink shirt and white shorts goes zipping around Bandon Dunes, playing shots and running with his bag. He putts everything out, pauses to rake a bunker, and records four birdies and 14 pars for a round of 68 in under 54 minutes.

That’s a little pokey for Christopher Smith, the Oregon pro in the video and the world-record holder in speed golf. At the 2005 Chicago Speed Golf Classic, he shot a 65 at Jackson Park Golf Course in 44:06 minutes, for an overall speed golf score of 109.06—strokes plus minutes equal score. Hitting good shots, playing good golf, is paramount in speed golf. And in some ways, says Smith, that’s easier than in the game he now calls “slow golf.”

“It becomes much more of a reaction sport. See the shot you want to hit, the distance, the shape, see it and then do it. In normal golf, you tend to see it, visualize it, and then you think about how to do it, which could involve a swing thought and a practice swing or two, and then you try to do it. There’s this deliberation piece that gets in between. We perform best when we just see it and do it.

“You can pay a sports psychologist $500 or $1,000 an hour, and he’s going to tell you to stay in the present, stay in the now, don’t let your mind wander off into the past or the future. In speed golf, as soon as you hit your shot you start running after it, and your next shot is only seconds away. So you can only stay in the present.”

He has learned that there is an advantage to not knowing your exact yardage to the hole. “When you look at neuroscience and talk with people in the know, they’ll tell you that the brain actually works best when you give it ‘in the ballpark’ numbers or ranges rather than a specific number, which can be intimidating. I’m getting my yardages from sprinkler heads or markers as I’m running to the ball, so they’re not exact. I know, hey, I don’t have to be perfect; ‘about this’ or ‘about that’ is good enough, and your mind-body system works better when you do it that way.”

Smith plays his speed rounds with six clubs in a small stand bag he designed. “You don’t have to sit and ponder, ‘Do I want a 6-iron or a 7?’ It’s the same club either way: just picture the shot, take the club, hit it, and go.”

A run around a golf course is four or five miles, but because the golfer is doing it in intervals of a hundred yards or two at a time, it’s harder on the cardiovascular system. The sport that speed golf most resembles is the biathlon in the Winter Olympics, that combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting that requires stamina, focus, and quick recovery.

Smith makes sure to swing in a controlled fashion—as every golfer should—because a lost ball is the ultimate speed-round killer: first you lose time trying to find it, then, if you can’t, you have to run back and play the shot again. “You learn the hard way in speed golf that when you lose a ball, it’s very penal.”

He took up speed golf in the mid-1990s, after a decade or so of teaching. Having grown up in Eugene, Ore.—the running capital of America—he found the fitness element of the game fun, and was having trouble fitting rounds of golf into his busy work life. “The two things that are killing the game of golf are that it’s not fun for people and it takes too long. Speed golf answered both of those for me.”

Smith, now 51, has taught at Pumpkin Ridge for 15 years; he’s played the Ghost Creek course hundreds of times, and his best score there is a five-under 66 he shot in 48:23 minutes with six clubs.

React, don’t deliberate. Stay in the present. Try to hit “good enough” shots rather than perfect ones. Keep the ball in play. Pick up the pace. Have fun. Score lower.

Sounds like the tortoise game has a lot to learn from its rabbit cousin.