At speed golf’s premier event, Olympic runners, a U.S. Special Forces captain and a chiropractor blazed through 18 holes

January 23, 2014

If golf is a good walk spoiled, you wouldn't know it to watch Nick Willis, lean and lanky, bounding like a gazelle toward the first tee. It's a slate-gray morning in southern Oregon, and he's decked out in the duds of an ordinary duffer: collared shirt, shorts, ankle-high socks. What's different is his footwear — bright yellow Adidas — the same shoes he trained in for the Beijing Olympics, where, running for New Zealand, he nabbed a silver medal in 2008.

His glory in those Games came in the 1,500 meters. His track today? Old Macdonald, a five-mile-long golf course at Bandon Dunes Resort that Willis plans to play in the time it takes most groups to get through three and a half holes.

Pulling driver, he grins: "Anyone going to say, 'On your marks'?"

He coils and swings, and with the crack of impact serving as his starter's pistol, he's off at an Olympian clip. Any slower and he'll be overtaken. There's no tolerance for waiting at the Speed Golf World Championship, the marquee event in an up-tempo sport that's trying to catch its second wind.

Remember speed golf? It dashed across the headlines in the late 1990s, an odd diversion noted for its hybrid demands. You hit. You run. You hit again. Your score: the sum of your strokes and minutes played. Its practitioners called it a more athletic version of a slack-paced pastime and a cure for the plague of the five-hour round. Not only did speed golfers pull off gaudy feats, firing subpar rounds in under 50 minutes, but they also touted their sport for the lessons it could teach: We'd all play better if we played faster.

Though there was a lot to like about speed golf, it never really took. Over the next decade, the sport limped along, sustained by local leagues and promoted on a shoestring by Speed Golf International, a slapped-together outfit that was little more than three friends with other full-time jobs. Moonlighting in their efforts, Christopher Smith, an Oregon golf pro, and his childhood buddies Tim Scott and Jim Kosciolek conducted speed-golf demos and low-key annual competitions, including a small event at Bandon Dunes.

On it went that way, a sport on life support, until Smith and Co. decided it was time for drastic measures — either redouble their efforts, or pull the plug. Buoyed by the public's growing appetite for extreme sports and the fact that onetime sideshows, such as long-drive competitions, had morphed into televised events, the three men were convinced of speed golf's potential. "We all felt it could have traction, but we had families, jobs," Scott says. "We knew that to make it work, we would have to go all-in. The sense was, it's pretty much do or die."

In 2012, with financial backing from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser, they gave their Bandon tournament a grander name — the Speed Golf World Championship — and put up a $50,000 purse. The event was captured in a 30-minute TV special, which aired on CBS before the Masters. It was speed golf's biggest moment.

Among those watching was the Olympian Nick Willis, who, from the comfort of his living room couch, turned to his wife and said, "Now that's something I've got to try."

As the first man out this morning, the 30-year-old Willis is "the rabbit," in track-and-field parlance — an apt role for a guy who grew up playing golf as well as running laps. By high school, he had broken 80 and could run a mile in just over four minutes. His first drive is a beaut, nearly 300 yards, but he doesn't hang around to admire it. Barely has his tee ball stopped rolling when Willis is on it, knocking a wedge onto the green. Though his takeaway is flat, his gait is upright, his heels kicking so high they kiss his glutes. Within minutes, he's a distant speck, teeing off on No. 3.

By which point, the next roadrunner has already taken off. His name is Rob Hogan, a teaching pro from Ireland with a quarter-miler's stride. That he once played 18 holes in 31 minutes and triumphed in another recent speed-golf event qualifies Hogan as a pre-tournament favorite. But no one is discounting defending champ Chris Walker, or the double threat presented by Eri Crum, a chiropractor, marathoner and former captain of the Stanford golf team who played alongside Notah Begay and Tiger Woods.

The fastest runner in the 25-man field is Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan-born American record holder in the 1,500 meters. A looming figure in track and field, he's a two-time Olympic medalist who took up golf only five years ago. Gazing from the first tee at a fairway as wide as the Serengeti, Lagat smiles and says, "I hope I brought enough balls."

Still, from top to bottom, the pedigree of the competition is much improved from what it was in the early days of the Bandon event, when, as Christopher Smith recalls, "We were just a small group of oddballs and misfits, with the occasional high school golfer and cross-country runner thrown in." Starting in 2002, when the Bandon event was born, Smith took first six times in 10 years. But now, at 50, with an aching hip, up against a field of young speed-burners, he laments his chances as "outside, at best."

"I'm the Old Tom Morris of speed golf," he says.

In truth, it's unclear who can rightly make that claim. Speed golf has various origin stories. In 1979, Steve Scott, the famed American miler, breezed around a course in 29 minutes and 30 seconds, swinging just a 3-iron and shooting 95. But as every speed-golf graybeard knows, a Virginia businessman named Fred Tattersall was playing rather rapidly before that. In 1974, while working for a bank owned by future Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson, Tattersall read an article that mentioned a man in Nebraska who'd set a record by playing 18 holes in 37 minutes. The story inspired Tattersall, a former college golfer and avid runner, to marry his two interests. The following year, at Myrtlewood Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he fired an 83 in 35:12, establishing a speed-golf record of his own.

Except that he didn't call it "speed golf" and he didn't play it as it's played today. As was custom at the time in a yet-to-be-named sport, Tattersall had a caddie, who rode beside him in a cart.

The rules of speed golf have since been standardized and stiffened. Carts are forbidden and players tote their own sticks, drawing on a maximum of six clubs. Many of golf's usual penalties apply — lateral hazards, out-of-bounds — but the etiquette is different. Raking bunkers is not required. No one balks at dropping bags on the green.

Not every player needs those kinds of time-savers. In the Bandon field is Scott Gerweck, a cheerful music teacher and fleet-footed scratch player who flies around the course with only a 6-iron, which he can hit anywhere from 10 yards to 220 yards. Hogan, the golf pro from Galway, putts one-handed, as though he were brushing in a gimme, never stopping to drop his bag.

Given the results of his first round, the first half of a 36-hole event, Hogan may soon have a host of imitators. He tops the leaderboard, having shot 77 in an astounding 39 minutes, nearly five minutes faster than Willis, who cards a respectable 86.

The action is captured by high-resolution cameras and broadcast online as it happens on a fledging network called OombaTV. It's the first-ever live video coverage of a speed-golf competition, brought about in part by a donation from an Oregon businessman named Dale Stockamp, whose son Mark won the amateur division of the 2012 world championship.

In the wake of that event, the elder Stockamp gave Speed Golf International a no-strings-attached, six-figure cash infusion that has allowed Tim Scott to pay himself a salary and devote himself full-time to promoting the sport. To that end, representatives from the mega marketing agency IMG are on hand for the tournament, contracted by Speed Golf International to help find corporate funding.

As it was the first day, the sky is gray and the winds are down. Bandon Dunes is ripe for scoring. Among those who attack it is Scott Manley, a U.S. Special Forces captain who played collegiately at West Point. It's his first speed-golf event, but the sport's dual requirements — exertion and precision — aren't new to a man who has humped a 40-pound pack through the mountains of Afghanistan to find himself caught up in a firefight. In 48 minutes, he shoots 78.

Nobody, though, is going to catch Hogan, who once more plays in hyperdrive (79 in 41:24) to hold off Tiger's former teammate Eri Crum. A close bunch of contenders, including the defending champion Chris Walker, falls in just behind.

Hogan's two-day tally is 27 points better than last year's winning score, a sign, Scott says, of a sport that's taking root. Scott's goal is to nurture it on two fronts: with televised events that attract elite fields and pay substantial purses, and through grassroots outlets such as speed golf leagues.

Both present a challenge. For the sport to flourish locally, speed golfers need access — courses that are willing to allot them times. Big-time tournaments are a different kind of hurdle, requiring corporate backing and marquee names.

High among the hopes at Speed Golf International is to lure a PGA Tour player into competition. As Scott and Smith see it, a number of candidates abound, such as fitness buff Camilo Villegas, or Ben Crane, a jokester who might enjoy the chance to upend his reputation as a glacial player. In the meantime, speed golf will continue leaning on track-and-field stars.

With the second round drawing toward a close, Bernard Lagat breezes up the 18th fairway, showing off his Kenyan kick. He has just sprinted five miles, a bag slung over his shoulder, but you wouldn't know it. Carl Pettersson looks more winded after a practice swing.

His last-place finish hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. "I'm hooked," Lagat says.

Ditto for Nick Willis, who despite dropping into 13th place, insists he's looking forward to 2014. In preparation, he plans on making changes. To his golf swing?

"My fitness," the silver medalist says. "I need to get in better shape."