What kind of golfer are you?
If this question seems a little philosophical in nature, you're definitely right. But if you want to derive maximum enjoyment and edification from playing golf - if you want the time and money it costs to play golf to feel worth it, at the end of the day - you ought to have an answer to it.
Having played a couple thousand rounds of golf in my life, it's become apparent that there are two general types of golfers in the world: recreational golfers and competitive golfers.
That said, an individual golfer can certainly exhibit traits of both groups. I would classify myself as a competitive golfer - I keep my score and statistics for most every round I play. But if I'm out by myself, especially on a course that invites creative play, I can never resist hitting a few extra shots just for fun.
You may feel the same way, but in the end, one of these two categories should approximate your general approach to the game:
Paige Mackenzie tees off during the 2006 Curtis Cup. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Not to get pedantic on you, but Merriam-Webster defines the word "compete" this way: "to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective."
That's a pretty broad definition, and in golf, there are all kinds of objectives that you might strive for in your quest to derive gratification from the game. Most importantly, you don't have to be a low-handicap player or a serious tournament junkie to consider yourself a competitive golfer.
If you really want to break 100, 90 or 80, you're a competitive golfer.
If you're searching for ways to drive it 10 yards farther, fix your slice, or get up and down from greenside bunkers more often, you're a competitive golfer.
If the notion of playing the courses the professional tours play excites you, you're a competitive golfer.
If your regular foursome plays for anything when they convene - even a dollar or a post-round beer - you're a competitive golfer.
If you usually keep score, even while playing by yourself, you're a competitive golfer. (I happen to think this is one of the greatest aspects of golf: the golf course is always your real adversary, so solo golf can be a competition, because Old Man Par is always there.)
In short, competitive golfers tend to seek to spend their time around the game chasing some sort of objective. Again, actual skill is not a determining factor. If the pursuit of playing better - whether it's winning your state amateur or just beating your buddies - excites you, then you're a competitive golfer.
We often see Bill Murray on the golf course during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but he's always having a ton of fun. (Jacqueline Duvoisin/Getty Images)
Merriam-Webster has two subtly different definitions for "recreation." I'm going to use the second one here: "a means of refreshment or diversion."
To me, at its most basic level, golf blends the pleasures of hiking and museum-going. A golf course is a form of sculpture that you interact with, by guiding a golf ball from point A to point B, usually 9 or 18 times over the course of a few hours. You don't have to care about how many individual attempts it takes to complete that task in order to derive a visceral pleasure from the process. People naturally tend to enjoy swinging a stick at an object, and golf provides a context for that sort of violent act that doesn't end in incarceration.
After all, being on a golf course - standing under a bright, open sky, feeling the turf underfoot, smelling the grass, hearing the wind rustle the trees while birds chirp - is a true diversion from being indoors. The physical act of swinging a club makes for an invigorating alternative to the decidedly anti-physical act of, say, sitting behind a desk or watching television. If these aspects of golf are what appeal most to you, you're a recreational golfer.
If you play golf mainly for exercise, you're a recreational golfer.
If you play golf mainly to socialize with your friends and drink a few beers, you're a recreational golfer.
If you don't get upset and instead laugh after a bad shot, you're a recreational golfer.
If the majority of your golf is played at charity scrambles, you're a recreational golfer.
If you tend to rake back five-footers in order to avoid the potential annoyance of missing, you're a recreational golfer.
Luckily, the tent of golf is huge. There's no one proper way to enjoy the game. The only way to go wrong is to mis-match the places you play the game with your own approach.
How to choose the right course(s) for your approach to golf
One good rule of thumb is to take clues from a course's scorecard.
Due to its size and range of golf offerings, Myrtle Beach is a perfect example of a place where the two main types of golfer can have a great time...but will maximize their enjoyment if they can pick certain courses according to their own dispositions toward the game.
When I lived in the Myrtle Beach area a few years ago, I played the majority of my golf at Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club , a Jack Nicklaus Signature course known for its scenic stretch of back-nine, marshside holes.
In addition to being an attractive golf course, Pawleys Plantation happens to be one of the two or three hardest golf courses along the whole "Grand Strand," which runs from Pawleys Island in the south across the North Carolina border some 65 miles north.
In short, Pawleys Plantation is better suited to competitive golfers than recreational golfers, because its teeth comes in the form of smallish, angled greens, deep bunkers and a number of pesky water hazards. As a competitive golfer, I love it. Having played it hundreds of times on family vacations and while I lived in South Carolina, it has helped shape my game.
Pawleys Plantation tests your game from first tee to 18th green, with no real let-up. So if you're the type of golfer for whom fun is the main idea, the stern challenges it serves up might wear on you, and end up giving you something different than you bargained for.
Does this mean that every recreational golfer should steer clear of Pawleys Plantation? Not necessarily, because the views across Waccamaw Neck on the 12th, 13th and 16th holes supply exactly the joy in nature recreational golfers seek. I would just advise bringing some extra golf balls.
On the other side of the Myrtle Beach coin, I would consider the West Course at Myrtle Beach National to be a prime course for recreational golfers. The sub-70 Rating and 118 Slope from the White tees are among the lowest in the area, and the absence of real estate around the West Course appeals to all golfers, but especially those for whom the enjoyment of nature (and lack of out-of-bounds stakes) is an important aspect of the game. The bunkers are well-placed but fairly shallow, and forced carries over water are limited.
Does this mean competitive golfers should steer clear? Not necessarily; just know that some wayward shots will be forgiven and the test won't be as rigorous as what you're used to.
Another great example of places where you'll want to tailor your itinerary to your tastes is links golf. This year's Open host, Carnoustie , is known as one of the toughest links tests. A must-play for hardcore competitive types to be sure, but more recreational players might derive more pleasure from a game at nearby Monifieth or Panmure, where the turf is firm, the holes wander through dunes, but you won't be brought to your knees by the challenge.
This way of looking at yourself as a golfer works best if you think of it as a spectrum. If you find yourself at the "competitive" end, certain golf courses are going to captivate you. If you fall toward the "recreational" end, those same golf courses might rub you the wrong way.
In the end, though, the greatest courses manage to be the ones from which all golfers derive enjoyment, whether it be the gratification of honing their skills or the mere pleasure of being outside and smacking that little white ball around for a while. I've found that the courses at places like Streamsong and Sand Valley bridge these two factions by simultaneously testing golfers who constantly evaluate their skills and delighting golfers who just want an interesting place to hit the ball for a while.