It’s Time to Take Action on Slow Play

Recently I played in a stroke-play club competition. My group of three happened to draw the first starting time on the Old Course: 7 a.m. None of us played particularly well, but when we walked off the 18th green, the big red clock on the side of the R&A clubhouse said 9:55.
Granted, my two partners were low handicappers—one and three—and one was actually a professional race car driver, so he knew something about speed. But the truth is, we never rushed. Since it was a tournament, each of us took a bit of extra care in planning our shots. We also spent some time looking for miscues in the fescue, and of course we putted out everything. Nonetheless, we finished in less than three hours.
So why can’t the rest of the world play at that sort of pace? Mind you, I don’t expect everyone to move as quickly as I do (my game has been described as a cross between golf and polo) but there was no excuse for the time posted by the three-ball behind us. Starting at 7:10, they finished at 10:50—a full three holes out of position. Thus, every ensuing group was compelled to play at that pace. Sadly, golf has become unconscionably slow, even in St. Andrews.
The old-timers here are fond of recalling a time—not too many summers ago—when 54 holes a day was common. In an elegant essay, Bernard Darwin wrote of his annual September fortnight at St. Andrews when daily double rounds were comfortably navigated “in three hours—no more, no less.” In those days the starting interval on the Old Course was four minutes—now it’s 10.
So what happened? Why, in this 21st century society where every other aspect of life moves more quickly, has golf slowed to a snail’s pace? Why, despite the aid of motorized trolleys, gas-powered carts and yardages beamed up by satellites and lasers, is modern golf slower than ever?
I blame it on the pros. Have you noticed, in those old tournament newsreels and reruns of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, All-Star Golf, etc., how swiftly the pros of the ’50s and ’60s played? Gene Sarazen could hit a drive, pluck his tee from the ground, hand the club to his caddie and get several yards down the fairway before his ball came to rest.
Then things changed. The popular equation is “Arnold Palmer + TV + Dwight Eisenhower = Golf Boom.” Here’s another: “Jack Nicklaus + TV + Big Money = Slow Play.” Jack in his prime played not just slowly but painfully slowly, and a couple of generations of pros and amateurs copied him. Today, with millions of dollars on the line, tour players have become a conclave of posturing, pussy-footing prima donnas.
In their semi-defense, it’s human nature to be greedy, to take as much time, money and advantage as we can. We therefore need to be disciplined and guided, whether by the 10 Commandments, the Articles of the Constitution or the Rules of Golf.
While Moses and the Founding Fathers may have done their jobs, the USGA and R&A have not. Oh, they’ve restricted us to 14 clubs, regulated our handicaps and capped our distance potential. But they’ve done nothing about slow play.
Until recently. A year ago, very quietly, the USGA unveiled a new program at its 10 amateur events. It calls for four pace-of-play checkpoints, at the 4th, 9th, 13th, and 18th holes. On the 1st tee, each group is given a set of target times by which they are expected to complete the designated holes. If they fail to hit those times—and if they also fall out of position with the group in front—action is taken. Miss one time, and the group is warned. Miss the second checkpoint and each player in the group is given a one-stroke penalty. Miss the third checkpoint and it’s an additional two strokes for everyone, and miss four checkpoints and the entire group is disqualified.
It worked. At the U.S. Amateur, 12 one-stroke penalties were imposed during the two qualifying rounds, during which the average pace of play was reduced by 45 minutes. Similar results were gained at the other championships.
Which begs the question: Why doesn’t the USGA roll it out to the big event, the U.S. Open?
“We want to get it to a place where we are comfortable with it,” says USGA Director of Rules and Competitions Mike Davis. “I don’t think we are ready for the U.S. Open yet, but there may be a time when there are several years of proven results that might persuade us to take it to the next level.”
In other words, the USGA is moving, uh, slowly.
Sorry, but “several years” is not good enough. After all, it’s not as if the USGA invented this system. It was developed by the Vancouver Golf Association and has been used by regional golf associations as well as the American Junior Golf Association—all with great success.
Let’s face it. The USGA’s 10 amateur championships are played more or less in a vacuum—beyond the friends and families of the competitors, almost no one notices who wins, much less what the pace of play is. At the U.S. Open, however, the USGA has the opportunity to set a shining example for a worldwide television audience of millions.
OK, the system isn’t perfect. So what? Golf isn’t an exact science. In fact, it’s not a science at all, despite the proclivity of some tour players to treat each shot as an exhaustive experiment in physics, geometry, agronomy, meteorology, kinesthetics and psychology. Say the USGA comes down hard on a few players. What’s the downside? A whine or two from the likes of Ben Crane? I suspect they’d be drowned out by the chorus of approval from their peers. Besides, the system has a built-in appeals process, so every accused offender has the opportunity for a postround hearing.
Moreover, when it comes to pace of play, there is no reason for the USGA or R&A to be as fearful as they are of regulating equipment—imposing a limit on time will not bring a billion-dollar lawsuit from Rolex. Nor can they hide behind the other rationale they’ve used on equipment—that most amateur golfers want to keep the status quo. Most amateurs may want to hit the ball longer, but they don’t want to stay on the course longer.
Still the sense is that the USGA is taking the same timid stance as they have on the question of throttling back the golf ball: Let the PGA Tour take the lead.
Fine. Now that a sound and defensible system is in place, maybe Tim Finchem will show some courage and business sense. Seven years ago, the commissioner challenged the game’s movers and shakers to transform golf into America’s No. 1 spectator sport. Instead, television ratings are down and golf participation over the past decade has been flat at best. One big reason: Golf is slow, both playing and watching.
So commissioner, perhaps “for the good of the game” and to enhance your legacy, you’d like to step up and do what those amateurs at the USGA won’t. My guess is that Tiger Woods will applaud you for it, and once that happens, a lot of things will fall into place.
Faster pros will mean faster amateurs, making the game more appealing, especially to young people. That will translate into more rounds, more equipment sold, more lessons, more hot dogs and beers consumed. It will also mean more viewers, higher sponsor fees and fatter broadcast rights—and as we all know, those are the numbers that really matter to the Tour.
It will become crystal clear who the fastest and slowest players are. I’d suggest, Mr. Commissioner, that said list be published weekly so we all know the identities of the winners and sinners. Indeed, if I were in your shoes, I’d look at the list at the end of each year, identify the slowest 25 players on Tour, and summarily revoke their playing privileges. Do that for a few years, and my guess is that everyone will be nicely up to speed!