Slow Pace of Play — The problem with no easy solution

One afternoon in 2011, while sitting behind the 9th green at Erin Hills to sign our scorecards after finishing playing our first round at the US Amateur, our group was legitimately looked down upon by a standing USGA ranger who asked us why he shouldn’t give us a penalty for slow pace of play. We had finished the par 3 9th a few minutes beforehand where I’m pretty sure we all missed the green and tried to get up and down which I did from one of the front bunkers by making a 6 footer. On the hole before, the snap dogleg 8th, a guy in our group missed the fairway to the left so we all walked around looking for his ball in the fescue before we were able to go hit ours. Because there was a lost ball to search for and we finished on a difficult par 3, we were then asked why we didn’t deserve a penalty.

Spin forward 6 years, and my brother-in-law and I were playing in the 2017 US Four Ball. During our first round on Pinehurst #8, on the long par three 13th hole, the guys we played with had trouble off the tee and through the green. After finishing the hole, we were told that we were behind the allotted 14 minute time limit, so we had earned ourselves a pace of play warning. We walked to the 14th tee where we sat down on the bench because we were waiting for the group in front of us to move towards the green. That’s right, we got a pace of play warning from the USGA and had to wait on the next tee. All because we played a long par three that some in the group had trouble on.

This writing isn’t just about the USGA and their feeling and enforcement of the pace of play. Slow pace of play is a huge issue these days, and keeps getting pushed higher and higher in talking points. How bad is the problem? What are the fixes? We all have thoughts, but the possible solutions are not straightforward at all.

AT&T Pro Am rounds take forever. Big part because of the Ams playing a tough course, and also partially for the Saturday interviews of the celebs on this 17th tee.

Why write about this?

Last week at the end of the Euro Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic stop (and before Bryson’s comment about being happy to play the Saudi event), Euro Tour twitter posted a video of Bryson talking to his caddie about a shot on the final hole of the event. It’s a minute and 13 seconds from the time he begins talking to the caddie to when he hits the shot. He discusses lots of things like distance, landing spot, and air density, which I assume was because he knew he was being recorded and wanted to push his “scientist” branding image even further.

People took off on trashing him in replies to the tweet about how slow he is and how much he overthinks his wedge shot. I tweeted this response, which I’ll now somewhat retract. Clearly Bryson’s wedge shot should have been hit quicker considering it was a wedge shot with complete lack of outside elements.

Brooks Koepka was interviewed a couple days after, where he said “I just don’t understand how it takes a minute and 20 seconds, a minute and 15 to hit a golf ball; it’s not that hard,” and “It’s always between two clubs. There’s a miss short, there’s a miss long. It really drives me nuts, especially when it’s a long hitter because you know you’ve got two other guys, or at least one guy that’s hitting before you, so you can do all your calculations. You should have your numbers. Koekpa continued to say “If it’s blowing 30, I understand taking a minute and taking some extra time with some gusts, you know changing just slightly, I get that, but if it’s a calm day there’s no excuse.”

Not just Kopeka, others on Tour seem to all be of the same opinion of Bryson’s slowness.

In the Bryson video’s case, the slow play is because of overthinking the slow shot process. This is a problem, yes, but Koepka brings up the number one cause for slow play that I see most often: Difficulty.

What causes the slow play?

Similar to the DeChambeau video, the Euro Tour posted this video of Ian Poulter and his caddie’s conversation last year. . The timing of this video is kind of ironic since it was the week after the Euro Tour’s shot clock tournament where they enforced a time limit. People complained about the time it took him to hit the shot, but not as many as complained about Bryson. Poulter’s shot plays over 210 over water to the green with a big wind blowing. You’ll also notice Poulter is +3, meaning that the course is playing pretty hard. The stronger the wind, the more it takes to ensure you’re hitting the right club.

Besides wind, firm course conditions is another weather aspect that slows down play completely. Approach shots must really be thought about in terms of how short and where to land it compared with flat, wet ground. That takes time. Also if you’re reading this, remember that landing distance is the distance you should be thinking about, not necessarily the distance to the pin.

Course design with difficult green complexes can slow down play. Elevated, slopey greens are a great example. A missed green then brings into play imagining the putt or chip with the swales and roll outs. From there, pins placed in slopey areas lead to more 4 footers for par rather than tap ins. You’re going to spend more time over that 4 footer.

The final big cause of difficulty is the amount of trouble on a course and how long it takes to search for a ball. This is a huge part of slow play on public courses. Huge.

One of the new rules for 2019 which I’m not a fan of at all is limiting for searching for a ball from 5 minutes to 3 minutes. This doesn’t affect guys on Tour because of the spotters and fans in the area and, well, the fact is that they hit it pretty straight.

For public players, they don’t follow that rule to begin with. Never has anyone pulled out a cell phone to start a timer to ensure the search doesn’t go beyond 5 minutes. People have different opinions on how to deal with search. Some throw a new ball down relatively quickly, following the local new rule about (knee) dropping in the fairway where the lost ball was estimated to end up. Others take their sweet time either enjoying not wanting to lose a ball, or playing in a betting game where every shot counts so they want to try to find the first. And then we have to add how many times we’re searching for multiple balls on the same hole but different sides of the hole.

Maybe that’s why people keep pushing for courses to be wider with less rough and no trees. Fewer lost balls means way quicker play. Hmm.

How should it be fixed?

I talk of difficulty as the number one reason for slow play, but that can’t be changed at a tournament level. The fixes they need to look for are ones that work to get the players moving quicker, but in a fair and reasonable manner.

Shot clocks are the number one solution everyone comes up with. I heard on the Golf Channel Morning Drive someone brought up the point of the NFL and NBA having a play clock and shot clock respectively, so why shouldn’t the Tour have a shot clock?

I’m much against this comparison where in both the NFL and NBA cases, they have those rules to disallow a team with the lead to waste time to run down the clock. If CBS set a hard time limit for a PGA event to end and 60 Minutes to begin, and declared that whoever was leading at that time won the tournament, then yeah, put a shot clock on them so they don’t waste time with the lead.

Soccer is another example where we see the same thing with late substitutions where the player coming off the field takes his sweet time walking to waste time. In that case at least, the ref can add more extra time to the end to make up for it.

Judging how much time a player deserves to hit a shot raises judgement, which is impossible for people to agree on. Here are some examples of what can cause issues.

  1. If a player is standing over the ball and the ball rolls off the tee before the swing, is he allowed to re-tee, step back, focus, and get over the ball again even though by then it’s longer than the allowed time?
  2. On a difficult green, how long does a player have to read the putt?
  3. Does a player deserve more time to look at a putt on his 18th hole of the tournament compared to his 72nd? I consider myself a pretty good putter. I know of two cases coming to the end of a round where I spent more time reading a putt than normal to make sure I read it correctly and confidently while the others in the group had finished and were standing. Since that’s not usually considered acceptable I felt like garbage to the point that I apologized for how long I took to hit the putt.. Both times the guys said no problem cause they knew why I was reading that much.
  4. When does the theoretical shot clock start? When the player arrives to the ball? What do we mean by “arrive”? Would I be able to stand 10 yards behind the ball, do all the calculation I’m thinking of, and then quickly walk to the ball and hit?
  5. How much of a difference does analyzing the upcoming shot take as opposed to simply standing over a shot before taking a backswing?

All of these are judgements, and people will disagree.

If we’re comparing other sports’ play clocks again, an NFL ref can reset the play clock if they judge a slowdown occurs that isn’t the fault of any players. I suppose that could be what happens in the golf world? Do you have a ranger for each group with a stopwatch who shows the time left for the shot? So if they see it fall off the tee, how much time do they get after?

No matter what, with a full rule change, we’d end up with cases like Haotong Li where the rules down to the word are followed, but nobody would come close to thinking he deserved a penalty. Edge cases are never good to have with rules, and pace of play rules easily would be the worst at that.

Continuing on time comparisons, chess has an interesting rule about how long each player is allowed to think about which moves to make throughout the entire game. If we used this rule in golf, players each have a full time limit from ball arrival to hitting their shot during the entire round. So if they need to stop and think more, they’ll want to make sure later in the round to be quicker. That’d be an interesting rule to try, but along with the per shot shot clock, way too many additions would have to be made.

The type of players in your group can really affect how you perform. Clearly a slow player will impact you, but a quick player can make you feel bad for being slower than they are, and that can have an impact as well. I’ve come across both types. Although like pitchers and batters sometimes do in the MLB, golfers usually aren’t adjusting their pacing to mess with competitors and gain an advantage.

At what point should a player talk to a rules official to get a timer on the slow guy? On my end, it’s a little brutal to be calling someone out for that. Then again, I don’t know exactly how important Tour players’ relationships with other Tour players are. Maybe they don’t care about calling someone else out – it seems like it happens on all the time on Twitter.

Public Slowness

It’s worth it to mention public, non-tournament pace of play problems where a lot of times courses have their own rules.

At Radrick Farms in Ann Arbor, huge favorite course of mine, if your group is a complete hole behind after the turn, meaning the group in front has already finished the 10th hole, you’re told to skip the 10th hole and go to the par 3 11th tee. The 9th is a drivable par 4 where we have to wait for the green to clear a lot of the times. Clearly we’re going to be waiting on the tee and the group in front gets that head start. There were times when we were that full hole behind after the 9th, played the 10th at normal pace, and then had to wait on the 11th.

At San Francisco Golf Club the caddies have their rules, where players are always in charge of replacing divots while the double bag caddies walk quickly to where the shots landed. They place such an emphasis on speed that when I played we never came close to catching the white haired pair in front of us even though they were an older couple on a retirement road trip and hadn’t finished their first hole when we teed off behind them.

Other courses have rangers roaming around constantly telling slower groups to get going. While I’ve been lucky enough to never have that, this is a completely reasonable idea even if it’s tough to find the right balance.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know. People have their own normal paces when they play. Some are annoyed easily at being with slow players, some are annoyed playing behind a super slow group who doesn’t let them play through. Others get annoyed with people who get annoyed if a playing partner gets annoyed with them and their play speed!

I’m not a fan of slow pace of play at all. I feel bad if the group I’m in is holding up the group behind, which leads me to always looking to see where they are. Most of the time I pass on playing Saturday mornings because of the crowdedness. When I play at night at Brown Deer in the evenings with the unlimited play rule, I never wait for a group and I never make someone behind us wait. The holes there are intertwined that I can find an open tee that’s walkable from the green.

The only half solution I can come up with is to emphasize time at a younger age, but not in an aggressive way. When I played in AJGA tournaments over 10 years ago now, they prioritized pace of play in a very useful way. They had younger interns out there giving green, yellow, or red signs and talked about whether our group was within their time limit and close enough to the group in front. From what I recall, they weren’t pushy about it. They said faster play was important, but that it wasn’t all our faults.

The USGA does it similarly with checkpoints. However, my experience makes it seem much more strict and almost as if they enjoy calling groups out for slow play. In 2017 US Am, they somehow paired me in the first group off the first tee at Riviera. You guessed it – that front nine was worrisome for me in terms of how we had to keep full time on the USGA’s pace of play rules or risk getting yelled at. The USGA is so stuck in my head that on the second hole when I had a 5 footer for par, I was too ashamed to step back and re-read after I had a different feeling standing over the ball. That’s the attitude they’ve brought to me.

People talk all the time like they know the solutions to all problems in the golfing world, with pace of play being a huge talking point. But we don’t have an answer to the problem. The wording of the rule change, enforcement, judgement by the rules officials brings way too much issues to life. Slow pace of play is a good topic of discussion, but we need to realize that a real fix for this issue takes time not just words.

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