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.
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.