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.
A couple weeks ago, according to this Golfweek article here, the R&A director of rules talked with European Tour players before their tournament in Abu Dhabi and mentioned the new rules that the R&A and USGA are talking together about changing for 2020. Now we’re not sure if these are exactly the rule changes, or what the specific wording in the rule books would be since the phrases aren’t concrete, but we definitely have enough information here to talk about if we think they should change the rules or not. Note that each of the heading sections of this article are the phrases copied directly from that article, not my words. Here we go!
Reducing the search time for lost balls from five minutes to three
The easiest way to explain this is by pasting the tweet by Kyle Nathan:
Like, are they trying to change this rule to make rounds quicker? If you’re playing in a tournament and have to look for a golf ball, that two minute difference isn’t going to make the pace of play that much shorter. The pace of play in tournament rounds is long either because people’s attitude change and they take too long before hitting a shot, or because the course is set up way more difficultly than normal and everyone has way harder shots and shoots a bunch a more.
If you’re just playing for fun, don’t spend an entire 5 minutes or more looking for your ball. Look quickly, and if you can’t find it, toss a different one on the ground and keep playing.
Allowing players to repair spike marks on greens
Ooh here’s an awesome change. There’s no reason not to allow people to fix any random big bump they find on greens. Those could be new ball marks, ball marks that were crappily fixed by someone who created them, or bumps that came from someone who doesn’t know how to walk correctly.
I remember playing tournaments in the past where everyone in our group would have to look at a giant bump on someone’s putting path and figure out if the person is allowed to fix it. That’s just super annoying, and for the most part, we all just tell the person that they can fix it because who cares where the bump came from. If this rule does get implemented people should be able to fix any of the giant bumps they want to.
This also would help any tournament on Tour since the players mostly use super spiked golf shoes which create a bunch of bumps that the putts of the players with the latest tee times have to roll over. You know how you don’t step in the putting lines that the players in your group are putting through? Probably good odds that someone in the group behind you will putt through where you actually stepped.
That being said, I think there are two issues to consider. First, I can see this as being super annoying to play with people who would spend a ton of time trying to flatten every little bump on the green on the entire path of their putt. Second, imagine someone has a 3ish footer, and they take their putter, and pound the green so hard that you have like a ravine where the ball can’t move out of it on the way to the center of the hole. As long as the rule talks about how light you need to flatten the spike marks, or just how fixing the spike marks is to flatten the green rather than create that ravine, then we’ll be all good. Overall though, good rule change here for sure.
Verdict: Ooh awesome
Allowing players to drop a ball from any height when taking relief rather than the current stipulation of shoulder height
I’m a little confused about this one here, because this change could create a couple problems, and I’m not really sure why they wanted to change this rule. For example, when you’re in a hazard you’re not allowed to have the club touch the ground (which is also an odd rule), but you’re allowed to have the club touch the grass. So you can almost have the club touch the ground. If they change this rule then, and it doesn’t matter how high to drop the ball, would you be able almost have the ball touch the ground before you “drop” it? If that’s the case, than you can get the ball so close that you’re basically putting it on the ground where you want and having great lies no matter what.
I’m guessing this is a possible rule change since shoulder height is different for a bunch of players, and letting you decide how high to drop it from will make that equal for players. Though really, the difference from dropping it like 6 feet compared to 4 feet isn’t too different since the ball’ll be moving fast either time before it hits the ground. Since dropping it really close to the ground can make drops not act like drops, we really gotta wait for more info and description of the change to see if this could be a good idea.
More of an emphasis on using red stakes for water hazards while still allowing yellow stakes in some cases
Excellent, excellent, excellent. Last night, my brother-in-law and I were trying to sit and explain to my mom the differences between the rules of red stakes and yellow stakes (and even red stakes with green tops) since she wasn’t exactly sure, even though she’s been watching golf for 25 years
Quick info here: yellow means you can replay the shot, or drop the ball on the line that the flag and the point where the ball first went into the hazard creates as far back as you want. Red staked hazards are the same, except also you can drop two club lengths in any direction from where the ball entered the hazard, or on the other side of the hazard, just no closer to the hole. If that doesn’t make sense, check out this article which also describes the difference.
This doesn’t seem exactly a rule change, but rather advice for golf course designers or greenskeepers too tell them to just make pretty much all their hazards red instead of yellow. Just make every water hazard have the same rules and be done with it.
There are so many rules in golf that knowing the rules and not messing up when playing in a big tournament is somewhat tough. I’m a big fan of simplifying the rules, and getting rid of the yellow stakes for most hazards is a great idea.
Now that I’ve said that, there still might be the case for allowing some yellow stakes on a course. For example, having red water hazard stakes on the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass would be a little weird, and probably not what I’d want. Like if you hit it in the water over the green, you’d be able to drop it on the green for the most part, assuming you can find a place on the green that isn’t closer to the pin than where it went into the hazard. Same if you had too much spin on the ball, and it landed on the green and spun back into the water. As of right now with the yellow stakes, that means that if you miss the green in the water, you’re dropping in the drop area. Much more standard and easy to know than if it had red stakes. But really, that’s the only case I can think of that means yellow stakes are better. Use red for the rest.
Extending this rule actually makes me want to talk about this other rule I thing they should change to make golf better, but I’ll hold off here and probably write an article about all the rules golf should change to make it better. Look for that next week.
Verdict: Excellent x 3
Eliminating the use of club lengths for taking relief
Hey! I think this rule change is similar to the reason for the possible change of how high you can drop a ball that I talked about above. They want to make it similar for people of different heights, and in this case, similar for people with different lengths of their longest clubs. Time for some math.
Looking at putter lengths here, a long putter can be up to 54 inches if you’re tall (not Bernhard though). So two of those putter lengths for a drop would be 108 inches. Now Jimmy Walker’s driver is currently 42 inches after he made it 3 inches shorter than everyone else’s driver, and two of those lengths for a drop would be 84 inches. The difference is 24 inches meaning two feet! Now that’s a big difference.
So how exactly would this new rule tell players how to figure out how long they can go for their reliefs? Would tell players exactly how long their drops could be? Would players need to walk around with measuring tapes? Maybe just say they have to use their drivers and not putters since drivers are pretty much the same length and a couple inches won’t make that big of a difference.
I’ll admit here, that the first time thinking about this rule change didn’t really seem like a good one. But after the math, and thinking about the difference between longest club lengths from guys on tour, it seems like a reasonable change.
Last comment here overall — all these rules in golf are for tournaments. Remember, if you’re just playing with your friends for fun, you can do whatever you want. Drop balls after hitting it in a hazard wherever you want, look for your crappy shots for as long as you want, drop the ball from as high as you want, from how far away from the hazard as you want, and fix whatever you want on the greens. Play quick, and have fun.