By Kevin Crook
Slow play is a virulent epidemic everywhere from the PGA Tour to the local muni. It is one of the biggest challenges the golf industry faces as it struggles to find and keep its customers. Too many people are leaving the game because it has become too time consuming and too expensive.
Everyone involved in golf needs to find a way to make the game take less time to play. The question is, why is it taking so long to play a round of golf? Is the average golfer just too bad to be expected to play any faster? Can anything be done on a consistent basis to speed up play at every level?
According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of rounds played in the United States has been on a steady decline for the last 12 years. In the year 2000, roughly 518,000,000-rounds of golf were played in this country. By 2005 that number had fallen to 499,000,000. Last year there were about 463,000,000-rounds, down from 475,000,000 in 2010.
Slow play is a huge factor in that 12-year trend. While the game has become increasingly expensive, especially in the Tiger Woods era, our nation’s economy was not mired in fiscal calamity from 2000 to 2005. People weren’t necessarily forced, en masse, to leave the game because they couldn’t afford it. The nauseating truth is that even with fewer players playing on the golf courses of America, the pace of play is often still at a crawl.
The golf industry is trying to stem that tide. Seemingly every golf event on television has one or two commercials for, “Play it Forward,” golf’s newest campaign against slow play. Golf legends and celebrities are asking people in those spots to try golf from the forward tees. The idea is that playing rounds of golf from tee boxes that are 700, 1,000, or 1,500-yards closer than the back tees, will make the game faster, easier, and more enjoyable. But will just making the courses shorter make enough of a difference in the battle against slow play? The “sellers” of golf have to be much more proactive than a catchy campaign with a logical premise in their fight against slow play.
As recently as last year, golf legend Jack Nicklaus and TaylorMade Adidas Golf CEO Mark King both advocated golf courses doubling the diameter of the hole on the greens and shortening what’s known as a round of golf to 12 holes from the traditional 18 holes. Both of these measures are also intended to make the game easier, faster to play and more fun. It would be like playing basketball with a hoop that is twice as big on a goal that is a foot lower. The golf purists throw up in their mouths, but the industry has to do as much as it can to make the game easier for people who don’t have much time to practice, and who have recently taken up the game. There are too many people who are fired up to play golf, but are driven away by the difficulty of the game. So what would be wrong with having a few designated beginners’ courses set up with bigger cups and fewer holes? There is nothing wrong with that. The beginners and hackers need to swallow their pride and play those courses.
Golf is a tough game. To keep their rounds moving along, beginners need to have a “pick up” number for every hole. How much does it really matter what might happen for them on any one hole after they have hit 10-shots? There’s no excuse for being bad and slow. The bad player who takes five practice swings before each shot and mimics his pre-shot routine after Jim Furyk’s has to be stopped. If a player can’t get to the green and get the ball close enough to the hole to at least have a gimme after 10-shots, he needs to be on the driving range or putting green with a PGA professional getting his full attention. And while he’s there, he needs to ask the pro to help him to develop a quick, easy, and repeatable pre-shot routine that will help him to pull the trigger even when he’s flustered and wants desperately to stand there and take five or six practice swings.
Some of the more difficult golf courses have taken the proactive step of not allowing players below a certain skill level to play on some courses. Asking a player to show proof of a 7-handicap or better, or whatever the course chooses it to be, will help to alleviate the problem of lesser skilled players being bludgeoned by a wicked-tough course and holding everyone up behind them. This is another really good move. Obviously this is easier to pull off at a facility that has several courses and can designate beginners and bad players to play the least challenging of their courses. This is another way the sellers can speed up the game. I can’t tell you how many times I have been at a brutal golf course and gotten behind a foursome where every single one of the players were hitting it sideways, taking countless practice swings, chunking it, whiffing it and hitting every other bad shot in golf’s gamut. I wonder what compelled them to bring their six-hour round to that course rated 74.5. Ignorance is not an excuse. If you are horrible, go to an easy course and “play it forward!”
In the summer months, golf courses will block off entire morning tee times several times a week and close down driving ranges so the junior golfers have free reign of the facilities without having to deal with other players. They will also close the course entirely just for the women’s association to be able to use the courses and facilities. This needs to be expanded to include beginners of all ages and sexes. It would be the perfect scenario for people new to the game or are just bad at it to be able to play at a pace and ability similar to everyone around them. New players and bad players who are frustrated and embarrassed by holding up groups behind them, or who are oblivious to holding those groups up, need to be able to get out on the course and not cause a complete traffic jam behind them while they work to improve their play.
The golf industry has to allow for the game to grow by making the beginners more comfortable. But it also needs to accommodate the better players in a meaningful way. Blocking off a couple of hours of tee times, especially on busy days, for a “scratch game” or for the better players will help to organize the courses and be pro-active in preventing a log jam of good players stuck behind bad players.
According to the USGA, the average handicap index of an American male golfer in 2012 is 14.3. Data from the NGF also shows that nearly 65 percent of golfers do not shoot below 90 on a regular basis. The USGA has estimated that that percentage would be as high as 90 percent of golfers if the rules of golf were to be strictly followed. What that means is that most golfers are really not very good at the game. It also means that most golfers also shoot about the same scores. So the difference in the pace of play between those nearly 500 million rounds of golf played per year, in the United States, is not necessarily the score.
The NGF says that there is no industry standard for how long a round of golf should take. The difficulty of the course, the size of the property, the weather, the number of players in the group and the caliber of players playing are all factors of how long it takes to play. But how much does the caliber of player playing really factor into the equation? A bad player doesn’t necessarily have to be slow and a good player isn’t inherently fast. Further, a painfully long day of golf for one player may seem like a normal day for another player. The truth is that we all see players of all levels who have habits and routines that are horrific time-wasters on a golf course. The key is to motivate and educate all players to want to play more quickly. There is no reason why four players of any skill level, riding in golf carts, could not complete an 18-hole round of golf in three hours. I can’t tell you how many times I have left a golf course in the middle of a round because there were too many groups of horrible golfers stacked up on the holes in front of my group.
It isn’t just bad players though. One of the hottest topics on the PGA Tour right now is how to speed up play. The PGA Tour is the ultimate train wreck of forces that make for slow golf. The golf courses are often 7,500-yards long. The rough can be tall, thick and brutal. The green complexes are hard and fast and heavily protected by deep bunkers and water hazards. And the players competing are playing for millions of dollars in front of thousands of people with cameras watching their every move. But the fact remains that all they are doing is playing golf. The level of difficulty of the situation is in direct proportion to their elevated skill levels. There aren’t many compelling arguments in favor of the pre-shot routines of Kevin Na, Ben Crane or Jim Furyk. They set really bad examples for aspiring players. When Tiger Woods slows to a sun dial pace around the greens, he is reading his putts from every conceivable angle and planning to within fractions of an inch where he wants to roll his ball. And when a PGA Tour player tosses up grass a couple of times and debates a club choice from 200-yards out with his caddy, he often has about a three to five-foot circle to land his ball in to avoid slopes and tough spots on a green. They have millions of dollars and prestigious championships on the line. When the average weekend hack does any of these things he’s making a fool of himself.
Everyone has been exasperated on a busy morning or lunch hour by the lummox in line to order food or coffee ahead of them who is not ready when it’s his turn to order. The guy has stood there the same 10-minutes everyone else has while the people in front of him were waited on and when it is finally his turn to order he does not know what he wants. Ten minutes went by, and one has to wonder why he waited until the last minute to try to decide. Had he not thought about it at all on the way to the restaurant or coffee shop? What brought him in there in the first place?
The same principle applies to golfers. We, as players, have to be ready to play when it is our turn. We generally have a pretty good idea what our next shot might entail immediately after we hit our last one. We see about where the ball stopped. We can see the yardage markers. We know how far we hit each of our clubs. So what takes so long once we get to the ball? Tossing grass in the air to test the wind and shooting the flag with a rangefinder needs to be done when the other guys are either hitting or doing their pre-shot routines, not when everyone is waiting for us to hit. All of the other piddling around, like sending a text, yucking it up, opening a cold beverage, cleaning a club face, etc., needs to be done after the shots have been hit or when there is a natural lull in the action for something like looking for a lost ball, driving or walking to your next shot and waiting on the nimrod on the green ahead of you who is walking around the hole like a bullfighter walks around a bull. Wasting time while others players in your group with you, or in groups behind you are waiting, needs to be known as a golf sin.
People sharing golf carts absolutely have to use them as a way to play faster, not as a way to be lazy and selfish. If four guys are playing in two carts, it is absolutely not necessary to drive to everyone’s ball. The guy that sits and waits in the cart to be driven across the fairway or fifteen yards from where the cart is stopped needs to get a life. That guy will bark back at you that he paid his money to rent the cart and if he only wants to have to walk five steps instead of 20 to get to his next shot, he has every right. It was $15 for the cart — it’s not a license to act like royalty waiting around to have someone wipe your nose for you. Grab a couple of clubs and your range finder and walk over to your ball. For cripes sake, the group behind you wants to strangle you right now.
Another move the people running golf courses have to make is in limiting fivesomes to groups they know will not hold up other golfers. All fivesomes are not necessarily bad. It is some of the players within some of the fivesomes that are real golf course pigs. Too many of these groups will get together and act like they absolutely don’t care what is going on behind them. But there are groups that can play even in frenetic eightsomes that can be faster than some twosomes. Those guys in that eightsome are the ultimate “ready” golfers. Ready golf is just what it sounds like. Whoever is safely ready to play next, regardless of who is out, plays his shot when he is ready. This is particularly helpful on tee boxes and in the fairways to speed up play. The vast majority of the time, there is no reason at all for members of a group to be standing on a tee box with their clubs in their hands, waiting on the guy with the lowest score on the previous hole to dig a ball out of his bag, get a drink before he tees off, or does anything other than hitting his shot. Make it a rule in your next group, the only way you can claim to have the honor on the next tee is to have made eagle. Then that guy who made that eagle needs to move his butt up to the tee quickly and first, or tell the group to go ahead anyway.
But the golf courses themselves still have to be the authority when it comes to speeding up play. The local municipal golf courses in my area have posted yearly losses of millions of dollars several years in a row. They are desperate for business. There used to be a time when you had to call in advance a day or two, or even a week to get a tee time through the middle of the afternoon. Now it is wide open after mid-morning, any day you call. A huge negative impact of that for the loyal golfer is that there is no longer any kind of marshal on the course keeping the pace of play moving along. They are no longer in the budget, and the people running the courses don’t want to risk having to say something to any golfer that might make them not want to come back. Even with almost no one on the course, the rounds are almost always five hours. Kind of like what Yogi Berra said, the course is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Two rounds in a row a group I was in teed off on the front nine and was one of only two groups on the entire course. Both rounds we were greeted with group after group of honyocks teeing off in front of us on the back nine. The front nine was an hour and fifteen minutes. The back nine took three hours. The goofballs who jumped in front of us to tee off on the back nine were regulars the course didn’t want to offend. Imagine what kind of impression that would make on someone just coming to the game, who didn’t have anywhere else to play on a regular basis.
Being accused of slow play is a touchy subject, especially among groups of players with varying skill levels. A great number of the guys who know they are the weakest player in the group are already worried about holding everyone else up. Though some of the slowest players out there have no idea how slow they are. Maybe no one ever told them how close they were to being hacked to death with a wedge while they looked at their Sky Caddie from the green side. There are guys out there who may actually play too fast though. They are pulling the trigger so quickly that other players get caught talking or moving around in their back swings. Those extra fast players are going to be miserable almost no matter what the pace is.
The bottom line is that people need to be courteous. Just like the guy that drives like he thinks he owns the road, too many golfers act like they don’t care how what they do effects other players. Every club has its groups of grumpy old men who will actually purposely slow down when they see someone waiting behind them. They shuffle along and will pretend not to notice you, even when you catch them and are standing on the tee box with them. They want you to know they don’t care if you live or die. And for some people, that five-hours out on the golf course, one day a week, is their only break from their crazy hustle-and-bustle lives. They don’t care how long it takes. That round of golf is a mini vacation. The longer the better. These are some of the worst offenders because, like the old men who have probably been members at that club for 40 years, they know better than to let what they want or need destroy the days of the golfers behind them. If they insist on having their five-hour rounds, they need to be prepared to let a big line of players play through who think anything other than three-hours is ridiculous.
Surely we can all find something that we do while we play golf that we could do a little more quickly or more efficiently. Legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, urged his teams to play quickly, but not to hurry. How much would we all enjoy golf more at three hours a round as opposed to four or five hours a round? I think most everyone would, and I think people would find the time to play more.