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Opinion: Courses must be proactive to speed up play

by   |   February 6, 2013
Slow play

USGA President Glen Nager recently announced that, “Golf needs to act,” concerning the problem of slow play. Slow play is an issue as old as time itself, and the answer to the problem, as it always has been, is as obvious as it ever was.

The pace of play on golf courses across the world has to be dictated and policed by the golf course staff. For the same reason we have highway patrolmen and police officers handing out speeding tickets and traffic violations, we need the people that manage golf courses to pro-actively manage golfers.

There has to be someone in control. There has to be bosses. People need to be managed. Without authority there is anarchy, and anarchy on a golf course leads to people being discourteous and selfish and to time standing still.

On one golf course where I play they used to have a grumpy older fellow named Gene. Gene ran the pro shop, acted as a starter and marshaled the course with swift justice. He was a little guy who chain smoked, and had no time or patience for people slowing down the pace. Gene knew that just like the selfish and rude people who drive poorly and unsafely on our streets and highways, there are golfers who act selfishly and rude on our courses if they are not stopped. He understood very well that golf courses are really just small little societies, and that we as golfers are “all in this together.”

If your group was slow and people were backing up behind you, he told you to pick up the pace. He pointed ahead of you and said that two holes were open, and he pointed behind you and showed you the three groups stacked up behind you. He knew no favorites and he accepted no excuses. They were glorious times. Gene recently lost a hard fought battle with lung cancer, may he rest in peace, and that golf course has never been the same since he left. I think about him often when slow players bog down a golf course.

The group I was playing in recently caught up to a young man playing by himself. On the tee box he hit multiple tee shots in all directions, oblivious to the fact that we were watching him on a tee box behind him on the same hole. He proceeded to criss-cross back and forth across the fairway, hitting the balls that were findable. Once he made it to the green he proceeded to “putt” while lying flat on his chest and using the end of his putter grip like a pool cue. The young lady riding along in the cart with him finally noticed us and pointed back to us waiting and watching him. He jumped up, made sure to show us an exasperated look to let us know that we were bothering him, and went back and putted normally several times from other positions. He and his “caddy” then walked the 50-yard walk back to the rough where they left the cart and drove off. He piddled around on the tee box long enough that by the time our group caught him, we once again had to watch him take several practice swings between half a dozen “tee shots” that went everywhere. Then he turned around and gave us the stink eye. It was just delightful.

That fellow obviously represented an extreme to the argument that golf courses need to be policed. Maybe he is part of the 10 percent jerk factor. He might be the same guy who weaves in and out of traffic on the highway as he drives at an excessive speed while eating his breakfast burrito and texting. You might be inclined to flip this fellow the bird as you throw your beer at him and rev your engine to get away, but the best option is for a highway patrolman to handle the situation. An authority figure needs to take control.

The other end of that spectrum is a well-known county judge who also plays at the same club as the pool-putting dufus. He’s a super nice guy, and a man who seems really young to have been re-elected multiple times. But at the golf course he is known as “black death.” No one ever makes it more than nine holes with him. He aligns and adjusts, re-thinks, re-aligns and adjusts. And that is him just putting on his glove. He takes countless practice swings, countless looks down the fairway or at the green and spends forever tinkering the alignment of his club face at address. And of course, he walks slow.

A woman wearing a trenchcoat, who was as short as she was wide, and her playing companion who each trickled the ball down the fairway 10 times before they got to the green, actually had to play through him. My group had been behind the man and the woman, only to see the worst possible scenario waiting for us on the next tee. The judge and his partner saw us standing there, and saw the other two groups backed up on the par three we just left. They decided the best way to handle that was to dig in their heels and ruin the day for everyone. No one else was going through. We could have played six holes in the time the man and woman could play just one hole, and this judge and his partner were three holes behind them “immediately.”

A slow group has no more right to play at a pace that backs up the course than a fast group should expect to fly through a course on a busy day. This isn’t a statement about good golfers versus bad golfers. The bottom line is that golf needs to be fun for slow groups as well as fast groups, and without everyone going out of their way to accommodate for each other, the two speeds need to either be policed or separated.

The people that run golf courses need to get together and declare themselves an ardent supporter and enforcer of a faster pace of play, or as a course that welcomes anyone who wishes to play slowly. It’s time to separate the masses.

To the gentleman who commented on my last slow play story that by gosh he likes to smoke cigars, sip cognac, and take his time on the few occasions where he can get out to the course and he doesn’t want to be asked to finish in four hours, he should have golf courses or time slots that are dedicated to his preferred pace of play. And to the groups that play ready golf and finish in three hours or less, they should have courses or time slots that cater to them.

Granted, some properties are just too massive to expect golfers to be able to finish in a certain time frame, but you can bet that if groups are holding up the golf course and they are warned that they will be forced to pick up the pace or leave, they will find a way to be more efficient in their movements and decisions.

If a golf course wants to opt out of a formal play pace announcement, they need to designate slow play times and fast play times, or at the very least have a presence on the course. But they cannot just say it, they need to live it.

Another place where I play regularly has two courses. Every morning on one of the courses they block off all tee times from 9 a.m. to 12-noon for ladies’ tee times that are never half used. They are either scared to death of the ladies who are members, like the rest of us are, or they want them to not feel like they belong on the course at other times.

One afternoon my group caught up to a twosome of ladies. The two of them got into an argument, and took turns getting in and out of a fairway bunker and pointing at something in the yard of one of the homes that lined the fairway. They stood there for several minutes before they moved on. Our group hit our tee shots once they cleared the way, and to our surprise our tee shots came to rest in the fairway next to the cart they were driving, which was parked 70-yards from the green in the middle of the fairway. They finished putting and saw us parked there beside them. They made no effort to acknowledge us, even as they were five feet away. They took their time and were still on the tee box for the next hole when we arrived there. One of them motioned to the other that we were there again, the other lady must have said she didn’t care if we lived or died.

We waited on every shot for the next four holes, each time having to watch them walk back to the middle of the fairway to retrieve their cart. Finally, they apparently got into another argument about letting us play through. The first lady gestured to the fact that there were now four groups backed up behind them on two holes. The second lady, clearly irritated, sculled her chip across the green, chunked the next one, and three-putted before she stormed back down the fairway to her cart and drove off the golf course. When we called the shop to ask them to help us out after the second hole of waiting, they made it clear that they wanted no part of the situation.

These examples of golfer-on-golfer crimes happened at private courses. This is not about private golf versus public golf, this is about the game of golf turning into the house from the movie “Project X.” Slow players and fast players just don’t mix.

What some people posted about what a round of golf entails for them any time they play was an astonishing eye opener. There were posts of people driving for an hour to play, warming up an hour, playing for five or six hours, trying to squeeze in a little 19th-hole time, and driving home for another hour. I admire their commitment, but that is not a sustainable model for the future of golf. They didn’t mention if they drove for that hour because the course they wanted to play was $15 less than the five or six within 15-minutes of them, but the five or six hours on the course means that the golf course staff wasn’t doing their jobs. A packed golf course does not have to be a slow golf course.

For golf to be successful in bringing back players who left the game or play less frequently because in far too many places it has become an all day affair, courses need to take every step possible in shortening a round. No idea to improve the situation is off the table.

Every little idea can have compounding positive effects. Courses with native areas and gunch need to post them to be played as lateral hazards rather than normal lost ball rules. Golfers need to be started on tees that are appropriate for their skill levels. To ease frustration golfers need to be encouraged to not only play tees that are appropriate but also courses that match their experience and skill set. People need to not believe that nothing can be done that mind set has to change.

The USGA likes to talk about growing the game. Growing the game can have many different meanings. A nine-hour commitment for a round of golf will not catch on for many people looking for an outdoor activity. The game will also not grow from a youth movement learning to play the game more quickly if they learn by watching their favorite golfers and their mannerisms on television.

It’s time we stop giving guys like Tiger Woods a free pass. One only had to watch the European Tour event in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago to see a stark contrast between Tiger’s mind numbing pre-shot routine and green reading processes with Rory McIlroy’s ready golf style. Rory was practically pulling the trigger before Tiger’s shots landed on the green or his putts stopped rolling. Tiger doesn’t seem interested in getting any of that work done before it’s his turn either. It almost looked like he knew he was driving McIlroy crazy with his pace. When people see Tiger’s 10 practice swings and his process of walking slow circles around every putt they tend to think all that time is necessary for them too.

Golf means different things to people. It’s time we stop treating golfers like we all approach it the same way. If there is always going to be fast and slow people, we need to separate them. And the slow people need to be helped to see how easily they could play faster. It’s time for the sellers and providers of golf to re-affirm their professionalism and take control of their courses. They need to use cattle prods to move people along when necessary, shorten courses, adjust the rules, spread out tee times…they need to commit to anything and everything that helps.

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About

Kevin was voted "Most Likely To Live to Be 100" by his high school graduating class. It was all down hill from there.


25 Comments

  1. Troy Vayanos

    February 13, 2013 at 3:32 am

    Nice post Kevin,

    At my home course the golf starter every Saturday drives around and checks on the pace of play. It helps only to a point but it can’t stop someone from having a bad hole and slowing down the rest of the field behind them.

  2. Adam

    February 12, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Etiquette certainly needs to be taught to all beginners and refreshed to all players. Every course should have a short note in their carts and/or on the first tee. Just a friendly reminder of what holds the game together. Something like

    Please remember to:
    1- Rake the bunkers
    2- Fix your ball marks
    3- Be aware of your pace of play and position.
    4- Have fun!

    Obviously the last one is dependent on the pace of play, number of ball marks you bounce over and foot prints you land in…

  3. Jeremy

    February 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Great article. Slow play is one of my biggest frustrations with golf. In Colorado you can expect a 5+ hour round on any given weekend in the spring and summer. I think that golfers need to stop thinking they are playing for the FedEx cup. Is it really necessary to take 3 or 4 practice swings only to hit a poor shot??? Golfers should focus on the shot at hand rather than their swing during the round. Also, READY GOLF people. I don’t think the entire foursome needs to watch every single shot of every single player. It is comedic sometimes watching a foursome in 2 carts driving to each players ball. Even funnier (not really) is when after all the effort to play in turn and the golf duffs the ball 20 yards. In addition, get over losing a ball. Do you really need to search for more than five minutes for a lost ball? Get over it and take your drop. My preference is to play in 3.5 hours or less.

  4. brooks williams

    February 8, 2013 at 1:20 am

    Would never happen but spread tee times. instead of teeing off a shot after the group, maybe wait a hole

    • Joey5Picks

      July 11, 2013 at 3:58 pm

      ENFORCED 10-minute tee times should be the norm. Results in better flow, fewer backups, less/no waiting.

  5. Max

    February 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Where I live we’ve pretty much been forced to accept the slow play on the county courses and if you want to play close to course time you go farther out of the city. Less skilled and older golfers tend to take over the county courses and you end up having to play slow if for no other reason than ability and age. Unless you’re out there before 7 AM expect a 5.5 hour round. Some of the other counties around us are more proficient and will tell any group to speed up. I’ve been on courses where the ranger doesn’t even know who to tell to speed up, and probably because we’re the young group and she didn’t expect to get lip from us she told us…we kindly explained to her that we’re the 3rd group in line and our pace of play has nothing to do with the slow down on the course. Watched her drive away and just clear past the group that was slowing everyone else down…a group of older gentlemen that she just didn’t want to get in an argument with.

    But that’s life on the public courses, you want to play fast…play during the week.

  6. Kevin

    February 7, 2013 at 11:07 am

    I don’t see anything wrong with easier, more basic courses advertising themselves as a beginner friendly place in conjunction with more difficult courses advertising as a place where pace of play will be closely monitored. More really difficult courses, Riviera CC for one, ask people to prove a certain handicap to be able to play. There are different levels of softball leagues based on competitiveness, why not encourage golf courses to pro-actively guide players to the right courses for their skill levels? I am can say that I am not comfortable trying to take my kids out to play because I don’t want to get in people’s way.

  7. Chris Wehring

    February 7, 2013 at 9:56 am

    I don’t really have a problem with marshals enforcing a pace of play, but I do not want to spend my money on a green fee and a cart to have a marshal tell me that I need to skip a hole or two. I get a round done in around 4 hours. So, it’s not like I play that slowly. I think, if possible, slower groups just need to let others play through. Also, the quicker players tend to be rude also. So, I think that it needs to change from all ends. It is a gentleman’s sport after all.

  8. Tim

    February 7, 2013 at 9:10 am

    interesting article, particularly like your mention of tiger woods, as he was complaining about the group in front of him at Torrey Pines and rightly so, but I thought it was one of the worst cases of hypocrisy I have ever seen as he is often very slow, and you can be sure if he was coming down that stretch with only a one shot lead he would have been a lot slower, and no one would have dared say anything in case they upset him.

  9. old school harry

    February 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

    “Pace of play” is a misnomer. If It’s 4h 10m at your local track and you play in 4h 15m, you didn’t play at an ok or acceptable pace. You played at a pace that exceeded the absolute longest time allowable. Quit talking about stupid shit on the tee, put the pedal on the floor and hit to the middle of the green. Not one of you out there is good enough to fire at pins. Including myself. Al put it best “Lets go, while we’re young!”.

  10. George

    February 7, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Great article. By the above noted comments there are many side to the story. I am a part time marshall at a southern Ontario course. When on duty I go out of my way to drive the course backwards and when given the opportunity I meet all the players on the course. Our shifts are 6 hours so we have opportunity to usher the groups on and usher them off. If I have a group with a lost ball and it starts to take too long I politely ask them to drop and speed up and quite often will throw them one of my “found balls”. As a believer in the buddy marshall system who engages the groups I have only had one run in with a group and two of the clowns were inebriated. We strive to maintain 15 minutes hole to clock a 4 and a 1/2 hour round. It works quite well.
    Mind you the huge fund raising tournaments are another story – our marshalls might not as well be out there other than to make sure nobody gets hurt and stupidity doesn’t cause damage tour course.

  11. Buck

    February 7, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I have only been playing golf for a few years now, and I have played rounds of a full eighteen in as few as three hours and as many as six hours. I have to say, I agree that a slow pace is annoying and we should all take each other into consideration when playing, wheather it be level of experiance, group size or if someone in the group is having a bad round. We are all out there to enjoy the sport, but practice is for the driving range and if you lose a ball, so be it, if it bothers you that much, buy cheaper balls. Marshalls are there to do their job, they should push people to keep pace and be able to tell you why you are being held up. There are enough things in the game to get frustrated about, one of them shouldn’t be wheather you are getting done before dinner when you started before lunch.

  12. Todd

    February 7, 2013 at 12:11 am

    People need to play the correct tee boxes. Courses should make players play from certain tee boxes according to their handicap. Courses must invest in gps on the carts that update groups of their pace of play. It also, helps with hole lay-out and distances which all will speed up play. Players should not be told to skip holes during the round, but switch tee boxes if necessary. I have played at courses were the carts can be monitored by the gps and messages can be sent to the carts about pace of play and where to drive and park the cart. Next, adjust the order of groups being sent out if the tee times are right next to each other. Don’t send a group of tourists out in front of a group of regulars if they have back to back tee times. Other adjustments for 3 sums / 2 sums / ladies / Dads with young kids and ect… should be made by starters. Finally, play ready golf!!!!!!!

  13. chuck stone

    February 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    the city owned course i play along with putting in 1.3 million in a new watering system to speed up play where they had brush between some holes that was left to nature they have mowed it down so balls hit there can now be found… also some trees along side of a fairway have had the lower branches trimmed up to where you can now hit a ball when under the tree… another place to help speed up play is where there is creeks across the fairway that curved back and forth they have eliminated the erosion by tapering the sides of the creek which allows you to find the ball and sometimes allow you to hit a ball thats on the bank where before it would be a deep dropoff. they have been putting some smart thinking into how to speed up play especially when some folks will not give up on a ball.

  14. Frank

    February 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    This is an interesting discussion. As a newcomer to the sport of golf my experience with slow play comes from a different perspective… As a newbie your obviously not accomplished. You are not confident in determinng yardage distances & proper club selection and accuracy is but a dream. With all these hurdles already in place being scolded & insulted by faster accomplished players does nothing to endear the newbie to the game. When I play I can see who’s learning and trying their best. Pushing a newcomer to the game who has invested in green fees & equipment is hardly welcoming. Golf is already struggling to remain relevant. “Abusing” persons who are new or just trying the sport only drives them away (forever) and reinforces the exclusive nature of the sport.

  15. Jive

    February 6, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    The best policy I have seen was at a course where they have dime store clocks every three holes, you know the old school white face with black numbers, 12 inch diameter, minute and second hands, can run for 3 years off of AA battery. What they did was factor in a 4 hour round, and did the math to figure out how long it should take you to play the first 3 holes: eg. 40 minutes. So they set that clock backwards 40 minutes. So when you get to the fourth tee, the clock will say your tee time (because everyone remembers their tee time, but not how long it should take them to play the first 3 holes). And each clock along the way has been set the same way, so on the 7th tee the clock was set 1 hour and 20 minutes backwards. So if the clock shows a time after your tee time you are too slow. The policy reminds you every three holes so you know early on when you get off track. The clocks are easy to see and has a sign underneath reminding you that it should say your tee time.

    • ABgolfer2

      February 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      @ Jive – our best local muni does that on a few holes. I might adopt Brian’s idea though – play like a turtle and let the marshal be your forecaddie who finds your drives, rakes the bunkers, then fetches your favourite snacks from the clubhouse. That sounds pretty sweet! And all for the same price as the people who are keeping pace? Even sweeter.

      • Brian

        February 7, 2013 at 10:43 am

        It’s not that they’re playing like a turtle, it’s a lack of talent. No shot clock or heckling from rangers will get somebody that takes 8+ strokes a hole back on pace. If they need help, then help them, otherwise you’re not growing the game and your not maximizing the courses potential for income. You’re going to piss off one group of the other. The spotting/yardage suggestions are even more appropriate if your course has 1-2 holes that tend to be the bottleneck. Just park a ranger on those holes doing nothing but spotting drives and giving yardages. It’s worked at my club.

  16. hardcaliber

    February 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Sooner or later, casual golf is going to have to move to a 9 hole format to keep up with the new modern lifestyle that is becoming more of the norm. Personally, I would love it if my 5 hour round took 4 hours, however the sad reality is that even 4 hours is a huge time when you are trying to balance work and family. I think that 2 hours is kind of a sweet spot as far as scheduling/time commitment goes, around the same time commitment as watching a movie or playing a few sets of tennis. A recreational activity that takes 2 hours is something that can be done on a regular basis, weekly or even multiple times a week. A recreational activity that takes half a day (4-5 hours) is just not something that most people have the luxury of enjoying on any sort of a regular basis anymore. Obviously, we all have varying schedules and time commitments, so opinions may vary widely. I would personally much rather play 9 holes at a relaxed pace than play 18 holes in a rush and be shepherded around by a crotchety old marshal.

  17. Brian

    February 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    The USGA can determine an acceptable pace for any given course. If a group is meeting that pace, especially on a busier weekend, and the group behind them is playing with their tails on fire, and there’s no more than a hole or two ahead of them, they should be left alone, IMO. If they’re not meeting that pace, then that should be addressed.

    If courses want to get serious about speed of play then they should teach rangers to go beyond policing and start aiding, especially groups that lack talent/experience (which is most often the cause of delays). Spot their drives, drive them to the next tee or their ball(if they’re walking), carry a GPS and get them a distance quickly, ask them what they want to eat/drink at turn and have it ready for them, whatever it takes to get that group caught back up to the pace, or the group in front of them. Then move on to the next group in line that is falling behind.

    • Mike

      February 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      I like the suggestions Brian makes and I would add to those with even raking the traps for players especially if they go from one fairway bunker to the next. Most of the marshals where I play spend their day riding around to the various water hazards fishing out balls for themselves. Too many men play tees way above their skill level also and fall behind at the #1 tee.

  18. ABgolfer2

    February 6, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    * can’t

  19. ABgolfer2

    February 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Some people (not me of course) have never had to play quickly. They’ve never had to keep up with quicker players in the group of get left behind. I don’t see a long term solution for slow play. It used to be possible to avoid the turtles by playing very early, but now I play more at twilight. I played more partial rounds in 2012 due to running out of time than the previous 20 years combined. People say, “if you can devote a 6 hour block to golf then don’t play golf”. Okly dokly – I’ll go find something else to do – some place else to spend my money. My wife was suggesting we get a newer canoe and that’s about the same price as a membership. Decision made!

  20. David Bernstein

    February 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    A golf course can’t take green fees or membership dues from players and then force them to skip holes or play faster. If all golfers learned etiquette before they learned a swing, there would be no slow play. The PLAYER needs to understand what their position is on the golf course and how to react. Time can only be lost on a full golf course. So, if the first group of the day plays in 5 hours, then every other group is doomed to play in 5 hours or more. It just takes one group to spoil the day.

  21. Nick

    February 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    For many non-golfers, four hours is too long. For many of us avid golfer, four hour rounds are a dream, a thing which existed in better times. Reading the stories of slow play in this article raised my blood pressure and took me back to some very bad memories of waiting for slow players.

    God surely has a special place for men like Gene. Every course needs an old codger (and I say that with the utmost respect and admiration) like Gene to straighten slow groups out. Without them, Golf will continue to hemmorage players and more and more course will operate in the red till they shut down. Seriously, number one issue golf needs to address is not freaking anchored putting, COR on drivers, the ball – its pace of play.

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