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Opinion: Courses must be proactive to speed up 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.