Slow play is killing golf
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 a